Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
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 twelve Old Testament prophets called the Minor Prophets as distinguished from the four Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel. His prophetic ministry took place in the early years of the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.). Josiah was arguably the best of the kings descended from King David (1000-961 B.C.). Zephaniah himself was a royal, a great grandson of King Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.), therefore a cousin of King Josiah. The work of Zephaniah was part of King Josiah’s far-reaching reforms — an attempt to undo the foreign policy and idolatry rampant during the reign of Josiah’s predecessor King Manasseh (687-642). The international politics of the time involved the relationship of Josiah’s Kingdom of Judah with Assyria and a rising Neo-Babylonian Empire north and east of Judah, and Egypt in the south. There were also the surrounding smaller nations, Philistia, Moab, Ammon. Think today’s Gaza and Jordan.
A dominant theme of Zephaniah is “the Day of the Lord,” a day when the Lord God would intervene to clean up the wickedness of his idolatrous people, but also punish all nations. The prophet denounces the royal family, cheating merchants, unbelievers. He raps about “a day of wrath, ruin, devastation, darkness, gloom.” That’s the bad news. The good news comes in the final chapter. Heathens will be converted. God’s own people will become a humble people, no doubt chastened by the Day of the Lord. In today’s reading the humble are urged to seek justice, humility. If they do so, they might escape the Lord’s anger. The Lord will leave in place a humble and lowly remnant. How will they be distinguished? They will do no wrong, tell no lies, no deceit, and they will “pasture their flocks with none to disturb them.” The selection of this reading from the oracles of Zephaniah was determined by the similarities between the humble remnant of the Kingdom of Judah and those pronounced “blessed” in the beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel.
The Responsorial Psalm 146 is a hymn of praise to the Lord God. The Psalm touches upon many of the qualities of the humble in Zephaniah’s oracles and in those blessed in the beatitudes. True to good theology, these qualities do not arise from human power. The Lord does it all because he is faithful to his word. Justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, freedom for captives, sight for the blind, uplifting the oppressed, loving the just, protecting strangers, sustaining orphans and widows. One negative note: frustrating the ways of the wicked. The people’s response is Matthew’s first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The second reading continues the series of selections from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In the context, Paul has been attempting to heal the divisions troubling his “parishioners” at Corinth in Achaia (southern Greece today). Although there were intellectuals among them, Paul downplays “wisdom” and reminds them that most of them are of lowly origin — probably many were slaves. Not many were “wise according to worldly standards,” (educated in the various philosophies of the time). Not many of noble birth. Paul points out that it was God’s custom to prefer what is foolish (unlearned?) to humble the learned, that God prefers what is low and despised, even those whose existence is ignored, to bring low the powerful. Why? So that humankind cannot boast that their success is self-made. All success is from God. Therefore, “Whoever wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord.”
The gospel reading consists of nine beatitudes attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Luke’s gospel also has a set of beatitudes, four of them, followed by four corresponding curses, all attributed to Jesus. Matthew saves his curses until his chapter 23. In Matthew’s version the nine beatitudes are the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. As Matthew writes, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain. When he sat down, his disciples gathered around him. He taught them, saying, ‘Blessed are . . . .” We have seen in the comments above on Zephaniah, on Psalm 146, and on 1 Corinthians, that the classes of people praised and pronounced as “blessed” are similar to the humble remnant of Zephaniah, and to the lowly of 1 Corinthians. We have also seen in the comments above on Psalm 146 that the qualities of the blessed in the beatitudes are divine qualities. The Psalm attributes to the Lord God what those blessed in the beatitudes will be instructed by Jesus to accomplish in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. The divine character of these qualities is summed up by this saying in the sermon, “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Matthew 5:48. Matthew casts the beatitudes in easily memorized form some themes that are already widely present in the Old Testament.
Who are the blessed (fortunate, happy) because they live the guidelines of the beatitudes? The poor in spirit — humble before God and humankind; those who mourn over evil; the meek who patiently suffer oppression; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness — to bring justice to the poor; the merciful toward others because they recognize that they too are in need of God’s mercy; the clean of heart — not attached to material things; peacemakers — bringing the security of shalom is God’s work. Finally, the most difficult to understand, almost as difficult as being meek while suffering oppression: the good fortune of Christians who suffer any and all kinds of persecution. Why is this good fortune, happiness, a blessing? Only because of the reward which the Matthean Jesus promises at the beginning and the end — heaven. St. John Paul II attempted to pull us away from a material concept of heaven by describing heaven as fullness of communion (community?) with God. Benedict XVI may have made John Paul’s teaching just a bit easier to understand, when he taught that heaven is simply God (or within God).