Readings for Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: ZEPHANIAH 2:3, 3:12-15; PSALM 146:6-7, 8-10; I CORINTHIANS 1: 25-31; MATTHEW 5: 1-12A.
So we’re a Christian nation, right? At least that’s what right wingers would have us believe, despite the presence of millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists (and atheists!) among us.
Well, if we’re so Christian, here’s an idea for you. How about posting the Beatitudes in front of U.S. courthouses instead of the Ten Commandments? How about posting them on the walls of our schools, and in front of the White House? Doesn’t that seem more appropriate? I mean the Beatitudes come from the specifically Christian Testament. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, come from the Jewish Testament.
I predict that will never happen. In fact, I’ll bet you anything there’d be a hue and cry (on the part of Christians, mind you) that would prevent the move. And do you know why? Because the Beatitudes centralized in today’s liturgy of the word are too radical and un-American for the “Christian” right. The Beatitudes make sweeping judgments about classes. They indicate that the rich (evidently no matter how they got their money) are at odds with God’s plan, while the poor (regardless of why they’re poor) are his favorites.
No, I’m not so much talking about the version of the Beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew which were read in today’s Gospel excerpt. In Matthew, Jesus’ words are already softened. Instead, my reference is to Luke’s probably earlier version that expresses harsher judgments.
Here’s the way, Luke phrases Jesus’ words in Chapter 6 of his Gospel:
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. . . 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
Do you see what I mean? Luke’s version doesn’t spiritualize poverty the way Matthew does. Matthew changes Jesus’ second-person statement about poverty (“Blessed are you who are poor”) to a third-person generalized and spiritualized “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Similarly, Luke’s “Blessed are you who are hungry now” becomes “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” in Matthew. In this way physical hunger is turned into something spiritual or psychological. Obviously, Matthew’s community was not as poor as Luke’s – or as the people Jesus habitually addressed.
In fact, the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is so valuable exactly because – unlike most of ancient literature – it represents the lore of poor people about their relationship with God.
Granted, that tradition became the object of class struggle about 1000 years before Jesus’ time, with the contested emergence of a royal class.
That is, starting with King Saul, the royalty of Judah and Israel tried mightily to turn a poor people’s faith into an ideology supporting the country’s elite. More particularly, under King David, palace oligarchs distorted the divine promise to slaves escaped from Egypt. That promise had been “I will be your God and you will be my people.” David turned it into a promise of a permanent dynasty for himself and his descendants. In other words, the country’s royalty transformed the Mosaic Covenant into a Davidic Covenant serving the elite rather than the poor.
However, the people’s prophets resisted them at every step. We find examples of that in all of today’s readings. For instance, in our first selection, the seventh century (BCE) prophet, Zephaniah, addresses the world’s (not simply Israel’s) poor. With his country’s aristocrats and priests in mind, he denounces their lies and “deceitful tongues” and urges them to treat the “humble and lowly” with justice as was prescribed by Moses.
Then with the responsorial Psalm 146 (probably written in the late sixth century) we all found ourselves chanting the words Matthew attributes to Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; the Kingdom of God is theirs.” The “Kingdom of God,” of course, is shorthand for what the world would be like if God were king instead of those corrupt royal classes. The psalmist says that change would bring justice for the oppressed, hungry, imprisoned, physically handicapped, the fatherless, the widow, and the resident alien. All of these were specific beneficiaries of the Mosaic Covenant.
Today’s third reading from I Corinthians promises a connected Great Reversal. There Paul of Tarsus (in modern day Turkey) identifies Jesus’ earliest followers as those who “count for nothing” in the eyes of the world. (Do you see the return to the Mosaic Covenant?) Jesus followers are riffraff. Paul identifies them as unwise, foolish, and weak. They are lowly and despised. Yet in reality, Paul assures his audience, the despised will finally be proven wise and holy. Ominously for their betters, Paul promises that those who count for nothing will reduce to zero those who in the world’s eyes are considered something.
Jesus, of course, appears in Zephaniah’s and Paul’s prophetic tradition as defender of the poor and the Mosaic Covenant. Matthew makes that point unmistakably by changing the location of Luke’s parallel discourse. In Luke, Jesus announces the Beatitudes “on a level place” (LK 6:17). Matthew puts Jesus “on a mount” for the same sermon. His point is that Jesus is the New Moses who also received the Old Covenant on a mount (Sinai). Put otherwise: the so-called Beatitudes represent the New Law of God.
That’s why it makes more sense to place the Beatitudes on a plaque in front of our courthouses, on the walls of our schools, and in front of the White House.
But as I said, don’t hold your breath. Can you imagine our super-wealthy politicians (not to mention their donors) having to read Luke’s words every day?
“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
No, in its essence, the Judeo-Christian tradition belongs precisely to poor people. It belongs to those whom Americans in general think “count for nothing.” As Paul intimates, those are the very ones who will rise up and reduce to zero those who in the world’s eyes are considered something.
That message is no more welcome today than it was 2000 years ago.