4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 29, 2023


4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 29, 2023

Zephaniah 2: 3; 3: 12-13; 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31; Matthew 5: 1-12a


Theme: The Beatitudes is the Lifestyle in the Kingdom of Heaven

Last Sunday’s scripture readings exhorted us to unity. Prophet Isaiah saw the darkness and gloom that the Assyrians brought to the chosen people when they ruined the Northern kingdom of Israel, starting by destroying the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. He also saw the great light that shone on them and how God brought them abundant joy. We learned that this bondage was not only political but also spiritual. People today are in oppression and darkness or gloom of sins. We need spiritual freedom as the people of Israel needed freedom from the Assyrian’s oppression. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled with the coming of Jesus. Matthew told us in the Gospel of last Sunday that Jesus commenced his public ministry exactly in the same regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, the same tribes that were first destroyed by the Assyrians. Matthew commented that this was to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. So, Jesus’ mission is to bring his great light into our lives and unify us with one another and with God. That is why he called us to repentance and to discipleship so that along with our brothers and sisters whom we serve, we come to experience here on earth the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is not the kingdom of division but rather the kingdom in which all of us belong to Christ and are under his reign as Saint Paul signified to the Christians of Corinth in the second reading of last Sunday.

This Sunday’s Gospel is the teaching of Jesus on the Beatitudes. This account is the first part of the collection of Jesus’ teachings called “Sermon on the Mount.” (Matthew 5-7). It is important to know that from this Sunday until the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, we will be reading in the gospels the teachings found in chapter 5 of this Sermon on the Mount. Let us keep track of the Gospel readings of these four Sundays to better understand them.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus inaugurates the “kingdom of heaven” in which we all are called to live a lifestyle completely opposite to our modern notion of what it means to be rich and famous. This is the lifestyle of Beatitudes. Zephaniah in our first reading told the people of Judah and each of us to seek humility. In today’s second reading, Saint Paul explains to the Corinthian Christians that God chooses the lowly to show that the arrogant are nothing before God. These scriptures today call us to have humility in order to be part of the heavenly kingdom.

Let us study a bit the context of our first reading to better understand and apply its message to our lives today. Zephaniah prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah when Josiah was the king (640-609 BC). That was a difficult time for the Jewish Nation. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah had basically submitted to their control. King Manasseh and a big part of the population, out of fear of conquest and destruction, had abandoned God’s covenant and pledged loyalty to pagan gods. Zephaniah courageously condemned the leaders and all those who had abandoned their faith in God. He prophesied that one day the LORD would destroy what was left of their nation. In the passage that we heard in our first reading, he called them to seek the LORD, justice, and humility to be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger when he comes to destroy everything. (Zephaniah 2: 3). Pay attention to how Zephaniah speaks of a “remnant” of the people after the anger of the LORD destroys their nation. These remnants are the people who are humble and lowly, who take refuge in the name of the LORD, who do no wrong and speak no lies, and who do not have a deceitful tongue in their mouths. (Zephaniah 3: 12-13). This passage speaks to us today. Like the leaders of Zephaniah’s time, some of our leaders and many people today chose to forsake their faith in God by promoting and supporting immoral laws that lead people to sin. You and I are called to be the “prophet Zephaniah” of our time to speak out and condemn these leaders and people who lead God’s flock to darkness. Like Zephaniah, we need to call them to seek God, justice, and humility.

The way Zephaniah calls his contemporaries to seek God, justice, and humility if they want to be part of the remnants is the same way Jesus in our Gospel reading calls his listeners including you and me to observe the beatitudes if we want to be members of the kingdom of heaven. Our Gospel pericope opens a reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) that we will read for the next several Sundays.

Matthew tells us some important details before he narrates to us the content of Jesus’ teaching. First, there were the crowds who came toward Jesus. Second, when Jesus saw them, he went up to the mountain. Third, after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. Talking about the first detail, the section that immediately precedes our passage spoke of Jesus teaching in the synagogues of Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing the sick and possessed people. His fame spread all around and great crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, and Judea, and from beyond Jordan followed Jesus. (Matthew 4: 23-25). How nice it is to see great crowds coming to Jesus. How nice it will be to see a great crowd coming to Church especially on Sundays to follow Jesus. Why are people today not interested anymore in following Jesus?  Is it because the Church’s teachings are no longer interesting or not taught well? Is it because people do not see miracles happening to them? Regardless of whatever reason people may say, this part of the Gospel stirs up the desire or hunger for God in us and motivates us to always follow Jesus.

The second detail says that Jesus went up the mountain when he saw the crowds coming toward him. Note that Matthew addressed his Gospel to the Jewish Christians who consider Moses to be the greatest prophet. Moses was the great teacher of Israel. He climbed Mount Sinai to teach the Law of God. In our Gospel story, by presenting Jesus’ going up to the Mount to teach, the evangelist tells us that Jesus is a new Moses who came to fulfill and interpret the Mosaic laws. Also, the mountain represents a place of prayer. Jesus went up the mountain to be in communion with his Father before he ministers to the crowds. We need to be in communion with our Lord always as we too somehow minister to people in our families, neighborhoods, and everywhere we live.

In the third detail, Matthew tells us that his disciples came to him after Jesus had sat down. This gives us an image of the clergy working together with the lay ministers to evangelize the people of God. I am blessed to have a very good pastoral team and all lay members who serve our Church in different commissions and committees. Together, we join Jesus in his mission of teaching and healing the people of God.

Now, let us analyze the content of the Beatitudes. While the evangelist Luke structures his Beatitudes account into four “Blessed are you” and four “woe to you”, Matthew’s Beatitudes contain eight parallel statements of the blessing promised in the third person plural (vv. 3-11), and an epilogue on persecution promised in the second person plural. (vv. 11-12). To better understand the lesson of the Beatitudes, we need to recall that the goal of Jesus’ mission is the reunification of the people who were oppressed by the power of Satan to start a new life under a new reign or kingdom that he came to establish. So, to be part of this kingdom, we are called to live a lifestyle of the beatitudes.

The first beatitude calls us to be poor in spirit if we want to be among the blessed or among the members of the heavenly kingdom. (v.3). The word “poor” from the Latin, ptochos, denotes “beggar”, meaning the one who is destitute and needs help. Unlike Luke, Matthew adds “in spirit” to his statement. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” calls us to totally depend on God who satisfies our spiritual hunger and so become members of the new kingdom that Jesus has started. As “beggars are dependent on the person who helps them to survive”, Jesus here calls us to be spiritually dependent on God. Depending on God means being with God in the sacraments (especially Eucharist and Confession), trusting him, and relying on his daily protection.

In the second beatitude, Jesus calls those who mourn blessed and promises to comfort them. (v.4). Taking it to its literal sense, this recalls how God comforted the people of Israel when mourning the destruction of their temple, the occupation of their land, and the deportation of their kings and people to exile. (Isaiah 61: 1-3). Today, there are people around the world who go through a similar experience. Here Jesus calls us not to give up our Christian faith because of the trials we face daily. Considering this statement in its spiritual sense, this beatitude refers to those who mourn for their sins. When we sin, we need to regret the damage that we cause God and our brothers and sisters. When we mourn for our sins and express contrition, God comforts us. We will guarantee our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven if we always mourn for the sins that we commit against God, others, ourselves, and the creation.  

The third beatitude says that the meek are blessed for they will inherit the land. (v. 5). Here Jesus does not teach us to be “shy persons”. The “meek” here represent people who are not overly impressed by their own self-importance but are appropriately humble and considerate. Jesus invites us to serve God’s people in our Church, families, and wherever we live with humility. When we are meek in everything we do, then we will inherit the land of the heavenly kingdom.

The fourth beatitude calls “blessed” all those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and says that they will be satisfied. (v.6). Psalm 107: 5, 8-9 tells us that God satisfies the hungry and thirsty. Pay attention to the keyword “righteousness” that Matthew adds here. Righteousness is the quality of being morally right or justifiable. In the Bible, righteousness means acting in accord with the divine or moral law. To be a righteous person in God’s eyes means to be in the right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the creation. The way in our physical body we feel hungry and thirsty for food and water every day is the same way Jesus is calling us to also feel hungry and thirsty, this time not for food and water, but for righteousness. The way we do our best to satisfy our physical body when we are hungry and thirsty is the same way that Jesus exhorts us to not stay indifferent since in the societies where we live righteousness is replaced by wickedness, immoral practices, injustice, and destruction or pollution of the environment. We are called to seek “righteousness” actively and hunger and thirst for it every day.

In the fifth beatitude, Jesus assures mercy to those who are merciful. (v.7). We pray it in “The Lord’s Prayer”: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6: 12). In two occasions of conflictual situations, Jesus admonishes his opponents to learn the significance of mercy. (See Matthew 9: 13; 12: 7). When he woes the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23: 23, Jesus lists mercy along with judgment and fidelity as the weightier matters of the law. Here Jesus exhorts us to always forgive others when they sin against us. There is so much hate, anger, and enmity in our societies and families because many people do not use this virtue of forgiveness. We are called to be merciful not only to others but to ourselves. I mean, you need to show mercy also to yourself. Our societies will eradicate suicide if we learn how to forgive ourselves and give ourselves a second chance. The members of the kingdom of heaven are all merciful to each other and to themselves. If you and I want to be citizens of this kingdom, let us start practicing mercy now.

The sixth beatitude says, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.” (v. 8). To see God, our hearts need to be clean. Psalm 24: 4 gives us the meaning of “clean of heart.” It says, “The clean of hand and pure of heart, who has not given his soul to useless things, what is vain.” We sin because our hearts are so attached to this earthly world than to the heavenly kingdom. This sixth beatitude reminds us that to see God in the kingdom of heaven, we need first to clean our hearts. Thus, the sacrament of confession is an excellent way to clean our hearts and so enable us to see God.

In the seventh beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9). We hear how many countries around the world are in wars that cause terror to the population. Many families and communities are divided because of conflicts. People around us are not at peace. Many of us need the peace of God as we go through different pains and sufferings. This seventh beatitude calls us to be peacemakers for others and for ourselves. Let us unite those who are divided. Let us console the people (including ourselves) who lost peace of mind due to the trials that they experience and help them to find their peace back. This is what the children of God do to each other.  

The eighth beatitude says, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (v. 10). This beatitude has a connection with the fourth one. Jesus’ disciples including you and I need to prepare ourselves to face hate, criticism, contradictions, and even persecution as we seek righteousness in this evil world. There are plenty of examples of how Christians are persecuted for the sake of righteousness today. For instance, we can just see how much anger, slander, dismissiveness, and other behaviors are expressed toward the Pro-Life supporters who remind others of the dignity of unborn children. Jesus was a great Pro-Life supporter and he always felt hungry and thirsty for righteousness as he challenged the Scribes, Pharisees, and Scholars of the Laws of his time looking them in their eyes. He was persecuted and crucified for the sake of righteousness. The history of the Church tells us that his immediate disciples and many other Christians were persecuted. Until today, Christians are facing different kinds of persecution because of their faith. In this beatitude, Jesus reassures us that the kingdom of heaven is for us who are hated, criticized, mocked, and persecuted today because we seek righteousness.

Jesus concludes the beatitude teaching with an epilogue that speaks of verbal abuse that Christians suffer because of Jesus. “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus, they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (vv. 11-12). In the first statement of this beatitude, Jesus calls us “blessed” when we are verbally abused because of his name.  in the second statement, he says that instead of getting discouraged and feeling offended, we rather need to rejoice and be glad because our reward is not in this world but in heaven. In the third statement, he reminds us that there were those who were persecuted before us and kept doing good until the end of their lives. We also have the faithful Christians of our time (living and dead) who inspire us with their faith and courage. Jesus invites us to follow their examples.

In his sermon of the Beatitudes, Jesus describes how the citizens of the kingdom of heaven are and what they are supposed to do. The kingdom’s citizens are those who are poor in spirit, who mourn for their sins, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are clean of heart, who are peacemakers, and who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. This lifestyle in the reign of God that Jesus came to inaugurate is completely opposite to our modern notion of what it means to be rich and famous. Saint Paul explains it very well in our second reading. He invites the Christians of Corinth and all of us to consider our own calling. Our calling is not to be citizens of this earthly world but citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Hence, we are called to start living the lifestyle of the Beatitudes now.

May the liturgy of this Mass enable us to be good Christians wherever we live. Amen.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

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