The focal point of today’s readings, to which we will return again and again as we ponder the readings for this week, is Jesus’ proclamation of the Beatitudes. This beautiful teaching summarizes in a clear and profound way so much of what God revealed throughout the whole Old Testament about himself and about how to follow him.
We can recognize this pattern in today’s reading from the prophet Zephaniah. The Lord has just finished telling the people that they will suffer devastation because they have turned away from him to follow foreign gods and have become proud and complacent. Yet he promises to save the humble and the lowly. We can say that the Lord’s message through Zephaniah is like the Beatitudes: Woe to you who sit in your pride and ignore my ways, for you shall be destroyed. Blessed are you who are humble and lowly and seek my ways, for you shall be saved from destruction.
We see the same kind of message in the Psalm. Woe to you who are wicked, for your way will be thwarted. But blessed are you who are oppressed, hungry, in captivity, blind, bowed down, fatherless or widowed, for you will be set free, fed, given sight, raised up, protected and sustained.
Jesus sums up all these passages, teaching his followers that the world is completely wrong and upside down regarding who is successful and deserves rewards. Contrary to the values of the world, it is the lowly, the poor in spirit, the humble, the meek, those who mourn, those who are insulted and persecuted for the sake of righteousness – they are the ones who are blessed. Jesus proclaims that these should “rejoice and be glad,” because their “reward will be great in Heaven.”
How can we understand this teaching of Jesus, which is so contradictory to the natural tendencies of our fallen human nature? We can begin by reflecting on two truths. First of all, that everything we are and possess comes from God purely as his gift. And secondly, that we cannot properly receive a gift if our hands are already full.
We would not even be alive at all if God had not willed us to be, and if he did not continue to hold us in being in each moment. All our talents and abilities are his gifts to us. The love and support of our family and friends comes ultimately from him. Everything we possess finally is a gift from God. Of course, we have cooperated in many ways in using our talents and abilities to build a life for ourselves, but this does not change the fact that everything we are and have begins with God and depends on him. Even our faith in him and our ability to thank and praise him is itself his gift to us. St. Paul points this out in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “It is due to [God] that you are in Christ Jesus.”
This should in no way make us feel bad, for this is simply the way of love – to give gifts. Even within the Trinity the Three Persons are continually giving themselves to each other as gift. And how else could we possibly relate to God, except to receive his gifts with great gratitude? Could we ever earn something from him? Could we ever say that he owes us anything? Absurd! And could we ever acquire anything in some way which was not ultimately a gift from God? Equally absurd. Always and for all eternity, everything we have and are we will have received from God as a gift of his love for us.
Although God has already given us so many wonderful gifts, he is far from finished! He wants to continue to pour out his Spirit upon us, to purify us and transform us into the very likeness of Christ, and unite us to himself for all time. For this to happen, though, we need to be ready to receive his gifts with open hands and hearts. If our hands and hearts are already full of lesser gifts, the things of this world, then we risk refusing the greater gifts that God offers us. This is why Jesus calls blessed the poor in spirit and the humble, because their hands are empty as they wait to receive what God has for them.
God has great gifts for everyone, and it is not his will that anyone fail to receive them. That is why he does all that he can to teach us not to cling to our empty pride and worldly glory. As Paul says, God uses the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, and the lowly and despised ones to shame the great ones. He wants those who hold fast to their worldly wisdom, strength, and greatness to let go of these things and open their hands, so that he can fill them with far greater gifts.
We can see, then, why the lowly ones will have a great reward in Heaven. Not because God loves them any more than he loves the proud. He wants everyone to have a great reward of eternal life with him, and he offers this as his gift, but only the lowly ones are prepared to receive it. Eternal life with God cannot be earned or won, and those who refuse to accept it as gift can never receive it.
Let us, then, strive to take on the attitude of the one who most perfectly lived the Beatitudes, our Mother Mary, and say often with her, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness…. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 2:46 49).
How am I responding to the many gifts that God has given me? What are the things of the world that fill my heart, preventing me from receiving the fullness of God’s gifts? When do I find it difficult to live out the spirit of the Beatitudes in my life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.