The Way of the Kingdom
(Readings: Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12.)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel passage this Sunday Jesus lays out the attitudes and values and the way of life which make up the vision of God's Kingdom. Those who are poor in spirit, and who try to cultivate the other qualities that Christ talks about, receive God's blessing.
The other readings reinforce Christ's message: God can only work with people who are humble and lowly, whereas people full of arrogance and self-importance only drive God away.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate Mass we think of the occasions when we have been reluctant to embrace this poverty of spirit and we ask God for his forgiveness.
In the gospel reading at Mass last Sunday Jesus appealed to people to turn back to God to repent and to place their lives wholeheartedly under God's rule. This Sunday the readings, taken together, show us the attitudes, the values and the way of life which we take on when we respond to that appeal. They tell us what 'the Kingdom of God' consists of.
I mentioned last week that Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom echoed both the style and the content of the preaching carried out by the Old Testament prophets. The first reading this Sunday, from the prophet Zephaniah, shows again how rooted Jesus was in the prophetic tradition.
As we just heard, Zephaniah voices God's preference for people he calls 'the humble of the earth'. He expresses God's desire that the people who want to follow his way should be ' a humble and lowly people'.
This is one of the themes of the Bible which has been highlighted in recent times especially by Catholic theologians from the poor countries of the world: when God looks at society as a whole, and the way the world is run, he notices the injustices and inequalities that exist, and he discriminates in favour of the 'the humble of the earth' and condemns those who are powerful and arrogant. The appeals and warnings of the prophets apply to the condition of our world today and not only to the kingdoms of Old Testament times.
Having said that we need to recognise that when the prophets talked about the people who were poor and lowly they meant something wider than material poverty. What they had in mind was the mentality that goes along with the experience of hardship and powerlessness: the conviction of weakness and inferiority that goes along with the experience of failure and an inability to improve one's circumstances to any great extent. For the prophets the 'poor and humble' were those who were only too aware of their insignificance, those who then turned to God as their only source of help and salvation.
The attitude of the lowly was contrasted in the preaching of the prophets with the typical mentality of those who were rich, powerful and successful. They were warned in very fierce language, usually, that their arrogant attitudes - and their justifications of other people's poverty and suffering - had driven them far from God, and would only earn them God's condemnation.
So these are the ideas that formed the background to Jesus' own proclamation of the Kingdom. If you want to belong to God's Kingdom, if you want to come under God's blessing, Jesus says, then you have to adopt this humble and lowly attitude - or, as he calls it, 'poverty of spirit': 'Blessed are those who are poor in spirit the Kingdom belongs to them'.
But what did Jesus mean when he talked about God's Kingdom belonging to those who are poor in spirit, those who are gentle, those who hunger and thirst for what is right; when he told people that they were happy, or blessed, when they were being abused or persecuted?
Fundamentally, for Jesus, the person who starts to put his or her life under God's rule starts to confront basic motives and instincts that lie deep in our human nature. Because of the way our character is damaged by the effects of sin all our attitudes are infected by the motive of self-interest, and in all sorts of ways we tend to assert our own selfish interests in opposition to the welfare of other people.
That comes out in our disordered attitude to material possessions and money and wealth, where the motive of greed and possessiveness easily takes hold of us.
It comes out in the pleasure we get from exercising power over other people, maybe in very blatant ways through outright force or domination; maybe in subtle ways, in the way we often try to control or manipulate people and situations to make them conform to our own wishes.
It comes out in the way we enjoy a sense of superiority the feeling of being important, being 'above' others in some way. It's difficult to explain the cult of celebrity generated by the modern mass media without referring to the way that human beings enjoy adulation and being looked-up to.
And it comes out in a negative way very often in the violence and the aggression which people give vent to when they are frustrated or obstructed in getting what they want. The more someone's life is directed by a radical self-seeking, the more he'll see other people either as means to getting what he wants, to be used accordingly, or as obstacles to be got out of the way.
Jesus was well aware of the weaknesses of human nature and the way that we constantly look for happiness in the wrong places or from the wrong things, and so he described God's Kingdom as a contradiction or a reversal of the attitudes which most people assume are normal and natural.
'Happy are the poor in spirit, he says, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Under God's rule, all our attachments all the things we cling to or feel dependent on because we believe we need them to be happy gradually become less important and lose their hold on us. We become liberated from that deeply-rooted instinct to possess and control things and to pursue our own advantage. And when we become less tied up with ourselves, and our own wants, we start to open up more to the needs of others.
St. Paul's message, in the second reading, is the same. The situation seems to be that some of the Christians in the community in Corinth were getting lofty ideas of themselves. So Paul attacks their pretentiousness: none of you were clever, or influential, or upper class when you joined the community, he says, so what have you got to boast about now?
God's ideas about who is clever or strong or important are different from our human ideas, Paul says, and God actually prefers those who are 'common and contemptible' in worldly terms, 'those who are nothing' by human standards, because by acknowledging and accepting their smallness and powerlessness they bring themselves closer to God.
Whereas the people who are only too conscious of being powerful and 'high-up' in worldly terms often have a mentality that closes themselves off from God. They see themselves as self-sufficient and self-reliant, so they don't recognize their need for God's help and God's grace.
St. Paul reacted strongly against any tendency of that kind among the members of his Church community, and of course his blunt criticisms are just as valid for us today, if we start to fall into the same temptation.
Those are the lessons I would take from these three readings which highlight the poverty of spirit which God has always favoured, and which Jesus announced again during his preaching as a kind of root principle of the life of the Kingdom.