All Saints, November 1st
When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy, Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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.
- Whom do you know that you consider to be a saint? Why do you think of this person in this way?
- Do you think all people, poor as well as rich, have an equal call to holiness? Do you think it is more difficult to become holy depending on your financial situation? Why?
- What constitutes being blessed in your mind? Do you think Mary, Jesus’ mother, was blessed? Does her life situation match the definition of blessed that you just gave?
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
Today we read what we have come to call the Beatitudes as they appear in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s audience is made up primarily of Jews who want to be faithful to their relationship of covenant love with God. They are asking, “Is becoming a disciple of Jesus a way of being faithful to our tradition, or is it a way of being unfaithful?” Matthew is assuring his fellow Jews that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. To become a disciple of Jesus Christ is to remain faithful to their two-thousand-year tradition of covenant love with God. They are asking, “Is becoming a disciple of Jesus a way of being faithful to our tradition, or is it a way of being unfaith- ful?” Matthew is assuring his fellow Jews that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. To become a disciple of Jesus Christ is to remain faithful to their two-thousand-year tradition of covenant love. As Jesus himself says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17).
In teaching the Beatitudes Jesus is promulgating a new law. Because Matthew wants his fellow Jews to see Jesus as a new law-giver with authority from God to give a new law, Matthew pictures Jesus as a new Moses. One way in which he does this is to picture Jesus promulgating this new law from a mountain, just as Moses promulgated the old law from a mountain. It is from Matthew’s setting for this teaching that we get the popular name for this speech, the Sermon on the Mount (compare Luke 6:17, where Jesus teaches the Beatitudes from the plain).
As Jesus promulgates the new law he teaches his disciples a very different idea of being blessed from what they already had. Jesus’ contemporaries considered blessed those who were financially well-to-do, who had healthy children, and who were respected by others in society. To lack these things would cause suffering, and suffering was viewed as punishment for sin. To claim that people who were poor, who sorrowed, and who were hungry were blessed was to challenge the generally accepted beliefs of the time.
There is no question that Jesus, during his public ministry, went out y the sick, the lepers all had a special place in his heart. In fact, Jesus’ constant association with those whom the well-to-do considered sinners was a great source of disagreement and acrimony between Jesus and some of the leaders in Jewish society. When we read the Beatitudes as they appear in Luke’s Gospel we see that they are addressed specifically to the powerless.
Blessed are you who are poor for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. (Luke 6:20-21)
Matthew is writing his Gospel about AD 80, some forty-five years after Jesus’ public ministry. Not all of those who have become disciples of Jesus are themselves poor and hungry. Some are people of means who want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. As Matthew pictures Jesus teaching the Beatitudes he includes both the poor and the not so poor in his audience by the way in which he words them. Jesus says:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be satisfied.
Jesus goes on to say,
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. The person who shows mercy in a relationship is not the person who lacks power, but the one who has it.
Jesus also says,
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Everyone is called to be a peacemaker in terms of his or her personal relationships. Those who are called to be peacemakers in society at large are often not the marginalized but people of influence.
The effect of Matthew’s Beatitudes is to challenge all people, poor or rich, marginalized or influential, to live the Gospel. Everyone is called to become a singlehearted disciple of Jesus Christ and a witness of God’s love to others, especially to those in need. We call those who succeed in doing this saints.
The Inarguable Assignment
More and more as I shuffle through this vale of wonders I begin to see that humility is the final frontier. We spend so much of our early lives building personal and confidence and career and status that it takes a long while before we sense the wild genius of the Beatitudes—blessed are those who do not think they are cool, blessed are those who reject power, blessed are those who deflate their own arrogance and puncture their own pomposity, blessed are those who quietly try to confess their sins without calling attention to their over-confident piety, blessed are those who know they are dunder-heads but forge on cheerfully anyway. The thin Jewish Mystic, as usual, was pointing in the complete other direction than the arc of human history. Sprint away from being important, famous, powerful. The weak are strong, mercy is greater than justice, power is powerless. Believe in the unbelievable, isn’t that what He is saying? Isn’t it? Don’t try to make sense of it. Be attentive and humble and naked in spirit. Try for lean and clean though the world roars for glitter and gold. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, support the sick and frightened and lonely, as the Christos says later in this very gospel: that is the inarguable assignment, the blunt mission statement, the clear map coordinates. That is what we are here for: to bring love like a searing weapon against the dark, and to do so without fanfare and applause, without a care for sneers. Do what you know to be right, though the world calls you a fool? Yes! thank you! Yes!
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author of A Shimmer of Something.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc