Once there was a very wealthy, self-important man who wanted his only son, a boy of nine, to realize just how fortunate he was, and how he should be grateful that he and his upper-class parents weren’t like everyone else. Instead of giving him this message of self-congratulations directly, the man decided to demonstrate his point by taking his son on a weekend visit to see some of their poor relatives who lived on a farm. On Sunday afternoon, on their way back home, the father asked, “So, my boy, what did you learn from our little trip out to the country?” His son’s answer wasn’t quite what he expected, for the boy said, “Well, Father, I learned that while we have only one dog at our house, they have four. At home I’m all alone in my room, with no one to play with, but my cousins get to share a room, and they always have each other. I saw that while we have servants to do everything for us, our relatives take pleasure and satisfaction in being able to do things for themselves. Also, we have those fancy imported lamps in our garden for light in the nighttime, but they have the stars! And while our garden only goes to the edge of our neighbor’s fence, they have the whole sky as their backyard!” Then, to the father’s surprise and dismay, the boy concluded, “So thank you, Father, for showing me how poor we really are” (William J. Bausch, 60 More Seasonal Homilies, p. 236).
In a way the father never intended, his son gained a new perspective on life. God stole the father’s illusions, but not the boy’s—he was still too innocent to have any. Most of us as adults like to have our comfortable lies and delusions, but the Lord calls us to surrender these things and instead embrace His truth. Following Jesus means letting Him turn our values upside down, for only in this way can we be ready for life in Heaven.
Even a casual glance at the readings for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time shows their message is counter-cultural and quite contrary to society’s beliefs and values. The lowly and the marginalized would find these Scriptural passages very consoling and full of hope, but to whatever degree we’re caught up in this world, we’ll find these words challenging, convicting, and even disturbing. The prophet Zephaniah (2:3; 3:12-13) speaks of the necessity of being humble and St. Paul (1 Cor 1:26-31) asserts that “God chose the foolish of this world to shame the wise . . . the weak of the world to shame the strong, and . . . the lowly and despised of the world . . . to reduce to nothing those who are something. . . .” People who are fortunate in a worldly sense don’t like being told they’re not really well-off in God’s eyes. In the Gospel of Matthew (5:1-12), Jesus describes an entirely different set of values from those of the world. The wealthy are not truly blessed, but only those are poor in spirit. God identifies not with powerful and assertive people, but with those who are meek; His blessings will be given not to self-righteous persons, but to those who are merciful, clean of heart, and persecuted for the sake of His Name. Truly living by Christ’s teachings changes everything—for if we really take today’s Gospel to heart, it will forever alter our perspective on what really matters in life.
If we were to ask Jesus, “Lord, what must we do in order to be ready for life in Your Kingdom?,” He would probably answer us, “Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourselves, and live the Beatitudes—for living them will make them real to you, and will change your life.” A missionary priest in Korea had been instructing a group of new Catholics on the Beatitudes, and the following week he discovered that one of the young men had learned them perfectly by heart. He asked the convert how he had managed to memorize them so quickly, and the young man explained, “Well, Father, you told me to learn with my heart as well as with my memory, so I thought of a way. Each day I would choose one of the Beatitudes, and then practice it on some of my neighbors. I found that doing this made the verse stick in my memory, and that I couldn’t forget it after I had put it into practice” (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 1, #163).
There’s nothing to keep us from doing the same thing—taking one Beatitude a day and looking for opportunities to live it out. If we tried for one day to be poor in spirit, thinking about and appreciating all the non-material blessings we have that we wouldn’t trade for any amount of money, we’ll gain a deeper perspective on what really matters in life, and feel profoundly grateful for all the ways God has blessed us. If, for one day, we made hungering and thirsting for righteousness our highest priority, we would discover that, through God’s grace, we were capable of making great spiritual progress, while experiencing our faith in a new and richer and life-giving way. If, on a day of our choosing, we went out of our way to be merciful and compassionate and accepting of others, we would be blessed in our interactions with everyone, making others and ourselves happier, while also feeling a deep inner peace. If we made an extra effort for just one day to be a peacemaker, getting along with difficult or annoying people and showing kindness to persons we dislike, we would find great satisfaction in knowing our efforts were truly pleasing to our Heavenly Father. If, for one day, we decided to accept every insult, snub, and form of mistreatment or injustice with a joyful spirit, we would be richly blessed by Jesus for choosing to endure little persecutions in His Name and for freely uniting our sufferings with His.
The Beatitudes are not only at the heart of Our Lord’s teaching; they’re also the secret to true happiness in this life, and the means of preparing ourselves for the life to come. They make no sense to worldly people—but when we look at all the unhappiness, stress, anger, broken relationships, moral confusion, spiritual emptiness, and ruined lives in our society, do we really want to live by this world’s values? Jesus has shown us a better way, a way of blessing and grace and peace. Let us pray that we, and all others who claim to be His disciples, will be wise enough and humble enough to follow it.