Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Zeph 2:3—3:12-13; 1 Cor 1:26-32; Mt 5:1-12

It seems that "being poor" is the theme that runs through all three of today’s readings. The prophet Zephaniah speaks to the "humble of the earth," "the remnant," those who have very little. Then Paul writes to the Corinthian community, calling them "not wise," "not powerful," "the lowly and despised of the world who count for nothing." And in the gospel passage Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the famous words, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." The theme of "being poor" appears in many guises through these three selections.

What exactly does "being poor" mean? How should we understand it today? In this country we have a standard economic indicator, the "poverty level," which is set each year by the United States Department of Health and Human Services according to personal income and the number of persons in the household. But that reduces "being poor" to a statistical measurement and that doesn’t satisfy most people. In this country people would rather go by the impression about the general living conditions that people reside in and the basic necessities of life they have available to them. By that indicator neither your monastery or mine would qualify as "being poor." We certainly aren’t "poor" compared to the inner city folks here in Indianapolis or those people who live in cabins in the Appalachian mountains, those groups who constitute many of the "poor" of our country. And yet even they would be considered well-off compared to the numerous homeless refugees in Sudan or those living in tent cities in Haiti. What does "being poor" really mean? And should we aspire to it? Maybe we could turn it into an inner attitude, with some meaning like "unattached to things." Then we could put more emphasis on the "poor in spirit." But that makes too sharp a division between body and soul, which never would have happened in the Hebrew or Aramaic languages that Jesus probably used. In addition, it is not entirely clear whether the phrase "poor in spirit" should be taken in a positive or negative sense. In a positive sense it would indicate a good condition of life, something to be striven for. Taken negatively, it could indicate a downtrodden and depressed situation which a person can’t escape from and from which one could only be redeemed through the mercy of God. Hmmm. We haven’t come very far in trying to answer our question: what exactly does "being poor" mean?

Perhaps that’s precisely the point of Jesus’ words. They are like a rabbinic teaching lesson—where the whole goal is to get the listener involved and engaged in the process of interpretation. A rabbinic teacher will not give a straight and direct answer to any question. Rather he will quote one rabbinic authority, and then another, and then another, and then another. Sometimes the quotations directly contradict each other. We would say, "Wait a minute! That’s not a very clear answer." But the rabbinic teacher won’t budge. He doesn’t want to give you the answer. For someone who sees things in black and white, this is not very satisfying. But that’s the Rabbinic process of education. Religious education consists in more than just the transfer of information. The educational process consists in getting you to engage the material and come to your own answer after seriously considering and evaluating the available information and opinions.

So the best response we can make to hearing the words of the Beatitudes would be to seriously and deeply ask ourselves: what does "poor in spirit" really mean to me? Then, how do I see it reflected in my life? What does "to be meek" mean? In our general language and understanding meekness doesn’t usually count as a positive personal quality. And what about "to mourn?" How is that a part of my life? Such considerations are, I think, the kind of response that Jesus wanted his disciples to make, and he wants all of us to make. In fact, it might be worthwhile for all of us to consider making the Beatitudes the focus of our reflection and our lectio today.

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