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4th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13
Psalm 146:6c-10
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Matthew 5:1-12a

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The Discipleship of the Faithful Remnant
Throughout salvation history, there has always been a remnant of God's covenant people who have persevered in faith and obedience to maintain their covenant relationship with God.  The faithful remnant provided a model of behavior for their generation in submitting to God in humility and poverty of spirit.  These attributes do not refer to social status or material wealth.  They refer to the inner qualities in which a person humbly submits himself or herself to God's sovereign authority over his/her life and admits in "poverty of spirit" (in contrast to a proud and willful spirit) that he/she loves God above all else.  The Virgin Mary identified herself with these same spiritual attributes in her canticle of praise called the Magnificat, and Jesus included these spiritual attributes in the Beatitudes (this Sunday's Gospel reading).  He identified Himself with these attributes when He said "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves (Mt 11:29).

In the First Reading, the 7th century BC prophet Zephaniah calls the covenant people to conversion. He reminds them that the threat of Yahweh's "Day of Judgment" does not preclude the hope of conversion and the salvation of the humble who submit themselves to God.  However, in Zephaniah's passage, like Jesus' teaching in the Beatitudes in our Gospel Reading (Mt 5:2-12), humility and poverty, in the sense of the Hebrew word aniyyim, assume a moral and eschatological significance.  The humble and the oppressed aniyyim are those who possess the inner, spiritual attributes in which a professing believer submits to the will of God and is obedient to His commands. 

The Responsorial Psalm is the first part of the third Hallel ("praise God") psalms in 146-150 that the priests and the congregation recited in the morning Tamid liturgical worship service seven days a week in the Jerusalem Temple and in the private morning prayers of those who did not attend the morning worship service.  In this psalm, the faithful praise God; there is no other source of strength except the merciful God of Israel.  Only Yahweh, not mortal humans, can be trusted to help the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed, as He has provided for them and protected them in the laws He commanded the covenant people to obey, and in His mercy to them that extends beyond their physical need.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us) that God is the source of their life in Christ Jesus.  He uses four words to describe how Jesus gives us life and is the source of our (1) wisdom, (2) righteousness, (3) sanctification, and (4) redemption.  The response to God's call makes a person a member of Christ's Body, the Church, through the Sacrament of Baptism.  If a disciple is humble in submitting himself to the gift of God's grace, he or she will gradually become so Christ-like as to be able to say with St. Paul: I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me (Gal 2:19b-20).

Our Gospel Reading is Jesus' teaching on the blessings of the Beatitudes, the spiritual attributes for everyone who answers God's call as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  The Beatitudes, like the passage in the first reading, have a spiritual message and an eschatological fulfillment.  They promise eternal blessedness and salvation but not in this world. The Beatitudes are the blueprint for a radically transformed life in the Spirit, and each of the Beatitudes is a step forward on the road to eternal salvation.  Like the Ten Commandments of the moral law, these spiritual laws must be fulfilled in total as one spiritual attribute makes way to the next until all have been mastered and carried forward in the life of the believer.  The call of the Beatitudes is to fulfill all the blessings and to reap all the promises to the faithful remnant in every generation so that the Church can fulfill her mission.

The First Reading Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13 ~ The Preservation of the Faithful Remnant of Israel
2:3 Seek the LORD, all you humble of the earth, who have observed his law; seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you may be sheltered on the day of the LORD's anger.  [...]  3:12 But I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of the LORD, the remnant of Israel.  13 They shall do no wrong and speak no lies; nor shall there be found in their mouths a deceitful tongue; they shall pasture and couch their flocks with none to disturb them.

The prophet Zephaniah served the Lord in his prophetic ministry during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC).  He probably served during the early years of the young king's reign in c. 640-630 BC when Josiah was still in his minority and before Josiah was old enough to initiate his religious reforms.  The first part of Zephaniah's book contains the warning of the inevitable coming of God's judgment on the "Day of Yahweh" (1:2-2:3).  It is a divine judgment affecting the pagan Gentile nations (2:4-15) and Jerusalem/Israel (3:1-8) for their many sins, including religious and moral corruption.  The divine retribution is meant to be a warning to the Gentile nations to convert (3:9-10) and to call God's people back to obedience and humility in submitting to God's divine authority (3:2).  Salvation is the promise for only a humble and submissive "remnant" of the people of God (3:12-13).

In our passage, God's prophet begins in 2:3 with a call to conversion, reminding the Israelites that the threat of Yahweh's "Day of Judgment" does not preclude the hope of conversion and the salvation of the humble who submit themselves to God.  The "humble" and "oppressed/afflicted" of the earth are mentioned often in the Bible and are identified by the Hebrew word aniyyim.  The oppressed are often the poor who have no social status and no way of defending themselves.  They constantly cry out to God for justice, and in the Sinai Covenant provisions were made for their material needs and securing their civil justice (Ex 22:20-26; Lev 19:9-10, 13; Dt 24:10-15).

However, in Zephaniah's passage, like Jesus' teaching in the Beatitudes (Mt 5:2-12), humility and poverty, in the sense of the Hebrew word aniyyim, assume a moral and eschatological significance.  The humble and the oppressed aniyyim are those Israelites who possess the inner, spiritual attributes in which a professing believer submits to the will of God and is obedient to His commands.  In 3:12-13, God promises to preserve a faithful remnant of the spiritual aniyyim to be the heart of the Old Covenant Church that is Israel and the center of Israel's promised restoration.  Yahweh promises to guide and protect His faithful remnant as a hope for the preservation of the covenant people. 

It is the same way God continues to preserve a faithful remnant to be the heart of the New Covenant Church.  Some years ago, before Pope Benedict XVI retired, he was asked by a journalist how concerned he was that so many Catholics were no longer attending Mass or being obedient to the Church's teachings.  His response was that he was not concerned because God promised the preservation of the "faithful remnant."  He continued that it is through the "faithful remnant" that the Catholic Church will persevere in faith until the return of the Redeemer-Messiah, Jesus Christ.  It is our responsibility to strive to be that "faithful remnant."

Responsorial Psalm 146:6c-10 ~ God Protects the Poor and Oppressed
The response is: "Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs!"

 

6c The LORD keeps faith forever, 7 secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry.  The Lord sets captives free.
Response:
8 The LORD gives sight to the blind; the LORD raises up those who are bowed down.  9 The LORD loves the just; the LORD protects strangers.
Response:

The fatherless and the widow the LORD sustains, but the way of the wicked he thwarts.  10 The LORD shall reign forever; your God, O Zion, through all generations.  Alleluia.
Response:

Psalm 146 is the first psalms of the third Hallel ("praise God"), psalms 146-150, recited by the priests and the congregation in the morning Tamid liturgical worship service seven days a week in the Jerusalem Temple and in the private morning prayers of those who did not attend the morning worship service.  In this psalm, the faithful praise God; there is no other source of strength except the merciful God of Israel.  Only Yahweh, and not mortal humans, can be trusted to help the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed.  He provides for them and protects them with His laws (Ex 22:20-26; Lev 19:9-10, 13; Dt 24:10-15) and has shown them His mercy in every kind of need (verses 7-9).  The psalm begins with "my God" in verse 2, who is the God of Israel (verse 5).  It concludes with "your God, O Zion," speaking of Jerusalem (the Old Covenant Church), where Yahweh is worshipped and his Name is proclaimed to all nations and throughout all generations.  The psalm ends with the affirmation, which in Hebrew is Halleluyah! which means "praise God, Yah (Yahweh)." 

In the sacrifice of the Mass, we also recite psalms of praise to God in our daily liturgy, praising God for His mercy and His works on behalf of His people and humanity in general.  In this psalm, the works of God on behalf of the poor and afflicted are the works of Jesus Christ during His three-year ministry: feeding the multitudes, healing the blind, protecting the week, raising the dead; etc.  The other works of mercy and justice are those that are promised to the poor in Jesus' heavenly Kingdom (see Jesus' promised blessings of the poor and afflicted in Lk 6:20-23). 

The Second Reading 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ~ The Qualities of Discipleship
26 Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.  Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  27 Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, 28 and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, 29 so that no human being might boast before God.  30 It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, "Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord."

As it was in the case of Jesus' twelve Apostles and His men and women disciples, it is God who chooses and who gives each Christian a vocation.  Jesus told His disciples: It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give ;you" (Jn 15:16).  St. Paul emphasizes to the Christians of Corinth that the initiative of discipleship lies with God, saying three times in verses 26-29 that is was God who chose them and that He did not base His choice on human standards of wisdom or status. 

In verse 30, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that God is the source of their life in Christ Jesus.  He uses four words to describe how Jesus gives us life and is the source of our (1) wisdom, (2) righteousness, (3) sanctification, and (4) redemption.  The response to God's call makes a person a member of Christ's Body, the Church, through Baptism.  If a disciple is humble in submitting to the gift of God's grace, he or she will gradually become so Christ-like as to be able to say with St. Paul: I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me (Gal 2:19b-20).  We have no reason to boast because we do not accomplish the grace that leads to our salvation or obtain the gifts of faith by our own merits.  It is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross that merits our salvation.  It is being infused with the life of Jesus Christ in baptism that enables a person to share the wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption of Jesus for every Christian disciple.

The Gospel of Matthew 5:1-12a ~ Jesus Teaches the Beatitudes as the Pathway to Salvation
1 When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.  2 He began to teach them, saying:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.  Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When Jesus withdrew from the crowds and went up the side of a mountain.  The men He called to receive His spiritual teaching were His disciples and Apostles (see Mt 5:1 and Lk 6:12-16).  It was too deep a teaching for the common people who did not yet know Him as Lord and Savior.  When Jesus descended the mountain to speak to the crowds, He gave them another teaching that related to their temporal sufferings and gave them promises of God's ultimate justice.  In the Beatitude teaching of the blessings of the New Covenant, Jesus began to prepare His Apostles and disciples for the second great Pentecost which would result in the birth of the New Covenant people through a baptism by water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-5; Acts 2). 

The blessings of the Beatitudes are the spiritual attributes for everyone who answers God's call to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  We must also keep in mind that the Beatitudes, like the passage in the first reading, have a spiritual message and an eschatological fulfillment.  They promise eternal blessedness and salvation but not in this world.  The eternal nature of the promises of the Beatitudes was not possible under the sacramental system of the Old Covenant Church.  Its Law could only identify sin but could not promise eternal salvation (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #1716-1724; 1961-64).  The Beatitudes are the blueprint for a radically transformed life in the Spirit, and each of the Beatitudes is a step forward on the road to eternal salvation.  Like the Ten Commandments of the moral law, the spiritual laws of the Beatitudes must be fulfilled in total as one spiritual attribute makes way to the next until all are mastered and carried forward in the life of the believer.  The call of the Beatitudes is to fulfill all the blessings and to reap all the promises.  The Beatitudes list seven (or eight depending on how you count them) spiritual states with each blessing followed by an eternal promise. 

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The first step on the road to salvation is to admit "poverty of spirit" and reject pride of spirit by admitting our dependence on God and surrendering our lives to God.  We cannot buy our salvation or even work to earn it (Eph 2:5-7, 8).  Instead, we must accept God's gift and make it our own so that the works of God can work through us (Eph 2:9-10).  Only someone who submits to God's sovereignty over his life can hope to receive the promised blessing of eternal life.  This blessing is the most difficult of the Beatitudes, and therefore this is why Jesus lists it first in the progression of the transformation of a life in Christ.  Our submission begins in professing faith in God and in submitting to the Sacrament of Christian Baptism where we die to sin and are raised to new life in Christ Jesus as children in the family of God (1 Jn 3:10).

4 Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
When one submits to God in "poverty of spirit" he places himself or herself before the throne of God and immediately becomes conscious of how sin harms his/her relationship with the Father.  The natural response is to mourn our sins which leads to confession and the comfort of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  This Beatitude, like the other Beatitudes, has an implied negative.  Those who refuse to mourn their sins will separate themselves from God's forgiveness of their sins and the comfort that comes from repentance and restored communion with God.

5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
When we humbly confess our sins and are forgiven, we are not only comforted, but we become meek in the hands of our Creator.  Jesus taught us: Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves (Mt 11:29).  Jesus' teaching is that we must submit in meekness to the divine Master's guidance and not strain against His authority like oxen who strain against the guidance of their master's yoke.  And the promise to the "meek" and "humble" is they will inherit the "land."  In the Bible, "the land" always refers to the "Promised Land" of Israel.  But in the Beatitudes the blessings are not temporal; they are eternal.  It is through our meekness and humility and not through conquest that we will become inheritors of the "Promised Land" of Heaven, and we will find rest in the home of our heavenly Father.

6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
As we become more like Christ, we hunger and thirst for the King of righteousness.  In the Sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus satisfies that desire by making us partakers of His divine life and satisfies our hunger and thirst for Him.  This blessing is the turning point in the Beatitudes.  Up to this point, the focus has been on the most basic aspects of our relationship with God.  Up until now, the focus has been our need:

But now the focus changes to our need for union with the fullness of God.  Therefore, the focus turns to Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, who fulfills our desire for union with the fullness of God Himself in the gift of the Eucharist.  In the Eucharist, the Most Holy Trinity gives Himself completely to the soul who hungers and thirsts for Him.  He gives Himself completely in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.  He comes to us in the miracle of Transubstantiation as the Bridegroom giving all of Himself to His Bride, the Church.

7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
As we become more Christ-like in living the Beatitudes, we want to extend His love and mercy to others.  This outpouring of love and mercy is not limited to those who are loveable or who show us mercy but to those suffering souls who are most in need of the love of Christ in their lives.  Jesus promises that in showing His mercy to others, He will show us God's mercy.  This Beatitude also has an implied negative.  If we don't show mercy to others, how can we expect to be shown God's mercy?

8 Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
At this point in living out the Beatitudes, our transformed lives have given us clean, purified hearts; our hearts now mirror the heart of Jesus our Redeemer.  It is only the clean of heart who can truly see God in the faces of everyone with whom we share His love.  And the clean of heart have the promise that, if they persevere in faith, they will see God face to face in His heavenly Kingdom.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
With Christ living within us, we become conformed to His image of peace and love.  In the image of Christ Jesus, we become divine children of His Father.  As St. John the Apostle wrote: No one who is begotten by God commits sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot sin because he is begotten by God.  In this way, the children of God and the children of the devil are made plain; no one who fails to act in righteousness belongs to God, nor anyone who does not love his brother (1 Jn 3:9-10). 

10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.  Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
These verses are the summation of the Beatitudes in living the Law of love on the journey to salvation, and the promise is a repeat of the first promise in verse 3: the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Notice that the pronouns have changed from "they/theirs" to "you/your."  The Church Fathers understood these verses to apply to Jesus Christ and to be a direct prophecy of His Passion.  The rewards of living the Beatitudes are eternal, but to reach that eternal reward may involve suffering.  We must be ready and willing to endure suffering for the sake of our salvation.  If God did not spare His Son or His Son's Mother's suffering, why should He spare us?  According to St. Anthony: No one can enter the kingdom of heaven without being tested; it says, take away temptation and no one will be saved (St. Anthony quoted in Sayings of the Desert Fathers, as quoted from The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Tradition, page 104).

The 1st Beatitude that we must achieve on this spiritual journey to heaven, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, both sets the spiritual tone of Jesus' homily and suggests the present reality.  The verb in the promise of the first beatitude is in the present tense: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  The final blessing-promise, which addresses persecution, is also in the present tense: Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  The other blessings all contain a verb in the simple future tense "they will or shall be..."  The beatitudes promise a present and a future fulfillment. 

It is through the universal Catholic Church and especially the sacraments, the visible signs of God's grace given to the Church through the works of Jesus the Messiah, that our Lord and Savior blesses and encourages us in this life as we look forward to the next:

  1. It is now through the Sacrament of Baptism that we are reborn into the family of God and now receive the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven that is the first promise.
  2. It is now through the Sacrament of Reconciliation that we are comforted now in mourning for our sins
  3. It is now through yielding our lives to God in meekness and humility that we obediently follow the teachings of Mother Church.  The Sacrament of Confirmation strengthens us in our struggle, and we place ourselves in the hands of God as Apostles for Christ.  We commit ourselves to lives that are useful to ourselves, useful to our families, useful to our local communities, and to the spread of the Gospel in the world when we allow the works of God to work through us.
  4. It is now through the Sacrament of the Eucharist that Christ the Righteous One gives all of Himself to us, filling us with His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
  5. It is now that through the corporal works of mercy that we are called to show the same kind of mercy and forgiveness that God has given us to everyone we meet.
  6. It is now through our self-sacrifice which yields a cleansing of our hearts that we can love with the same kind of love with which Jesus loves us.  And through acts of mercy, we have Jesus' promise that we will see His face in every person who is hurt or suffering, and the healing of suffering is offered now to us through the Sacrament of Anointing.
  7. It is now that we are called to let "the peace of God rule in our lives" (Col 3:15).  We let that peace diffuse through us into the world as ministers of peace called to a royal priesthood in Christ, while God calls others of us to the ministerial priesthood and holy orders.
  8. And finally, there is the beatitude promising persecution for the faithful.  It is a summation of the seven beatitudes and clearly a present reality which promises the future reality in the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Beatitudes contain seven or eight spiritual attributes, depending on how you count them (there are eight if one includes verses 10-12 as an eighth Beatitude instead of a summation).  The Beatitudes are successive fundamental spiritual states that every Christian must strive to achieve.  Jesus asks us in this earthly exile to live the spiritual reality of the Beatitudes daily, to walk in His footsteps spreading His love and giving His mercy.  However, we must also keep our eyes on heaven for that is our future and eternal reality.  The last repeated promised blessing is also a bridge to the continued teaching on living this spiritual love in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:13-7:29).  Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you, is immediately followed by the salt and light metaphors illustrating the blessing of the spiritual fertility that comes from living the Beatitudes and bearing the fruit of our faith which is the good deeds that glorify God.

The Beatitudes must be lived fully and completely, just as the Ten Commandments of the moral law have to be lived in their entirety, just as all seven of the gifts of the Holy Spirit must be claimed to be opened in our souls (Is 11:1-2; CCC # 1831), and just as all twelve "fruits" of the Holy Spirit must ripen within us in order for us to bear the "good fruit" of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23; CCC# 1832).  But the Beatitudes, as the New Law of God the Holy Spirit, represent both a present and a future fulfillment.  Just as Jesus was a present reality in His Resurrection as the "firstfruits" of the Resurrection which He promised to all of us as a future reality (Col 1:15), so Jesus wants us to be strengthened and encouraged by the "firstfruits" of these spiritual gifts.  In the "great harvest" He will reap in divine judgment that is yet to come.  It is then that Christ returns to gather the "faithful remnant" of His elect who are waiting for His return (1 Thes 4:16).  See the chart on the Beatitudes teaching: http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/charts/The%20Beatitudes.htm.

Catechism References:

Zephaniah 2:3 (CCC 64, 711, 716), 3:12-13 (CCC 722, 2676)

Psalm 146:3-4 (CCC 150)

1 Corinthians 1:27 (CCC 489), 1:30 (CCC 2813)

Matthew 5:1 (CCC 581), 5:3-12 (CCC 1716), 5:3 (CCC 544, 2546), 5:8 (1720, 2518), 5:9 (CCC 2305, 2330), 5:11-12 (CCC 520).

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017