(Readings of the Holy Mass – Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Jesus was once asked when the Kingdom of God would come, he replied: “The kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.” (cf. Luke 17:21) Today the liturgy provides us with some advice for building the Kingdom of God from within ourselves. The starting point is the virtue of humility.
The Kingdom of God, or as it is phrased in The Gospel According to Matthew, “the Kingdom of heaven,” is something that is both now and later. It already exists but will come to full realization or manifestation at the end of time. In other words, it is all encompassing. All of Jesus’ teachings are related to the Kingdom in one way or another.
In today’s gospel passage, this teaching is contained in the familiar list of the Beatitudes. In the Beatitudes, the “now” and “then” are collapsed into the “eternal” and sometimes that “eternal” is experienced in the “now.”
The first Beatitude provides the basis for the others. It is fundamental and seen as the foundation for those that follow. Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
One might ask, as many have done since Jesus spoke these words: “Who are the poor in Spirit? Are they the people who live in poverty? What does Jesus mean by “in Spirit?”
Jesus is referring to people who recognize their needs in life. The poor of the world recognize their need for food, clothing, shelter, education and so on.
In this particular case, though, Jesus is not speaking of poverty from a worldly or temporal context – he does do this elsewhere. He speaks of the “poor in spirit.” This expression points to the person’s recognition of their need for God. The person who is “poor in spirit” is humble. They depend on God. They recognize that He is the center of their lives and not themselves. They seek His love, help, mercy, healing, consolation, strength and courage. They recognize that all good things come from God who is love. All this points to an understanding of life as being in a relationship with God.
Jesus speaks of this at other times in the Gospel. One example is when he urges his disciples to be childlike. There is a passage in Mark where people are bringing their children to Jesus so he might touch them. His disciples rebuked these people which caused Jesus in turn to rebuke them. He told the disciples: “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
He continues with an instruction on discipleship: “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of god like a child will not enter it.” (Mark 10:13-16) Perhaps Matthew’s version makes it the connection even more explicit. In this encounter the disciples ask Jesus a question: “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responds by first placing a child in the center of the group. Then he says: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (cf. Matthew 18:1-5)
A child – and here we are talking of a very young child – is dependent on his parents for everything. They trust them. They rely on them. They learn from them. The live in their love. Such are the characteristics that those who are humble before God. These are the traits that describe the relationship between the “poor in spirit” and the God who created them in love.
The prophet Zephaniah also speaks of humility in the first reading for today’s liturgy. In the passage, justice and humility are related to observing the law of the Lord. He begins with “seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth.”
The opening words point to an ongoing aspect to humility. Zephaniah is speaking to those who are humble and urging them to find God. It is not as if they have not already found him, rather they are being urged to go further into the relationship. This relationship, as in other relationships we have in life, can be developed and grow with time and personal investment in the relationship.
Think of couples who cultivate their relationships in marriage. The friendship that draws them together before their marriage continues to grow and develop after they are married – if they invest themselves in it and each other. Such it is with cultivating humility and our relationship with God.
Zephaniah also speaks of a “remnant,” a small group, who will survive a future calamity. These are the people who “take refuge in the name of the Lord.” Humility helps people get through the trials, tribulations and tragedies of life. The humble person recognizes God’s faithfulness. His faithfulness is perfect, complete. He is always there for us and always with us. Humility cultivates this awareness in ourselves and that awareness helps us face the challenges of life with courage.
This aspect perhaps gives an insight into Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The “present reality” is that the person is in grief. The comfort for the humble is not just a future experience – such as in the resurrection or even faith in a future reunion with the one being mourned – but for those who cultivate humility, in the “present” – for God is with them in this challenge of life and is their “comfort,” now. He is the one who can and does provide consolation and hope which bring comfort to the sorrowful.
Saint Paul in the passage from First Corinthians highlights humility as a virtue of the Christian – without even using the word. He does this through a contrast between the Corinthian Christians and the powerful of the day. The Christians are those who are humble. They have faith in Christ Jesus and it is he who is their “boast.” The powerful of the world, whose faith is in this world, are those who look down on the Christians and relish in human wisdom (vs. the Wisdom of God). The Christians are deemed by them to be weak, to be foolish, to be lowly and despised, who “count for nothing” by the world’s standards. Yet these are the one’s who “God chooses.” They are his choice. They are his chosen ones so that “no human being might boast before God.” Saint Paul here is writing to the Christians, his message is to them and not to the leaders of the world. In this context, he is encouraging them to remain humble and to cultivate humility in their lives.
We are reminded today of that humility is one of the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God. We are encouraged to be humble before the Lord. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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