Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rejoice And Be Glad, For Your Reward Will Be Great In Heaven.

In Colossians 7-15, the First Reading for Tuesday of the 23rd Week in Ordinary Time Paul explained to the Christians at Colossae the effects of their baptism. In brief, “By baptism into Christ, you have been buried with him; and by baptism, you have been raised up with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Now, in today’s First Reading, (Colossians 3:1-11) he explains how they should live their new life in Christ: “Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are of this earth.” The “things of earth” is a reference not only to a sinful life, but also to the tendency – the temptation – to focus on earthly things, such as pleasure, profit and power. People who have such goals are seeking to please themselves, not God. But Christians have died to the old life. We should focus on our relationship with Christ, ahead of any other goal.

It is not difficult to misunderstand the meaning of these verses, as some –even teachers – are wont to do. They claim that the world and our earthly life are evil. They urge Christians to avoid deriving pleasure in the things, and joy in the people, of this world. But that is not what Paul means here. Remember that God created this world and all that is in it, and because it is his creation, all of it is good.

Yet, this world and our physical lives are temporary. The world will end when Christ returns. But, long before that, it is likely that our own life in this will come to an end. When someone receives new life in Christ, no one can observe this new life, much less explain it. That is because our life in Christ is not of this world, but of the world to come, not of the flesh, but of the spirit. When Christ returns in his glory, we who been faithful to our commitment to him – and repentant of our failings in fulfilling this commitment, will be invited to enter into his glory, and be revealed in all our glory with him.

As the followers of Christ learn to focus on Christ, we learn to live a holy life. By baptism, we have received sanctifying grace, which is a sharing in divine life, which will be revealed when he comes in his glory to judge the living and the dead. In the meantime, we may have a new nature, but we still have old habits, and the Enemy can uses them to tempt us. Paul gives us a list of the habits we must break in order to live fully in our new life: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which is a form of idolatry (worshiping money instead of God). We are urged to cleanse ourselves of angry, fury, malice, slander and obscene language. We must learn to be truthful in speaking with one another, for we have taken off our old nature, and put on our new nature. This is vivid imagery. It describes how someone talks off old, dirty clothes, and puts on new, clean clothes.

Finally, Paul reminds the Christians of Colossae that God does not play favorites among nations. In this epistle, Paul makes particular mention of Jew and Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised, civilized and barbarian, slave and free. These were the distinctions people often made in Paul’s time, but he insists, with the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, that there are no such distinctions in God’s eyes. There is only one Christ, and Christ died to open the gates of heaven for every person from the first man and woman who ever lived, to the men and women, boys and girls who we be alive in the flesh when He comes in glory. All in all, Christ IS all in all.
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Raising his eyes toward his disciples Jesus said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets
in the same way.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
But woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.”

Luke 6: 20-26

Matthew has eight ‘Beatitudes’, while Luke has four, followed by four ‘Woes’. Here Luke is using a very old style of teaching: an instruction on “the two ways”. This is seen in the Psalms. It is also explicit in the Didache, a very early Christian writing. “There are two ways, one of life, and one of death. Between the two ways there is a great difference….”

There are other differences too between Matthew’s and Luke’s Beatitudes. Luke said (in v. 17), “He came down and stopped at a piece of level ground.” From that point to the end of chapter 6 is therefore called ‘The Sermon on the Plain’, in contrast to Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Mt 5-7). But it is the same sermon, with differences. In Luke’s gospel the mountain is a place of prayer or revelation; it is as if he doesn't want the crowds to go up there, so he brings Jesus down! But there are more significant differences too. Let St Ambrose say it: “’Blessed are the poor.’ Not all the poor are blessed, for poverty is neutral. The poor can be either good or evil…. Matthew fully revealed this when he said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (5:3).”

Of course there is then the danger of spiritualizing poverty as a way of escaping its inconvenience, so Luke’s emphasis is also essential: “Blessed are you who are poor.” Throughout his gospel Luke places an exceptional emphasis on poverty, and his version of the Beatitudes is consistent with this. So we need both versions.

The virtues mentioned in the Beatitudes are not the virtues of superman or Iron John. They are not the virtues of the heroes of sport or entertainment. They are not the virtues of a person saturated with a sense of his or her own importance, but of a person saturated with the consciousness of God. It struck me that they are the best portrait we have of Jesus himself.

Donagh O’Shea, O.P.

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