Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13; Response: Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12a

Zephaniah is one of the 12 Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. They are distinguished from the four Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Zephaniah’s ministry as a prophet took place in the early years of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.). It was religious reform time, and Josiah was the king fitted to do it. He was probably the morally best of the kings descended from King David (1,000-961B.C.), certainly morally superior to David. Zephaniah was, himself, a royal – a great grandson of King Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.). Josiah attempted to undo the foreign policies of his predecessor, King Manasseh (687-642), and the widespread idolatry that had crept into the Kingdom of Judah. Zephaniah’s ministry contributed to Josiah’s reforms. The political situation: the decline of the Assyrian Empire; the growing power of the New Babylonian Empire north and east of Judah; plus a powerful Egypt to the south.

Our reading from Zephaniah is a chopped-up version of two widely separated oracles (prophetic statements). In the first part, the prophet has just proclaimed warning threats about the coming “Day of the Lord;” a day when God would drastically intervene against idolatry, foreign dress by the royals and unbelief in Jerusalem. “Come together, Shameless Nation, before you are blown away like drifting chaff, before there comes upon you the fierce anger of the Lord … the day of the wrath of the Lord.” Suddenly, the tone changes as we enter our first reading. An appeal from the prophet to a remnant of good people: “Seek the Lord, you humble of the earth, who have observed his law. Seek justice. Seek humility.” These words probably determined the selection of this reading for today, since they echo the beatitudes of this Sunday’s gospel. Zephaniah dangles possible safety for the humble, “Then perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.” As spokesperson for the Lord God, he promises, “I will leave a remnant among you, a people humble and lowly.” The Lord chose the best for the remnant since “they shall do no wrong, and speak no lies. No deceit in their mouths.” The prophet closes with the imagery of the Lord’s protected flock: “They shall pasture and lie down with none to disturb them.”

The verses of Psalm 146 chosen as a response to the first reading display similarity to the beatitudes in today’s gospel reading. It must be for this reason that the assemblers of our Lectionary decided to borrow the first beatitude as the people’s response, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” Here is the Psalmist’s description of the Lord God: The Lord is faithful to his promises, secures justice for the oppressed, feeds the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, raises up the depressed, loves the just, protects strangers, orphans and widows. Quite a resumé should the Lord be looking for a job. The dark side: “The way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”

In last Sunday’s reading, Paul asked those who favored him over other missionaries, “Was Paul crucified for you?” This led him to expand on his preaching of a crucified Christ. No philosophy (wisdom) can explain God’s plan for a crucified Christ. It displays God’s weakness, but “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Such weakness is also displayed in the membership of the Christian community at Corinth. Not many were educated, nor powerful, nor nobly born. They were just plain folks. Just as God chose the ignominy of the cross, he also chose the unlearned to shame the learned; the weak to shame the strong; the humble to shame the proud. This is God’s way, so that no human being can justly boast before God. That God chose a crucified Christ as the instrument of salvation is the greatest evidence that God’s ways are not our ways. See Isaiah 55:8-9.

The gospel reading opens the Sermon on the Mountain with nine beatitudes (blessings). What setting does Matthew choose for this first of Jesus’ five great sermons? A legitimate question since Luke chooses a different setting for the same teaching material. Matthew begins, “When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down, his disciples came to him.” Matthew envisions Jesus as a new Moses teaching the new Torah (laws) to the new Israel. But this is an upgrade. Moses received the Torah on the mountain, while the people were waiting in terror at a distance from the mountain. See Exodus 19:12-18. Nor did Moses speak to the people from the mountain. He brought the Torah down and taught them. Jesus, however, did not receive the Torah on the mountain. He was the Torah incarnate and spoke on his own authority: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old … but I say to you….”  In this sermon, Jesus upgrades the teaching of Moses. Nor did his disciples, in terror, wait for him at a distance. They joined him on the mountain. Matthew implies this upgrade. John’s gospel is more direct, “The Torah (law) was given through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

The nine beatitudes bless the poor in spirit – humble before God and humankind. They already live in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. A blessing on those who mourn over evil. They will not be left without consolation. A blessing on the meek, who patiently suffer oppression. They will see themselves vindicated by God. A blessing on those who hunger and thirst to bring justice to the poor. God will grant success to their efforts. A blessing on the merciful. God will be merciful to them. Blessed are the clean of heart – those not attached to material things. They will see God.

A blessing on peacemakers. They are God’s special children. A blessing on those who suffer persecution, insults, slander “because of me;” that is, because they publicly live their Christian values. God will richly reward them in heaven. What could “heaven” mean in this context? Life after death? Will heaven be an eternal banquet like the imagery described in Isaiah 25:6-8 – rich food and the finest wine? It is difficult to escape our concrete experiences. Pope St. John Paul II tried to pull us away from heaven as a material concept by describing heaven as fullness of communion with God. Benedict XVI taught, “Heaven is simply God.”