Homily: Blessed Are the Rich!

The surprise — and the challenge — of the “Magna Carta of Christianity”

Not just a meme: The Sermon on the Mount (Carl Heinrich Bloch, ca. 1855)
Not just a meme: The Sermon on the Mount (Carl Heinrich Bloch, ca. 1855) (photo: Screenshot)

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Blessed are the rich, the powerful, the important! For the world will dance to their tune.
Blessed are the strong, the aggressive, the ruthless! For their enemies will fear them.
Blessed are the arrogant, the winners, the conquerors! For they will be admired, celebrated and talked about.
But woe to you who are poor, for the world doesn’t owe you a thing.
Woe to you who are meek, for your enemies will walk all over you.
Woe to you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for that’s unrealistic and nobody cares.

Do these words sound shocking? They shouldn’t.

Oh, it may be a startling to hear them in church, in a homily, but in principle these attitudes — these beatitudes, or anti-beatitudes — describe the world we live in as it appears, not only to the rich and powerful, the strong and arrogant, but also to many of our friends and family, neighbors and coworkers, maybe even some of us.

You see, the really shocking words, if only we could hear them, as if for the first time, are Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel.

The Beatitudes — as these amazing “Blessed are…” sayings of Jesus are called — are the beginning and foundation of the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most famous and important passages in the Bible. We’ll be reading from the Sermon on the Mount every Sunday from now until Lent begins on March 1.

Pope St. John Paul II called the Beatitudes “the Magna Carta of Christianity” — that is, the essential blueprint or road map of the Christian ideal, the Christian vision for a way of life. At a homily given in John Paul II’s honor, Cardinal José Saraiva Martins used the same phrase — “the Magna Carta of Christianity” — to describe the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, and went on to quote an author who said, “Those who have never read the Sermon on the Mount cannot grasp what Christianity is all about.”

By the way, we won’t get to the whole Sermon on the Mount between now and Lent, so if you want to go home and read the whole thing it’s in Matthew 5–7. Even if you read slowly, you can read the whole thing in under a half hour.

Moses went up Mount Sinai to bring the Jewish people the Law, the Torah, with the Ten Commandments summing up the moral requirements of the Law. Now Jesus, the new Moses, goes up another mountain and gives a new law: the law of Christ, the law of the Spirit — not to replace the Law of Moses, but to give it its true and final interpretation.

The Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments are both necessary, but the Sermon on the Mount is surprising in ways the Ten Commandments aren’t. The principles of the Ten Commandments are found in religious and cultural traditions all over the world. When Moses brought the people the Ten Commandments, nobody was surprised by “Honor your father and your mother”; “You shall not kill”; “You shall not commit adultery”; “You shall not steal”; “You shall not bear false witness.” People already knew those things through the faculty of conscience. The moral law isn’t something surprising that we read in a book and go, “Oh, really? Huh. How about that.”

The Sermon on the Mount is different. At the end Matthew tells us that the people were astonished at Jesus’ teaching and the authority with which he proclaimed it. Three Sundays from now we’re going to hear the Gospel in which Jesus tells us to love our enemies. No religious tradition before Jesus ever said that. Even to Jesus’ devoutly Jewish disciples, that was shocking. It’s still shocking today.

The Sermon on the Mount does not tell us what we know already. But it can be hard to hear it. Why is that?

We’re all shaped and conditioned, in ways we don’t even recognize, by the culture around us, like a tree with roots planted in particular soil, or a fish swimming in particular waters.

If a fish has lived all its life in polluted waters, every part of that fish — its flesh, its fins and tail — is affected by those pollutants. The fish wouldn’t even be aware of them in the water, because it’s never known anything else.

Now, imagine a fish in a polluted river swimming past where a pure stream is spilling into the river, and swimming right through that pure water. It doesn’t know what hit it. But then that pure water is quickly dissipated in the polluted waters around it, and the fish keeps swimming, never realizing that it could have turned upstream toward the source of that pure water and escaped the polluted river.

It’s easy for all of us to be that fish, swimming in the waters of our polluted culture. The pure water of the Sermon the Mount washes over us, but it can dissipate and have no effect if we haven’t learned to recognize the pollutants in the waters around us, in the culture in which we swim — like those anti-beatitudes I started with; “Blessed are the rich,” and so on.

The Sermon on the Mount is founded on the Beatitudes. The Catechism says, “The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.”

The word “beatitude” means “blessedness” in a double sense: both enjoying God’s favor and enjoying true or supreme happiness. These two things, God’s favor and true happiness, are inseparably what it means to be blessed.

We all want to be happy — and we were created for happiness. God gave us the desire for happiness, which is meant to lead us to him. And the way to that supreme happiness, that beatitude, of union with God is life in Christ.

What does life in Christ look like? Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, starting with the Beatitudes, which are actually a kind of self-portrait by Jesus. As Pope Benedict XVI said:

He is, in fact, the true poor in spirit, the one afflicted, the meek one, the one hungering and thirsting for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker. He is the one persecuted for the sake of justice.

The Beatitudes are not just pious sentiments or timeless truths. They’re profoundly connected to God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament and Jesus’ mission of salvation in the New Testament.

You can see that in our first reading today from Zephaniah, addressed to “all you humble of the earth,” telling them to “seek justice and humility.” The humble are God’s people: not all Israel, but a faithful remnant, “a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of the Lord: the remnant of Israel.” Jesus looks at his disciples — poor Galilean Jews — and sees in them that faithful remnant. Saint Paul in the second reading says the same of the Corinthians: For the most part, God hasn’t chosen the wealthy and the powerful, but the lowly and the despised by the world. This is the spirit to which we are called in the Beatitudes.

Part of the challenge of the Beatitudes is that there is another way — a far more popular way, the way of those anti-beatitudes. This is the way Jesus condemns in the woes that accompany the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel:

Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

This is where I’m expected to explain that there’s nothing wrong with wealth or being full or popular or famous, and certainly nothing wrong with laughing — and all of that is true.

But we need to realize that on these points the values of the world and the values of Jesus are utterly opposed — because in our world wealth, popularity and fame are idols. The Catechism, discussing the Beatitudes, quotes a passage from Blessed John Henry Newman pointing out that even people who aren’t rich or famous themselves and don’t expect to be still show that wealth and fame are idols by their regard for the rich and famous.

You see, even if we aren’t rich, or arrogant, or famous, if we see someone who’s rich and arrogant and famous and we look up to him, celebrate him, regard him as a “winner,” then wealth and fame may be just as much idols to us as they are to him.

That’s why in Luke Jesus says “Blessed are you poor…but woe to you that are rich,” but here in Matthew he says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Because on the one hand, yes, a rich man can be poor in spirit, although it’s not easy; it’s easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than a rich man to be saved, and only God can make it happen. But also just because we’re not rich doesn’t mean we’re poor in spirit, that wealth is not an idol to us.

If we want to understand the way of the Beatitudes, we must look to Christ, but also to the saints, especially those saints who walk the way of smallness and humility — like St. Francis, the “little poor man of Assisi,” whose spiritual biography is called the Fioretti or Little Flowers; and of course the Little Flower herself, Therese of Lisieux, whose spirituality is called the “Little Way,” the little way of spiritual childhood.

This is a way of trust and love: of loving confidence in God’s goodness in all circumstances; of deep awareness of our total dependence on him for all things; of abandonment or surrender of ourselves, our lives, our fortunes, our future, to God’s providence.

If we walk this way, we won’t be swayed by the temptations and appeals in the cultural waters around us — for example, to fear and anxiety. A culture that idolizes wealth and strength is a culture of fear and anxiety. We’ll see more of this later in the Sermon on the Mount. To trust in God is to put aside fear and anxiety. I leave you with the words of St. Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

This text of my homily corrects an error I made preaching it at St. John’s. I confused two sources referring to the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount as the “Magna Carta of Christianity” — one by Pope St. John Paul II, the other a homily given in his honor by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins. While preaching, I ascribed to John Paul II himself the words in his honor from Cardinal Martins. I regret the error. — SDG