When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Each of the four Gospels highlights different facets of the life and ministry of Jesus. Scripture scholars tell us that Mark’s Gospel seems to have been written for a largely non-Jewish audience and that Luke’s original readers would have been a Greek-speaking community that included many who were poor and on the margins of society. The Gospel of John is more mystical and theological than the other three and was written for a community of Christians that was more established and theologically refined.
The Gospel of Matthew, which we will hear on most Sundays this year, was written for a group of Christians who had maintained a strong sense of their Jewish cultural and spiritual heritage. This is why we find Matthew quoting so often from the prophecies and laws of the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—as a way to help his audience understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of all the hopes and promises of ancient Israel.
In the Gospel we hear on this Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, however, Matthew shares something new as he begins the first of five lengthy speeches of Jesus recorded in his Gospel (chapters 5–7). Today, most of us know this first speech simply as the “Sermon on the Mount.”
Matthew has already told us that Jesus’ ministry in Galilee had drawn people from all over the region (4:23-25) and, while the disciples have a prominent place during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is really addressing the crowds gathered around him. This means that the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount aren’t intended only for the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. Rather, his words are intended for each person who would be his disciple, including us today.
The section of the Sermon on the Mount that we hear this Sunday includes the beatitudes. These nine blessings give us a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Jesus isn’t necessarily promising rewards for his followers here and now. Instead, he’s looking toward the fullness of life in God’s kingdom. As Scripture scholar Daniel Harrington, SJ, observed, “The promise of God’s kingdom frames the eight beatitudes (5:3, 10), and the intervening promises (comfort, inheriting the land, satisfaction, obtaining mercy, seeing God, being called ‘sons of God’) refer to the final judgment, the vindication of the just, and the establishment of God’s perfect kingdom” (The Gospel of Matthew. Sacra Pagina Series. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991).
While the blessings of the beatitudes transport us to the fullness of life in the kingdom of God, the qualities of discipleship outlined in the blessings are very much concerned with how we live our lives in this present moment.
In these post-inauguration days, and as we also mark the end of the Octave of Christian Unity (January 18–25) and look towards Catholic Schools Week (January 29–February 4), it’s important for us to take time to reflect on how we are living out our commitments as followers of Jesus, and the beatitudes offer a beautiful opportunity for us to ask ourselves some challenging questions. But we can also reflect on how similar our current situation is to that of Jesus’ first followers. Like them, we also live in days of uncertainty, haunted by threats of violence, but the beatitudes promise that what we experience today will lead to future joy. Like those women and men so many years ago, we also need to take Jesus’ promises to heart and remember the blessings promised to the poor, to the meek, to mourners, and to those who suffer persecution for their faith in Christ. Reflecting on this, Sister Barbara Reid, OP, notes that the way of life outlined in the beatitudes “is able to heal the hurtful memories of the past and to transform the present toward a hope-filled future… Jesus addresses this teaching to all his disciples and to a great crowd, inviting them to recognize their capacity for happiness in the present by espousing attitudes and actions that will influence the future” (from Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year A. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013).
Take time in the coming days to prayerfully reflect on the vision of the Christian life outlined in the beatitudes and consider which of these blessings is most needed in your life today. Offer a prayer of thanks for those blessed individuals whose lives are a witness of the transforming power of God’s grace and mercy, the only source of true happiness and peace.
Br. Silas Henderson, SDS
Grant us, Lord our God,
that we may honor you with all our mind,
and love everyone in truth of heart.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
—Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time from the English translation of The Roman Missal © 2010, ICEL. All rights reserved.