Many requests have come in for a reprint of Archbishop Schnurr’s homily from last night’s Cast Your Nets! He has graciously agreed to allowing it to be printed here.
The gospel we have just heard are the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount which, in the Gospel of Matthew, is the first major instruction of Jesus in His public ministry. These opening lines are customarily referred to as the Beatitudes. Each of the Beatitudes begins with the word “Blessed,” as in “Blessed are the poor in spirit” or “Blessed are the meek.”
Because Jesus spoke in the Aramaic language, sometimes it is difficult to find a word in the English language that conveys all the meaning of the words that He used. Thus, some translations of the Bible use the word “happy” instead of the word “blessed,” as in “Happy are those who mourn.” This, however, seems to set up a contradiction. By definition, isn’t a person who is mourning unhappy?
To understand better the Beatitudes, we need to go back to the culture of Jesus’ time. In the original language and cultural mindset of Jesus’ time, to make a strong statement automatically implied that the hearer should consider its opposite. Only then would the full meaning begin to emerge.
Thus, “Happy are the poor in spirit,” becomes “Miserable are those attached to earthly possessions.” And isn’t it true that an inordinate attachment to material things brings all kinds of misery, such as jealousy, workaholism, and even fear of loss? Rather than being dependant on material things, the poor in spirit have reverence for God and child-like trust in Him.
“Happy are those who mourn” becomes “Miserable are those who can never let go.” Mourning is a natural and healthy process, by which we bring closure when we experience a loss. If people are unable to let go, however, it means they can never stop living in the past. They are unable to start over. They cannot look forward again. Those who mourn have a correct estimation of worldly events and are aware of God’s ever-present love.
“Happy are the meek” becomes “Miserable are the arrogant.” The meek will inherit the earth – it will be freely given to them. On the other hand, those who bully others can only take. They will not be “given” anything. Meekness is not weakness, but humility and faith in God especially during trails.
“Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” becomes “Miserable are those who hunger and thirst for evil things.” People can try to fill themselves up with all sorts of “stuff” – food, drugs, alcohol, money, fame – but in the end these leave the person even more empty. A fulfilled life does not get filled from the outside, but has a fullness that comes from the inside.
“Happy are the merciful” becomes “Miserable are the merciless.” People who bear grudges, who refuse to forgive, and who take revenge, are prisoners of their own hate. It eventually poisons all their relationships. The merciful imitate God by forgiving their neighbor and seeking to remedy injustices in the world.
“Happy are the pure in heart” becomes “Miserable are those who take things for granted.” Purity of heart is often interpreted to mean sexual purity, and it does mean that; but, in a broader sense, it means the ability to focus on what is really important in the present moment. One who is pure in heart exercises proper understanding, the gift of insight into what truly matters.
“Happy the peacemakers” becomes “Miserable are who create bitterness and division.” There are people in this world who have a deep need to feel offended, or to offend others. Peacemakers get to be a part of the grand family of the “children of God.” Those who foster bitterness and division, on the other hand, end up alone and lonely. The peacemaker is able to see the world as God sees it, and this brings personal peace.
“Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” becomes “Miserable are those who have no courage.” It isn’t always easy to stand up for what is right – yes, we can wind up persecuted. But who will ever trust us with what is truly important if we do not have the inner strength to hold on to it in the first place?
Everyone wants to be happy, and what we should learn from the Beatitudes is that God also wants us to be happy. He created us to be happy. But the happiness He offers us is not mere human contentment. It is a happiness that stems from the realization that proper order is being restored to our lives.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus taught the Beatitudes while on a mountain. This is not an accident, and is meant to evoke the image of Moses, who descended from Mount Sinai holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were given to help the people understand what they must do to restore their life-fulfilling relationship with God, a relationship that had been lost due to the sin of Adam and Eve. The Beatitudes are often considered to be the completion of the Law of God. The Ten Commandments tell us what we are to do and what we are not to do in order that our relationship with God might be restored. The Beatitudes tell us why!
The happiness that the Beatitudes promise is the happiness that was experienced by Adam and Eve before their sin. The Book of Genesis tells us that they walked with God each day and that they lived in perfect harmony with one another and the world around them. Their happiness stemmed from an awareness of their perfect relationship with God, with one another, and with the world in which they lived. All of this was shattered because of sin.
The Beatitudes tell us that true happiness is once again possible, not only in the life hereafter, but here and now. It is not as the world understands happiness; but then sin turned the world upside down, and the whole purpose of Jesus coming into the world was to set things right again. Thus, He proclaims in the Gospel of John, “all of this I tell you that my joy may be yours and your joy be complete.” (Jn. 15:11) Complete joy, complete happiness! Who doesn’t want that?! This is what Jesus promises us; and by beginning His ministry with the Beatitudes, He tells us that He will show us how to get there.
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