Gospel Reflection for the 4th Sunday of the Ordinary Time – January 29th By Fr Brian Maher OMI
In August 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and gave his famous, “I have a dream” speech to 250,000 people. Today, there are very few people on the planet who have not, at least, heard of that speech, if not read it or listened to it themselves. Sixty years after the event, it is still impossible to hear his words without again being caught-up in the passion, conviction, and fervour with which he spoke.
His words were based on a no less inspiring document, the US Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, and beginning, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
A mere fifteen years later, in France, another document trumpeted the words, “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity), setting in stone the vision of a new, liberated France.
Some words are always remembered. They have a power and a depth of vision which, somehow, transcend time and culture. Today’s Gospel, I suggest, fits into the same category. Very few people have not heard of “The Sermon on the Mount”, or are not familiar with the list of “Blessed are’s…” with which each statement begins.
Each of the above speeches can be termed a ‘Manifesto’ – a vision and programme for a new and better society. What we hear today in our Gospel is no less than Jesus’ manifesto for the “Kingdom of God” which he is introducing to his own people and to the world.
Unfortunately, when we hear it read year after year, it is probably read in a calm, scholarly way, tepid and intellectual and we miss the power and the joy it offers us. For those first hearing these words – a broken, downtrodden, occupied and demoralised people – they were words of comfort and hope, words which said to them, “Your God has not abandoned you. Your God has not forgotten his promise to send you a Messiah, a saviour, who will bring to the world a new and everlasting Kingdom – the Kingdom of God.”
Many who heard these words would have been curious, but not really interested. They would have been too lost in their own tiny kingdoms to hear the hope offered to them. Others would have felt threatened. The powerful and wealthy would have feared anything ‘new’ that might unsettle the fragile kingdoms they had built for themselves. Some might have lost hope completely, too broken to respond to what was being offered.
But some, enough to make a difference, were listening with an openness which allowed them to respond. They heard the passion and sincerity of Jesus’ words, and they felt the power which underpinned what he said. These people “came and saw” and realised that what he spoke were not just words, but contained within them an entire lifestyle of forgiveness, compassion, healing and a reaching out to all people – poor, rich, old, young, Jew and non-Jew, friend and even enemy. They became his disciples and “they followed him.”
These men and women are, in fact, our spiritual ancestors. It is because of them, and only because of them, that we are enabled to hear the amazing words of the “Sermon on the Mount” today. These people were themselves the “poor, the gentle, mourners, fighters for justice, the merciful, the genuine, peacemakers, persecuted and betrayed”. They were aware of their poverty of spirit and of their human weaknesses. They were aware enough to put their trust in a man whose ‘manifesto’, whose vision, offered them everything and then more.
When Jesus left John the Baptist and set out on his own mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God, he must have known how difficult his task would be. Like Martin Luther King, and so many other visionaries, Jesus died because of what he offered to his people. But unlike all others before or after him, Jesus rose again from the dead, proving beyond any doubt that the Kingdom of God had truly come.
At the moment of the Resurrection, today’s Gospel, the “Sermon on the Mount” ceased to be a ‘vision’ for a Kingdom to come in the future, and became a reality, a Kingdom already here and a Kingdom which will always be here, “until the end of time”.
However, we must not become complacent. The Kingdom of God is truly among us, but it is not yet fully realised. The Kingdoms of power and wealth, of fear and selfishness, of greed and insecurity are still present and very real. These Kingdoms, strong as they are, did not daunt Jesus or his followers. Nor must they daunt us.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, stated that he “could do all things because of Christ who strengthened him.” That same Christ strengthens us today.
“The poor, the gentle, mourners, fighters for justice, the merciful, peacemakers, persecuted and betrayed” are still with us. In fact, as Christians, we are these people; as Christians we are the Kingdom of God, present in our world.
Leonard Cohen, a Canadian singer/songwriter/philosopher/poet, whose music I like a lot, spoke of the “staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount / Which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”
I think he is correct, if we believe that the “Sermon on the Mount” is something to be intellectually analysed and ‘understood’. We will never ‘understand’ the Sermon on the Mount in this way.
No, the “Sermon on the Mount” is to be lived, one tiny step at a time, one day, one encounter, one simple word at a time.
This, believe it or not, is what Jesus himself did. The Samaritan woman at the well, the woman taken in adultery, the poor widow who had lost her only son, Martha and Mary, whose brother Lazarus had died, the blind and the lepers, even the thief dying on the cross; all of them individual encounters with Jesus and no more than that. His words to each of them – words of forgiveness, of support, of welcome, of acceptance, of healing, of hope and joy and peace – were what saved them and gave them new life.
This is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom already with us, the Kingdom that we, like Jesus himself, are called to be part of and to share with others, one tiny step at a time.
And we can do it, “because of Christ who strengthens us”.
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at email@example.com
‘How happy are the poor in spirit’
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