Father Donald Senior, CP

Jan. 29: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

On the side of the just

Zep 2:3; 3:12-13; Ps 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 5:1-12a

Editors’ note: It is with great sadness that we mourn the Nov. 8, 2022, death of Passionist Father Donald Senior, whose Scripture column we were honored to publish over the past six years. As we look for a new Scripture columnist, we will continue reprinting Father Don’s past columns, with the permission of the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

When Paul the Apostle was perplexed that most of his fellow Jews had not accepted Christ (he had assumed everyone would see the light just as he had), he wrote: “How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33). And how!

A prime example is found in this Sunday’s Gospel reading — the Eight Beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount, the centerpiece of Matthew’s Gospel. Declaring some group or some attitude “blessed” has biblical antecedents that Jesus draws on. What is remarkable is the list of those whom Jesus identifies as receiving God’s favor. The first four are, in fact, people who are suffering but who, in the strange logic of the Bible, are favored by God: the “poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

From the very beginning of the biblical narrative, God stands on the side of just such as these. We can think of the famous biblical refrain, “God hears the cry of the poor” or the equally emphasized call to care for “the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.” These are the people often despised and pushed aside — one thinks of the desperate refugees we see on the news each day or the people living in constant fear in some neighborhoods of Chicago.

The next set of beatitudes singles out those who, in fact, reach out in compassion towards the very people who suffer. Blessed are the “merciful,” the “clean of heart” (The Semitic peoples thought of the “heart” not as the seat of emotions but as the place where we make decisions and assert our will. The “clean of heart” are those who act with the right motives and with transparent integrity), the “peacemakers” and those whose commitment to the Gospel leads them to be “persecuted for the sake of the justice.” These same descriptors could be a word portrait of Jesus himself and certainly characterize the authentic followers of Jesus.

The logic of the Gospel does not always coincide with ordinary human logic. Why are such people, especially those who suffer or are poor, declared to be the apple of God’s eye and therefore called “blessed” by Jesus? Some skeptics would say that this is precisely what makes religion “the opium of the people” — promising “pie in the sky by and by” and doing little about it. But that is why it is important to keep in mind all of the beatitudes and to understand them in the light of the entire Gospel.

Filled with deep compassion for human suffering, Jesus remembers that the people who are usually neglected and even despised are human beings, precious in God’s eyes. The whole account of Jesus’ mission that will unfold in Matthew’s Gospel, for example, is given over to his attentive mercy and healing for those in need — a commitment that would end in Jesus’ sacrificing his own life. And just so Jesus also praises those of his followers who also recognize this and work to bring mercy, justice and peace to those who suffer.

The challenge for us as Christians is strive to live this out, this strange Gospel logic in our own lives. This divine “logic” may differ from the prevailing views in much of our society but we also know that reaching out in mercy and compassion to those in need brings a profound sense of peace and serenity to us as well. The hymn of St. Francis (who also lived according to God’s strange logic) comes to mind:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

This column has been adapted from the Jan. 29, 2017, issue.


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