Sunday's Gospel: Those Countercultural Beatitudes

The following is republished with permission from my column in Catechist Magazine.  For subscription information, visit Catechist.com.

JAN. 29 , 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Gospel Reading: Matt. 5:1-12a

This week we have the familiar teachings of Jesus known as the “beatitudes.” Beatitudes are blessings, and they were common expressions in Jewish writing. For example, Proverbs 8:32 reads, “Happy are they who keep my ways.” As is the case in this verse from Proverbs, the word “blessed” is sometimes translated as “happy.” The blessed one is the happy one, the one whose life is governed by God’s will and wisdom.

Having heard these verses so many times, we often forget how surprising they were and how countercultural they still are. Wouldn’t it have been more logical for Jesus to say blessed—or happy—are those who have everything they need, who have nothing to mourn, who own things, who have land? Aren’t these the people that God has blessed? Aren’t these signs of their prosperity and favor with God?

A major thrust of Jesus’ ministry was to dispel these myths about the supposed connection between worldly prosperity and God’s favor. The wealthy are not prosperous because God loves them more than he loves the poor. Those who are heartbroken have not displeased God. Those who are sick or in pain do not deserve their plight due to their own sin or the sin of their ancestors. Instead, Jesus says, God loves those who are suffering—the poor, the marginalized, those who are hurting. They are blessed— happy—because they are God’s special ones. If they turn to God in their poverty, their mourning, their lowliness, their hunger, they will be satisfied by the abundance of God himself.

As you can imagine, Jesus’ teachings not only comforted the poor and suffering, but they disturbed the wealthy and prosperous. Suddenly their complacency and self-assuredness was dislocated, thrown off balance. Jesus challenged the notion that their wealth and status were automatic signs of God’s favor. Jesus the teacher strikes again: soul-searching required all around.

NOTE: You may have noticed the letter a at the end of the biblical citation for today’s reading (Matthew 5:1-12a). The letters a and b (sometimes even c) are used to indicate the first half (a) or the second half (b) of a Scripture verse. (The letter c is used when the verse is easily divided into thirds. John 1:1 would be an example of this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”) Matthew 5:12a indicates that in today’s Gospel reading, only the first half of verse 5:12 is included.

ASK YOURSELF: Which of the beatitudes resonates most with me right now? Why? What is Jesus promising me or asking of me?

ASK YOUR STUDENTS: Which one of the beatitudes from today’s reading is hardest to understand? Why? Which one is special to you?

PRAY: Jesus the teacher, may your ancient words fall on fresh, fertile ground and change me.

LIVE THE GOSPEL: The beatitudes challenge us to see each other differently. This week seek out someone who is suffering in some way— poor, sad, lonely, ill. Treat them with the comfort, mercy, and peace Jesus promises in the beatitudes.

 Elsie Anna Wood, Illustration from  The Sermon on the Mount , by Elsie Anna Wood. Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.

Elsie Anna Wood, Illustration from The Sermon on the Mount, by Elsie Anna Wood. Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.