The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time||January 30, 2005|
To reflect carefully and effectively on today's scripture lessons, I think it is very important that we put these lessons, especially the Gospel lesson, within the framework of what we heard last week. Remember last week's Gospel? It was challenging. It was the call of Jesus to his first disciples. Peter, Andrew, James and John dropped everything and followed Jesus.
As I pointed out last week, this wasn't a call to a special kind of Christian life like the priesthood or religious life; this was a call to all of those who are to be disciples of Jesus. It was a call to every one of us. A call to be baptized, to become part of the community of disciples of Jesus Christ. We prayed over that and we prayed that we might be able to be generous and faithful enough to follow Jesus, to be his disciple.
In the Gospel today, to put this in context, Matthew describes how Jesus was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where he gathered his first disciples. But then he traveled further up into the northern part of Galilee, and he began to call other people. Pretty soon there was a large following, and Jesus began to heal and to teach and to console people. People were flocking after him.
That is when he came to the place that we call the Mount of the Beatitudes, a small mountain in the Holy Land. Jesus, with this huge crowd following him, went up on the mountainside so he could look out over the crowd, and he began to teach them about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. What it means if you say yes to Jesus: "Yes, I want to be your disciple. I will follow you. I will set my life according to the standards that you teach. I will try to live the values that you live and that you proclaim."
This is the beginning of what we call the "Sermon on the Mount." It describes for us what it really means to be a disciple. It's not an easy call. It's not an easy thing to say yes to Jesus, if we really take seriously what he is asking of us.
I was reminded of the seriousness of Jesus' call especially this week, when a lot of media attention focused on the fact that we are remembering the sorrow of what happened 60 years ago. Just 60 years ago this past week, Auschwitz was liberated. Auschwitz: a death camp where people were murdered in the most efficient way possible so that thousands and thousands could be killed in a very short time. What made me connect that with this Gospel and with the challenge of Jesus is that the Holocaust was perpetrated mostly by Christian nations. People who supposedly were following Jesus Christ were either actively engaged in the killing or were certainly complicit in letting it happen.
You see, too often we take our Christianity for granted, saying, "Oh yes, I'll be a follower of Jesus. I'll accept his call to be a Christian" -- but we don't really take it so seriously that we begin to understand what it means, what it asks of us, how it means we have to change our lives if we really want to follow him.
Today's Gospel is just the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, but it has in it some very challenging aspects of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Just run through them quickly in your mind.
"Blessed (or happy) are the poor." Do you think most people really believe that?
"Happy are the gentle." Most people say you can't get ahead in this world if you are always just being gentle and loving. People will walk over you.
"Happy are the merciful." Not really, we would think. Not in the real world.
"Happy are those who hunger and thirst for justice's sake." Is the Christian community really doing that? Am I doing that? Am I really using my energies for justice in a world where there's so much injustice? In fact, you almost might say, "If the message of Jesus is 2,000 years old, how can we still be having a terrible distortion in our own country and among the nations of the world in the distribution of the world's goods?"
"Happy are the peacemakers." Those who reject violence. Again, do you think people truly accept that?
There isn't time today to reflect on all of these, what we call the Beatitudes. Let's look at two of the most challenging. The first one: Blessed are the poor. Matthew says "the poor in spirit" -- Happy are the poor in spirit. Sometimes people think Matthew was softening it up. It's OK to have wealth as long as you have a "spirit" of poverty. Or people suggest that maybe Matthew meant, "Well, it's not so much the economically poor, but it's the spiritually poor." So we really have to go after those who are suffering from spiritual poverty.
But, you know, Matthew did not change anything. Luke in his Gospel said plain out, "Blessed are the poor. Happy are the poor." Matthew said the same thing with just a slight nuance, a slight emphasis. He meant that the poor are those who have a certain kind of disposition, an understanding in their hearts. Being poor is not so much an economic status as it is an awareness that we need God.
If you are among the poor, you understand that we need God and we depend upon God and not upon our material wealth.
All of the material wealth in the world is nothing compared to what God gives to us at every moment of every day. We need God just to be. Everything we have is a gift from God. If we could have a deep understanding, a deep awareness of that, well then surely we would share what we have quickly, because we would know it is not really ours. God made this world for all, not for a few. What I have is for everybody, and I would have nothing if God hadn't given it. Once we get this deep understanding of how we depend upon God and how every moment in every day in our lives is a gift from God, then we begin to be poor in spirit.
This past week, I had an experience that made me reflect very deeply on this idea. I was asked by some friends to pray over and bless a youngster, 11 years old. Her name is Olivia, and she has cystic fibrosis. That's something that never gets cured. She's 11 years old, but she looks about 8 because she can't really metabolize her food so she is undernourished. In fact, she has a feeding tube so she can get nutrition throughout every night. She's a beautiful child, lots of talents and gifts, and yet she and her parents have to live with the reality that she'll probably never live beyond her teen years.
That's hard to accept. The only way, in a sense, that you can learn to deal with that is to remember that every day of her life, even if it's a short life, is a gift from God. Every moment of every day is a gift from God. So whether you live to be 90 like Mrs. Jones, whom we mourned a week or two ago, or if you live to be 20 like Olivia, every moment of every day is a gift from God.
We need to be thankful, to praise God for each moment of each day. When we have that attitude, then we really do have the beatitude of being poor in spirit. We know we need God. We don't hold things for ourselves; we share what we have. Each of us has to try to deepen our awareness that Jesus asks us to be poor, to understand our deep need of God and always to act from that basis.
Another of the most challenging of the beatitudes is one that confronts us so much every day in this world in which we live, and that is to be a peacemaker, someone who is totally committed to making peace happen by following Jesus, who rejected violence. Of course, we live in a world where that just doesn't make sense to most people. But you know, right in the beginning, for those first Christians, it didn't make sense to them either. In the letter that we have been reading, Paul's letter to Corinth, just before the passage we read today Paul said to the people, "Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim his Gospel, the good news, a message that you cannot proclaim in human terms." Why? Because, Paul said, "Here am I preaching a crucified Christ. That's what I have to preach, a crucified Christ, a Christ who did not use violence to protect himself, a Christ who reached out in forgiveness to those torturing and killing him. I have to preach a crucified Christ, a Christ who loved and forgave his enemy -- those putting him to death. That's what I have to preach."
Paul said: To the Jews, this message is a scandal, a stumbling block. They can't get over it. They just can't get over that idea and accept it. To the pagans, it is madness, foolishness. A crucified Christ? How could you ever preach that? Love of enemy. Rejection of violence. Allowing yourself to be tortured rather than to torture. To be killed rather than to kill. To reject violence of every kind.
Yet Paul said in this passage, "The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." That's the message of Jesus. That's the message that we have to listen to and accept. Paul said: I have to preach it because that is the way Jesus wants; that is the truth of Jesus. We have to listen to it and try to conform our lives to follow Jesus.
Today, when we once more remind ourselves that Jesus has called each one of us to be his disciple, to follow him, to transform the world as he came into the world to do, to make it the reign of God, we must now ask ourselves: Am I willing to try to follow Jesus according to his way, his values and his teachings?
As we were reminded in the first lesson today, probably it will be a remnant of people who will truly accept the way of Jesus. That is almost, I think, what Jesus expected. That does not mean he is condemning everyone else, but he is inviting some -- and maybe we are among them -- to be intense in our following of Jesus.
With an intense community of disciples of Jesus truly living according to his way, we can change the world. That is what Jesus promised us. If we truly follow him, even if we are small in number, we can change the world.
And the other thing to remember as we reflect on our call and what it means for us is that when these words from Matthew were written down, it was 70 or 80 years after Jesus had died; they had already been living according to the way of Jesus for years. That is why I think the best translation for the beatitudes is, "Happy are those who are poor. Happy are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Happy are those who are peacemakers." They were already experiencing what happens to any one of us who follows Jesus; we begin to get a deep sense of serenity and happiness because the reign of God begins to happen in our lives.
If we can follow Jesus, if we can accept his call and live according to his way, we can be among those through whom God will work to transform our world. Even as we do it -- not just when we get to heaven -- but even as we do it now we will experience the happiness, joy and peace that only Jesus can give.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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