Sunday Scripture: Our key to happiness
January 28, 2011
By Father Timothy Schehr
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Zephaniah 2:3-3:13; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12
What is our key to happiness? Jesus has the answer in the readings for this Sunday. We will immediately recognize it as the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.
With His disciples seated before Him Jesus gives them a whole new set of values. Topping the list is poverty. But the poverty Jesus speaks of has more to do with the lack of spiritual goods than material ones. The Lord’s disciples have to understand they are in need. They need the Spirit of God in their lives; they have within them emptiness only God can fill.
Recognizing this need is fundamental for serving the kingdom of God. This shift in thinking will not come easily. The rest of the Gospel will record their slow progress in embracing what Jesus tells them here.
The next value brings another surprise. Jesus declares the sorrowful to be blessed and that they will be consoled. Our first impulse is to think He must be referring to all the compassion and healing He will bring to the less fortunate of this world. But since the reign of God is His main concern, Jesus is more likely speaking about those who are sorrowful not for lack of earthly benefits but heavenly ones. They are sad because God’s values do not yet prevail in the hearts of humanity. Their consolation will come when God brings the plan of salvation to fulfillment.
In a similar way, the lowly, the hungry and the thirsty will also be blessed. They humbly serve God, they hunger and thirst for things only God can give them. They will inherit the land because it is God’s. They will be satisfied because God does not withhold spiritual benefits from those who are open to them.
The merciful are blessed because they reflect the mercy of God in the things they say and do. The single-hearted are blessed because their hearts are not divided but focused solely on the things of heaven. Matthew’s Gospel especially develops this theme with its emphasis on the kingdom of God as more valuable that the finest pearl or the greatest treasure.
The list of beatitudes concludes on the theme of persecution, a troubling theme but an understandable one, given the resistance to God’s way since the earliest chapters of Genesis. The Lord’s way leads to the cross; His followers can expect suffering and death, too. But the limitations of this world cannot prevail over the timeless kingdom of heaven. So Jesus encourages His followers with the promise that their reward will be great in heaven.
The prophet Zephaniah would have understood all of this. Some seven centuries before the time of Jesus he looked forward to the day when total service to God would be each person’s mark of distinction. That day would contrast so sharply with the world Zephaniah knew, a world distorted by the personal agendas of the greedy and the powerful. This prophet’s oracle closes with the image of flocks of sheep grazing peacefully in safe pastures.
The second reading echoes the message of the Lord and the prophet Zephaniah as Paul reminds the faithful in Corinth of the wonderful gift they have received. Few of them could claim success as the world measures it, whether it be wisdom, power, or influence. But they have more than earthly success in their bond with the Lord who has chosen them to be His faithful people.
Father Schehr is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio.