January 29, 2023
by David Crawford
Creighton University - retired
click here for photo and information about the writer

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 70

Zephariah 2:3, 3:12-13
Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9a, 9b-10
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Matthew 5:1-12a

Praying Ordinary Time

Today’s readings include calls to humility in the words of the prophet Zephaniah, the letters of the apostle Paul, and the beginning of one of history’s most famous teaching sessions, when Jesus pointedly instructs his followers with His Sermon on the Mount.  The ten verses we know as the Beatitudes have, individually or collectively, been the focus of countless homilies, sermons, Bible classes, and academic studies.  However, that familiarity, and perhaps also the grace and poetry of these beautiful words, can lead us to miss important parts of Jesus’ teaching as we gloss over the words.  Poet Hannah Clark eloquently points out that we can become desensitized as we repeatedly read the world “blessed” (in her discussion of Thomas Ingmire’s illumination in The Saint John’s Bible), so our mind wanders and we miss some of the rich meanings of seemingly simple words.

Many people undervalue the word “blessed,” for instance.  I know individuals who think of being blessed as some good thing that occurs after having done something on the list, something akin to a spiritual carnival game where one receives a small prize for having hit a target.  Being blessed, though, is more than just some good thing happening to us, it is a state of being.  The Aramaic word Jesus may have used – toowayhon – conveys a much deeper sense that we are enriched by God’s providence and grace, that we are spiritually fortunate and prosperous, blissful, delighted, and content.  One commentator notes that toowayhon includes the idea that blessed persons “enjoy union and communion with God.”

Come to think of it, some individuals subconsciously change the verb tense from present (“Blessed are”) to future (“Blessed will be”).  They think of blessings as only occurring in the future, when our “reward will be great in heaven.”  However, Jesus did not present a list of If/Then statements, whereby you do a thing and get a token to be redeemed at a later date.  We can be blessed now.  We can enjoy a deep relationship with our Triune God now. 

Don’t worry, I am not going to go through the Beatitudes word by word.  I do want to share a few favorite insights I have heard/read that stuck with me over the years.

  • When Matthew’s Gospel writes about the poor in spirit, that does not refer to individuals who are weak in the faith.  Rather, it refers to those who are not spiritually arrogant but who, having recognized their own limitations, rely completely on God.  The poor in spirit are thus doubly blessed because they are closer to God now, and (as one commentator noted) because “this total reliance on God is the doorway into” His kingdom.  The “humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of the Lord” described by the prophet Zephaniah (from today’s Reading I) fit this category.

  • The meek Jesus mentions need not be timid, cowering individuals.  Ancient Greeks warriors prized a meek war horse.  In battle, the rider had to count on a steed responding quickly to commands.  A horse that fights the bit is said to have a hard mouth, but one with a gentle mouth – a meek horse, as the Greeks described it – moves in unison with its rider.  We are called to have gentle souls that respond quickly to the Spirit’s guidance so that our thoughts and action are in concert with God’s plan for us.  Can you imagine the joy of such an intimate connection with God?

  • Blessed are the ones who bring and maintain peace.  Peace is more than just the absence of conflict.  I recently heard a pastor talk about how our understanding of the meaning of the word “peace” benefits when we look at the Hebrew word shalomShalom indicates peace, yes, but also harmony, tranquility, completeness, wholeness, welfare, with all things in their right place.  In short, shalom is a peace that comes from God.  When Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers,” He is talking about persons who bring God’s peace to volatile situations as well as to troubled souls.  Part of the blessing of being a peacemaker is the blessing of personally experiencing God’s peace.  Only one who possesses God’s peace, even at a small level or for a period of time, can bring that peace to others. 

  • As you read the parts about “righteousness” – those who hunger and thirst for it, those who are persecuted for its sake – think back to our reading today from I Corinthians.  Paul writes that Jesus became righteousness for us – Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness . . . .  It can be tempting, and stressful, to focus on a list of Do’s and Don’ts.  How much better to hunger and thirst to be with and like Christ. 

  • In the last of today’s reading, the part about being insulted, persecuted, lied about, the key phrase is “because of me.”  As we aspire to live Christ-like, Spirit-led lives, we will find ourselves in difficult situations.  Remember that we are promised (Luke 21:14-15) that God will give us the words we need so that our defense is Christ-like and Spirit-led.

Now, go forth and Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth.  Be blessed as you serve others.  Shalom!

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