Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A, I)
January 30, 2011
Zep 2:3 — 3:12-13, Ps 146:6-10, 1Cor 1:26-31, Mt 5:1-12
This is the text that guided the homily:
The Beatitudes Personified: The Way to True Happiness
The greatest homily Jesus ever preached was when he mounted his pulpit of the Cross and spoke seven sentences over three hours. His second greatest homily we begin today, the Sermon on the Mount, and thanks to Lent beginning almost as late as ever can this year, we’ll have the chance over the six Sundays between now and March 6, to focus on most of what Jesus said to form us to become true Christians and distinguish us from all the rest. Today we begin our prayerful listening to the Sermon on the Mount just as he began, with the most famous, and the most challenging part of it, the beatitudes. In it Jesus describes very clearly the way to true happiness. What he says , however, will — and is meant to — challenge our faith to the core, because the path Jesus describes is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what most people of his time and ours think. He wants to disabuse us of all those false notions and show us the sure path to true happiness.
Jesus shows us that path not just by his words, but by his actions and person. In this, as in everything else he taught, he never says merely, “Do what I say,” but always “Follow me!” Jesus does not merely preach the beatitudes. He does not just practice what he preaches, by living them. As Pope John Paul II said once in a homily to young people, Jesus IS the beatitudes. “Looking at Him,” the Holy Father says, “you will see what it means to be poor in spirit, gentle and merciful, to mourn, to care for what is right, to be pure in heart, to make peace, even to be blessed while persecuted. This is why he has the right to say, ‘Come, follow me!’” We can see this clearly if we look at the path of happiness he indicates to us in today’s Gospel:
- Jesus was poor, so poor he didn’t even have a place to lay his head (Lk 9:58). And this physical poverty was matched by a a poverty in spirit, in which he treasured God the Father and his kingdom as his greatest gift.
- Jesus mourned. He wept over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41), which failed to recognize the path to true peace and so often killed prophets and stoned those whom God sent to it (Mt 23:37). He wept over the death of Lazarus (Jn 11:33). He mourns like the Prodigal Father after every lost sheep, from the Rich Young to Judas.
- Jesus was meek, which doesn’t mean weakness but the self-disciplined strength of a martial arts expert or a well-trained thoroughbred. He identified himself as “meek and humble of heart” and told us to learn from his meekness and humility (Mt 11:29).
- Jesus hungered and thirsted for righteousness, saying that his very hunger, his very “food [was] to do the will of him who sent me and complete his work” (Jn 4:34).
- Jesus was merciful, as we see in the episode with the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:3ff), with Peter after Resurrection (Jn 21), with the sinner who washed his feet with her tears (Lk 7:44), with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4), with the paralyzed man (Mt 9:2), with the centurion whose son was dying (Mt 8:5), with the Syro-phoenician woman (Mt 15:22) and so many more.
- Jesus was pure in heart, seeing the image of his Father in creation and particularly in others. He taught that out of our heart flows our thoughts and our deeds. Out of the good tree of a good heart flows good fruit. He added, on the contrary, that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come (Mk 7:21-22).
- Jesus was a peacemaker. He was, in fact, the “Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6), who sealed the great peace treaty between God and man in his own blood, which is the source of peace to each other. During the Last Supper he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27). And he sent out his apostles to be true peacemakers, announcing this peace — HIS peace — to the world (Lk 10:5).
- Jesus was persecuted for the sake of righteousness. From the scribes and Pharisees, to the passersby, to the false witnesses at his trial, to the Roman soldiers, to Herod, to Pilate, to the thief on his left, so many reviled him, persecuted him and uttered all kinds of evil against him falsely. But he rejoiced, because this was the path of our salvation and it made possible a great reward for us in heaven.
In each of these ways, Jesus beckons us “follow me!” The question for us today is whether we trust him enough to do so. To believe in Jesus means to believe in what he says. In this case, it means first to TRUST that following Jesus along the path of the beatitudes will truly lead us to the happiness Jesus promises and for which our hearts long. And secondly, it means to PUT THAT FAITH INTO ACTION and FOLLOW Jesus along that challenging path.
We have to admit, though, that it seems that that beatific path is rather sparsely trod. There’s a reason for it. Just like the devil tempted Adam and Eve in the garden and tried to tempt Jesus in the desert, so he tries to tempt us here in America, by indicating another path to happiness than the path of the beatitudes. The devil tries to convince us that Jesus doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that he’s not in touch with the real world, that his principles will not lead us to happiness but, in fact, will lead us down an unfulfilling dead end. And he has gotten so many people — including Catholics — to bite on that fruit. He preaches what I’d call the “counterfeit beatitudes,” which go something like this:
- Blessed are those who are NOT poor, but rather who are rich, for they shall inherit and own the earth, never have to worry about losing a job or a home or going hungry, and rest in peace and safety.
- Blessed are those who DON’T mourn, who never get their hands dirty in the messiness of others’ problems, but who laugh, who have a good time, who are comforted by many friends and acquaintances who keep their glasses full and spirits high.
- Blessed are those who are not meek, but rather are strong and powerful, for to the victors belong the spoils, and the strong and powerful will never become victims or losers.
- Blessed are those who don’t hunger and thirst for anything, but who are already filled and have it all, for they will not need to depend on anyone, or the Church or even God.
- Blessed are those whose hearts are filled not with some antiquated notion of purity, but rather whose hearts are sexually “liberated,” who live like Hugh Hefner or Hollywood celebrities, for they are the ones who really have it all.
- Blessed are those who show no mercy, who are not soft and weak, but who make the guilty pay in such a way that they’ll never even contemplate crossing them or others again. They will not receive mercy — for they won’t need it — but they’ll receive respect.
- Blessed are those who are the real peacemakers, who realize that peace only comes from force and the fear of retribution. They will be called, not frail children of a mythical Prince of Peace, but rather they’ll be called “savior,” “master” and “lord” in their own right.
- Blessed are those who do not suffer any type of persecution or pain, but rather who are liked by everyone, who are never critical or judgmental, who “live and let live,” and about whom everybody says only good things. They don’t need the phony promise of a future happiness in heaven, because their happiness, the only true one, is already on earth.
Since every person seeks happiness, we’re already on some path that we think will lead us to happiness. The question for us is whether we are on the path pointed out by Jesus, or the one pointed out by the father of lies. To help us in our discernment, we can make the contrast more concrete: Do we believe that Jesus or Donald Trump is a better guide to happiness? Would we rather live more like Christ, who is pure of heart, or like the philandering Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in the new movie “No Strings Attached”? Would we rather be faithful and be hated, persecuted and even killed by the world, or unfaithful to Jesus but loved by the world, rich, successful and famous?
We have to state candidly that the counter-beatitudes whispered by the evil one, are nothing more than a series of seductive lies, the spiritual equivalent of an offer of oceanfront property in Arizona. For despite the fact that they seem to promise happiness, they inexorably lead — whether gradually or quickly — to sadness and despair.
- The man who is rich in spirit, who thinks that money will bring him happiness, realizes, often toward the end of his life, that that is one thing money cannot buy. And if the pursuit of money has made him greedy and materialistic, he will be among the most miserable of men.
- The man who is impure of heart, addicted to porn or physical pleasures, experiences an agonizing form of slavery and frequently looks back on his deeds to see just how much pain he has caused to others by using them to satisfy his own appetites.
- The woman who is not a peacemaker, who quarrels, nags, and harps on others’ defects, recognizes one day to her dismay that she has alienated those who were closest to her and that, in making her points and supposedly winning her arguments, she has lost what is far more important: other people.
- The person who fails to show mercy, because of her unwillingness to forgive, experiences an inner spiritual cancer that slowly eats her alive.
- Finally the one who is not willing to suffer for the sake of Christ, who, out of a fear of upsetting another, fails to pass on the faith, often discovers a deep sense of emptiness for betraying Christ, which is a pain worse than that of betraying a friend or a spouse. That remorse is compounded by seeing the pain in others whose suffering could have been avoided had someone had the guts to preach the Gospel before they became addicted to drugs, or had an abortion, or burned relational bridges, or ended up with an STD.
If we’re bold enough to challenge the devil’s bogus beatitudes by our own experience, we will recognize that all they deliver is a counterfeit happiness, which, when finally exposed, leads to sadness and even despair. It is Christ, and Christ alone, who has the words of eternal life. And it is Christ and Christ alone who shows us the path to the happiness for which our hearts long, for which he made them to long. If we have been seeking happiness through the false promises of the counterfeit beatitudes, then today is the time for us to convert to living according to the path Christ marks out for us.
As we prepare to receive in holy communion Christ himself who enfleshes the beatitudes, we ask Him to increase our trust in Him and to give us the grace he knows we’ll need to follow him along the path of the beatitudes. We ask him for his grace so that we may become
- poor in spirit, treasuring God as our greatest gift;
- so loving of others that we mourn whenever they suffer; meek and humble like our Master;
- hungry for a right relationship with Him and others;
- merciful and forgiving to those who have harmed us;
- pure in heart, so that we might see Him in everyone and everything;
- bearers of his peace, which is his farewell gift to the world;
- and willing to suffer out of love for Him, who suffered so much out of love for us.
We ask him, short, to make us men and women of the beatitudes, so that others, in seeing us, may see Him, and follow us and Him along the path of the beatitudes, which is the path that leads to happiness, the sure way that leads to the joy of heaven.