As I began to work on this homily earlier this week, it occurred to me that some here might be wondering how we decide what readings are used and preached from each week. Contrary to how it might appear, I don’t choose what readings we will hear read. If I were to do that, you would hear only what are my favorites, the ones I am most comfortable with, the ones that I personally have found most inspirational. Instead, what we have is a lectionary, which is simply a list of Scriptures that takes us through the four Gospels and much of the Bible over a period of three years. On the positive side, this means that we will, over that 3 year period, hear a decent amount of the Bible…and this year, we’re focused primarily on the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew is writing specifically to a Jewish audience and his aim is to demonstrate to them that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of the prophecy, all of the teachings, all of the traditions of the Law. He arranges his gospel into five large sections, which always begin with stories and events followed by a lengthy teaching section. Matthew frequently quotes the Old Testament to show how the story of Jesus fits perfectly into the story of the Jewish people. This is especially true when we come to talking about Jesus’ preoccupation and teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew’s view of God’s heavenly kingdom is quite earthly actually, because the Kingdom is now. There’s no mention of angels playing harps or of heaven as a place where the suffering have their injustices finally resolved. For Matthew, that justice is right now as the Kingdom of Heaven continues to manifest itself. All of this begins with what we have come to call “the Beatitudes
Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, once remarked that to understand the first beatitude is to understand all of them. He writes, “ ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ is a word that goes against the world’s greatest religion–faith in success.” The essence of the beatitudes is that God has a sacred covenant with us, that God will keep every one of his promises. By living the promises now, even though they are not fully realized, we are marked as followers of Jesus and we discover that we somehow cannot sit on the sidelines when our sisters and brothers are hurting. We discover what and who God is showering with his abundant blessings: the poor, the ones who are grieving, the victims of oppression no matter where they may be found.
These are not the ones especially valued in our own culture. We tend to focus more attention on the powerful, the intelligent and self-confident, the ones quick to extract revenge on anyone who dares to violate our rules. We all say we want to be peacemakers, but when the chips are down, we easily fall back on violence as the solution to every problem: from childrearing a difficult boy to invading a country we’ve decided needs our brand of liberation. Making peace always seems to be on our terms!
Jesus says, “Happy are those who know they are destitute, who are poor in spirit, and who are at the end of their rope.” Every now and then we know exactly what Jesus means by being poor in spirit. During the Christmas holiday this past year, while my son was hospitalized and the outcome of his treatment was still unknown, I had a challenging time overcoming my own fear and darkness and rising to the occasion of celebrating the feast for the parish. And although in my more private moments I could feel the emotional poverty within, on the outside I knew I had responsibilities to my parish that could not be set aside. Somehow, it all worked out and I was able to participate in some of the joy of the holy day in the liturgies and ceremonies of our tradition.
Spiritual poverty can happen to anyone, even priests, and when we’re feeling at the end of the rope, when we look inside at only emptiness and hear only echoes, we find ourselves in good company. Many of the saints, and spiritual leaders experienced the same thing. Dwight L. Moody, the American fundamentalist preacher had a prayer he used to pray: “God, fill me with your Holy Spirit again, I am such a leaky vessel; your goodness just keeps leaking out of my life”
The Beatitudes are for people like you and me who know we are standing in God’s abundance, but know that we ourselves have for various reasons, limited that abundance within ourselves. If you’ve ever felt like you were going through the motions at work, or in your relationships or even at Mass, then you know what I’m talking about. We wonder if all the energy we’ve exerted on family, career, vocation are really worth it after all….and then it hits us like a two-by-four to the head: our boarding pass into the Reign of God isn’t our self-confidence or even our courage—it’s our spiritual poverty. It’s being poor in spirit and knowing it that allows us to be humble and perceptive enough to look for and receive God’s richest blessings.
If we look back to the original hearers of Jesus’ message and to the people for whom the message resonated most profoundly, we find the people were not successful in worldly terms. These people were the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the physically deformed, the emotionally crippled, the ones who knew enough to sit at the back of the bus without being asked. The ones who always got the short straw. The people who knew that life was never going to get any better for them under the domination system of the Roman Empire.
The not-so-successful people first heard these words, and they burned in their ears and in their souls. Even the disciples who surrounded Jesus weren’t exempt from from these feelings. They were all too aware of their status: two were fishermen, one was a tax collector, another was a nerdy bookworm another a petty theif, and at least one was what we would call a terrorist today—someone convinced that violent overthrow of the regime was the only way to escape the political situation. Yet, apparently the only thing that they shared in common was the ability to admit that they were in need of God’s abundance and grace, that they were, on their own, spiritually poor.
To be aware of our of our not-so-successful spiritual condition is not the end of the journey but the beginning–the starting point in the life of a disciple. Jesus begins the journey of the disciples by blessing them and us–if we choose to follow. And blessed we shall be! God blesses us all, the troubled souls, the questioning minds, the insatiable skeptics,the fallers from grace, the stumblers in the dark, the moral bunglers, the failures at faith, the troubled believers.
God bless the poor in spirit, for Jesus has promised you the kingdom.
God’s table is all yours. Amen