Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Beatitudes: Jesus' perennial provocation

Readings: Zeph 2:3; 3:12-13; Ps 146:6-10; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12a

Ah, the Beatitudes. Those fundamental teachings of Jesus that we wax eloquently about and then work hard to avoid. The truth of the matter is, the Beatitudes, not the Decalogue (i.e., Ten Commandments), constitute the charter of Christianity. This alone points to the atomic fact that Christianity is not essentially a set of morals, a list of rules, or a set of prescriptions and proscriptions to be meticulously followed. It's kind of interesting to consider that there is one less Beatitude than there are commandments in the Decalogue.

In his commentary on Matthew, written for the recently published The Paulist Biblical Commentary, New Testament scholar Brendan Byrne, SJ, observes, "the Beatitudes are not then, even in Matthew's formulation, primarily prescriptive in an ethical sense" (pg 918).

Author Kurt Vonnegut, who was not a Christian, once observed:
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. 'Blessed are the merciful' in a courtroom? 'Blessed are the peacemakers' in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
In fact, Vonnegut's wife's embrace of Christianity was a contributing factor to their separation and eventual divorce. It was Martin Luther who explicitly noted that Jesus is not a new Moses.

I think considering these kinds of observations from non-Christians is very important. Emmanuel Falque, in his book The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, shows how valuable Nietzsche's various critiques of Christianity are. These should not be invoked to engage in apologetical rebuttals, but to examine our individual and collective conscience.

Returning to Byrne's fine commentary, what Jesus sets forth in the Beatitudes is an attitude indicative of a "way of life." With the Beatitudes, the Lord does not make "a stark moral demand." Rather, he sets forth "a vision of God that he shares with those called to be the community of the kingdom." This is where Vonnegut gets it so very, deeply right! Conversely, it's where Christians so frequently get it so very, deeply wrong.

Presently, at least in the United States of America, the Beatitudes taught by Jesus stand in stark contrast to what too many believe it means "to be a Christian." Instead of being meek, we are often arrogant. Rather than being poor in spirit, we are loud and proud. We hunger for power and thirst for privilege instead of for righteousness. Too often in a misguided quest for justice, we seek revenge instead of choosing to be merciful. Our hearts need to be transformed by Jesus' Sacred Heart. We are usually content to be belligerents in culture wars rather than peacemakers and we are often far too fine with actual wars and military actions of various kinds. As to Jesus' declaration about the blessedness of those who endure calumny and persecution for his sake, we rarely bear wrongs patiently and are often quick to take offense. And we are also prone to mistake criticism, like Vonnegut's, for persecution. Being a Christian, to put it in a comprehensible way, means not being thin-skinned. In this, Pope Francis, who has endured much both from within and outside the Church, sets a great example for us.

We talk incessantly about "evangelization." We need to grasp that genuine Christian evangelization is nothing other than endeavoring to live the Beatitudes. In this way, we make God's kingdom a present reality. It certainly sets those who live this way apart, not just in our society, but in any society. This is what it truly means to insist that Christianity is always countercultural. This, I believe, gets to the essence of what Chesterton wrote about Christianity not having been tried and found wanting but being found difficult, it has been left untried.

Saint Paul, in our reading from First Corinthians, notes that God doesn't choose the rich, the powerful, the prominent, society's movers and shakers. No! God calls the "foolish," the "weak," and the "lowly." Think no further than our Blessed Mother, Saint Bernadette Soubrious, or Saint Benedict Joseph Labré, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Charles de Foucault, or the recently deceased Br. Biagio Conte, etc. God does this, according to the apostle, precisely "to reduce to nothing those who are something." Again, this is not by violence, by using the coercive powers of the state, or by spending huge amounts of cash. What Jesus teaches is divine wisdom, saving wisdom.

It is interesting, too, to point out that in our first reading from Zephaniah, the listener is urged to seek humility and to seek justice. Is it too much of an exegetical leap to take away seek justice with humility? This is the witness of many of the saints, including our Blessed Mother, listed above.

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