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4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Poor in spirit

We have to apply some practical sense in reflecting on the readings of this weekend, especially, the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes. The important message is this, why would someone think he is powerful? What really makes someone great? I’ll like to share this story: Not long ago, one of my friends lost a brother, who for his entire life was on the autism spectrum. This guy was born into a family of elites: professors, doctors, engineers, just an accomplished family in different high professional careers. Somehow, this brother was ontologically different. However, he became the center of the family’s attention and care. They loved him so much because he was exceptionally attractive. He didn’t work, didn’t go to school, and didn’t do the things that the other siblings did to make them “great,” but he was simply beautiful and admirable. When he died, the entire family was thrown into mourning. My friend was so heartbroken and described the brother as the most gentle and happy person ever. As she narrated her loss to me, the passage of the beatitude struck me and I said to her, “I feel like your brother is the type of person that Jesus was referring to when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” Her eyes lit up and she said to me, “Fr. Vincent, this explains everything I’ve known of my brother. I never thought of that.”

Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians in the second reading of today: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and the despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are stumbling so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29). This is crucial, “so that no human being might boast before God.” Saint Paul started by condemning what he identified as “worldly standard.”

The mistake we make is to keep success within the level of achievement whereby the measure becomes human and intellectual acquisition. For the world, those who do not ascend the ladder of educational, political, or social development are underachievers. But we might ask here, “Who are the foolish of the world? Who are the weak of the world? Who are the lowly of the world, the despised? Who are those who count for nothing? Maybe understanding the Greco-Roman background will cast some light on what Jesus was addressing in the beatitudes.

Catherine Slater wrote an article on The Langdon Down Museum of Learning Disability and the Langdon Down Centre titled “Idiots, Imbeciles, and Intellectual Impairment.” The author pointed out the practice within the ancient Jewish society, “People with disabilities, whether physical or learning disabilities were treated in different ways according to where they lived. The Bible in Leviticus described how people with any disability were forbidden to become priests or enter the sanctuary, “And the Lord said to Moses, none of your descendants throughout their generations who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or an injured foot, or an injured hand or a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man with itching disease…” Slater traced the Greek similarity whereby philosophers presented disability as a punishment, “Aristotle supported a law to ensure the compulsory exposure of all malformed babies who were abandoned with their ankles pinned together. The birth of a child with a learning disability was interpreted by the Greeks as a punishment inflicted on its parents by the gods.” Some cultures adopt this mentality to date. Families within such cultures would be ashamed of a child with disabilities and would treat such a child as inferior and unworthy of receiving equal attention as healthy children. Obviously, individuals with intellectual disabilities are naturally unable to speak for themselves. Most times, they just smile and smile, irrespective of what happens around them. By society’s standards, they are weak, lowly, sometimes and in some cultures, considered foolish and counting for nothing. In them, we see a different application of human dignity.

Why would Jesus use the poor in spirit as the standard for blessedness? Why wouldn’t Jesus say in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the most educated, most learned, and most intelligent?” Why wouldn’t he describe as blessed those who have acquired honors and degrees through human learning, education, psychology, politics, poetry, philosophy, and the human sciences? The answer is that blessedness derives from service, humility, and meekness. Remember, Jesus once lashed out at the learned this way, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Matt. 11:25). Crises in the world arise from pride which in most cases are as a result of the sense of status symbol syndrome. Attachment to greatness, the quest for power, fame, and self-exaltation give birth to pride whereas the weak are comfortable with what God has made them to be.

This weekend, the church invites us to realize the ultimate value of our lives: to boast about righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, to make our boast in the Lord. No wonder Jesus begins the teaching on blessedness with, “the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus stayed on that track throughout the entire teaching. Being poor in spirit encapsulates everything. The poor in spirit will always be meek, not grasping. The poor in spirit will hunger for righteousness, not for mundane things. The poor in spirit will show mercy, not hold grudges. The poor in spirit will be clean of heart, and not entertain sinful thoughts. The poor in spirit will be peacemakers, not authority seekers. The poor in spirit will experience persecution for their righteousness. The poor in spirit are willing to be insulted by those who feel they count as nothing. The poor in spirit will hear every kind of evil utterance against them. Yet, they rejoice for being who they are. The poor in spirit are true witnesses to the life of Christ, sometimes even appearing intellectually disabled according to worldly standards. The beatitude is a whole package that teaches us to rejoice and be glad for being Christians. Jesus is the teacher, just imitate him.

What is it like in your family, relationships, or workplaces when you appear poor in spirit; when you detach from what ordinarily is considered so important to others? A tough ask, for sure, but that’s the way to go. Let’s try being poor in spirit.

Readings: 1st- Zeph. 2:3; 3:12-13; 2nd- 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Gospel- Matt. 5:1-12

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