Thursday, January 26, 2017

Blessed Poverty

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today, we get to consider once again the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. This is the standard text that we hear every year on All Saints Day and occasionally at a funeral. Thus, I guess, if you’ve been listening attentively, it has been preached to the point of ad nauseum. Bear with me once again. The Beatitudes have always been something of a puzzle to Christian consciousness. They summon us, on the one hand, to a very high spiritual and ethical achievement, as in Jesus’ words, to a righteousness beyond the scribes and the Pharisees. In other words, it goes far beyond merely keeping the commandments, or trying to gain eternal life. At the same time, they appear to canonise dispositions that hardly seem to warrant being called “happy” or “blessed”: poverty of spirit, meekness, mourning, suffering and persecution.

Understanding the Beatitudes requires us to comprehend the meaning of the term “happy” or in some other translations, “blessed.” Happiness, in an ultimate sense, is certainly a part of being blessed by God, but divine blessing goes far beyond mere happiness. It involves God’s favour, His willingness to come near and dwell among His people. The hope of Israel was that God would shine His face on the people, that there would be close, intimate fellowship between the Creator and His creatures. The New Testament expands on this, revealing that our ultimate hope is the Beatific Vision — face-to-face communion with God and His glory in eternity, which would be heaven.

This begs the further question, who can have favour with God? What of the poor? The biblical attitude to poverty has always been shadowed by ambiguity. Is it something positive or something negative? In early sections of the Old Testament, it is believed that material wealth was a sign of God’s favour whereas the poor were being punished. This was a view often held by many, including Christians, who believe that the poor deserve their lot because they are lazy and idle and are thus receiving just punishment for their ‘crime.’ But in the first reading taken from the Book of Zephaniah, the term ‘poor’ receives a new significance. For Zephaniah, the “poor” is the one who has no security, and for this reason puts his trust wholly in God and submits to His will. Our Lord takes this meaning to another level in the Beatitudes. God does not only pity or favour the poor, He literally “blesses” them; and they are “blessed” and “happy” precisely because of their poverty.

The language of the Beatitudes, in fact, is the language of paradox. In all religious traditions, paradox is the natural language of spiritual wisdom, and our Christian scripture is no exception. It is the lame who enter the Kingdom first, not those with complete use of their legs, the meek who inherit the earth, not the movers and the shakers. The supreme paradox is that the Lord of History, the Creator of the Universe, entered history and human creation as a footnote. He is a King who reigns from the cross, the One who proves to be the greatest by choosing to be the least. 

One could go on for some time in this vein. Paradox is meant to disrupt our ordinary way of looking and understanding. If the ways of God are not our ways, we need to be turned inside out, or upside down, in order to see. So paradox disorients us in order to awaken in us a different way of looking and thinking. Since the Beatitudes are really blessings that proclaim the way of the Lord, such disorientation is required so that we may undergo a profound change in all our attitudes, our value system, to really come to know Jesus, to hear His message, to imitate His way of life and to follow Him. A Christian who truly lives the Beatitudes would be able to find happiness, even in the midst of depravation and suffering and that, will require profound conversion.

Today, we can't take apart all the Beatitudes and reflect upon all of them individually even though each one of them is so important:  Hunger and thirst for justice; be peacemakers- those who go out to reconcile, to draw back and give up violence; be sincere of heart; all of these are of great importance. But today, what is accepted as the foundation for all of them and for the whole value system of Jesus, is found in the very first one. As Matthew puts it, “How happy are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” In Luke's Gospel, it just says, “Happy are the poor,” and so sometimes people think, “Well, Matthew modified that. Poor in spirit - that takes a little bit off the edge.” But it really doesn't!  It simply helps us to realise that when Jesus speaks about the “poor,” He's talking more about an attitude, a disposition of the heart and not simply economic deprivation.

Poverty in spirit is an emptying of our self-reliance. It is a recognition of our need for God, that we are utterly dependent on divine grace and undeserving of His favour. It is repentance for setting ourselves up as “gods” and then resting in the Lord’s promise of salvation. Poverty in spirit means that we understand a profound truth about ourselves - the truth that none of us is responsible for our own existence and our own continuance of existence. Without God and God’s gift of life and sustenance to us, we would not be here. God has loved us into being and His love sustains all of creation as it continues to evolve and develop.

Poverty in spirit, as the Church Fathers would explain, is the virtue of humility. Humility is the realisation that all your gifts and blessings come from the grace of God. Humility brings an openness and an inner peace, allowing one to do the will of God. He who humbles himself is able to accept our frail nature, to repent, and to allow the grace of God to lead us to conversion. On the other hand, when we have so much more wealth than we need, not just material wealth but also in other forms like knowledge and other false securities, we sometimes begin to think that, that wealth gives us power. We can do what we want; we don't need anyone else. We don't need God. Thus the opposite of poverty is not wealth but arrogance.

In the fallen world, poverty of spirit may seem to be a hindrance to success and advancement. Often this is an illusion. So many are stuck in the vicious cycle of self-promotion and inflated self-appraisal. What is the spiritual blessing that comes with living out this first Beatitude or any of the Beatitudes? If we are poor in spirit, if we are meek, if we are suffering persecution, then only are we able to bring an honest appraisal of ourselves. We don’t have to inflate our resume or boast about our achievements on social media. At the same time, we begin to acknowledge our spiritual bankruptcy before God, that without Him at work within us, we can never realise the call of the Lord to the perfection of holiness. In its deepest form, it acknowledges our desperate need for God. Once you’ve grasped the first point of the Beatitudes, understanding the rest would not be a problem. Much of the rest of the sermon rips away from us the self-delusion that we are capable of acquiring a state of happiness on our own.

So sometimes we have to find the way to make ourselves aware of our need for God in that most profound way. Not just the need for God to provide us with everyday needs, but our need for God to provide our very existence and to sustain us. When we become aware of that, our whole approach to God changes. Thus, to sum it all up, let us heed the wise advice of St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, “The human race has nothing to boast about to God, but you, God has made members of Christ Jesus and by God’s doing He has become our wisdom, and our virtue, and our holiness, and our freedom. As scripture says, if anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord.”

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