Zephaniah 2:3;3:12-13, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Matthew 5:1-12
On the Gospel, Road Map to Happiness
“Happiness is that which all [men] seek.” So says the great philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle also observes that everything people do twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, is what they believe will bring them happiness in one form or another. But the problem is that what people think will bring them happiness does not in fact always bring them true and lasting happiness. Think of the drunkard who believes that happiness is found in the beer bottle. One bottle too much and he is driving home, runs a red light, hits a car and wakes up the following morning in a hospital with plaster and stiches all over his body. Then it begins to dawn on him that the happiness promised by alcohol may be too short-lived. Or take the man who frequents the casino to deal excitement. By the end of the month he finds that his account is in the red and that he can no longer pay his house rent. Creditors go after him until he loses his house and his car. Then it dawns on him that the happiness promised by the casino is fake. So Aristotle says that the ethical person is the person who knows and does what can truly bring them not just excitement or pleasure but true and lasting happiness.
Another word for true and lasting happiness is “blessedness” or “beatitude.” In today’s gospel, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount shows that he really wants his followers to have true and lasting happiness, the happiness that the world and everything in it cannot give. This state of blessedness is what Jesus calls being in the “kingdom of God/heaven”. The eight beatitudes we have in today’s gospel constitute a road map for anyone who seeks to attain this happiness of the kingdom.
Why does Jesus deem it necessary to establish these guideposts to the kingdom right from the very first teaching that he gives to the disciples? It is because of the importance of this teaching. Everybody seeks happiness. But often we look for it in the wrong places. Ask people around you what makes people happy and compare the answers you get with the answers Jesus gives. The world has its own idea of happiness. If a committee were set up to draw up the beatitudes, we would most probably end up with a list very different from that which Jesus gives us today.
Where Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit” they would say “Blessed are the rich.” Where Jesus says “Blessed are those who mourn” they would say “Blessed are those having fun.” Where Jesus says “Blessed are the meek” they would say “Blessed are the smart.” Where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” they would say “Blessed are those who wine and dine.” Where Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful” they would say “Blessed are the powerful.” Where Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart” they would say “Blessed are the slim in body.” Where Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” they would say “Blessed are the news makers.” And where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” they would say “Blessed are those who can afford the best lawyers.”
We see that the values prescribed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are in fact counter-cultural. We cannot accept these teachings of Jesus and at the same time accept all the values of the society in which we live. Of course, Jesus does not demand that we abandon the word. But he does demand that we put God first in our lives because only God can guarantee the true happiness and peace that our hearts long for. Nothing in the world can give this peace, and nothing in the world can take it away.
The Eight Beatitudes do not describe eight different people such that we need to ask which of the eight suits us personally. No, they are eight different snapshots taken from different angles of the same godly person. The question for us today, therefore, is this: “Do we live our lives following the values of the world as a way of attaining happiness or do we live by the teachings of Jesus. If you live by the teachings of Jesus, then rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.
On the Epistle, God Chose What Is Weak
The sex scandals in the church in America and elsewhere is an evil that no one should try to understate or explain away. The people of God in churches where they took pace reacted in various ways. Some reacted with anger, others with sadness, and everyone felt betrayed. Many people threatened to leave the church, saying that the church is nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. Some actually left. That may not be the best way to react to the crisis. In today’s second reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul offers us another way of reacting to these atrocities without losing our faith; a way that enables us to denounce sex abuse in the church without throwing away the baby with the bath water. The reading tells us that God knows how to write straight with crooked pens; that God, in fact, prefers to write with crooked pens.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Paul begins this section by inviting the Christians of Corinth to consider their call. To be a Christian or a minister of the people of God in any capacity is a call. It is God who takes the initiative and calls us to His service. We sometimes find ourselves considering whether we should remain in the church or not. We feel that it is up to us to decide to follow Jesus or not. But Jesus tells us that the initiative to follow him comes not from us but from God himself. “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16), he says. And “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6:44). It is a calling given by God. The most sinful and most unworthy Christian you have ever known is nevertheless handpicked and called by God to follow Christ.
What standards does God use to choose men and women to belong to Him and do His work? Now, this is exactly where God’s ways part from our ways. Normally we would expect God to pick people who are wise, powerful, and of a good reputation. But Paul tells us that God actually chooses people who are the exact opposite, people who are foolish, weak in character, and of a low reputation. Why does God prefer to work with the nobodies of this world? There are two reason for this: one is in the interest of the individuals concerned, the other is in the interest of those among whom they work.
We can live the life of God or do the work of God only with the strength that comes from God. Therefore, the first requirement of a servant of God is that he or she learn how to depend on God. For this reason God sometimes allows His servants to carry the burden of their human weakness, so that they will learn that unless they stand in God, they cannot stand at all. Paul had a “thorn in the flesh”which he prayed God to remove from him. God did not remove it. God simply said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul concluded, “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, … for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
The second reason why God allows human weakness in His servants is so that the people among whom they work will realise that the good that God’s ministers have been able to accomplish come not from their personal ingenuity but from the grace of God working in and through them. This will weaken for the people the temptation to idolize their ministers. The Christians of Corinth had already fallen into this temptation when they began labelling themselves according to their favourite missionaries: “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas.” God wants us to see through and beyond the ministers who bring us the word of God and to keep our eyes on Jesus, who is Lord and saviour of us all.
The Lord calls us all Christians, and especially those men and women who minister God’s word to us in any capacity, to a life of holiness. While we pray for holiness in our members, and especially in our ministers, let us also ask God to give us the faith not to be scandalized when we or our ministers fall short of the life of holiness expected of all of God’s children.