Gospel reflection for Jan. 28, 2023, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The reputation of Jesus as a preacher grew fairly quickly and the crowds followed him from one town to another. With a significant crowd before him, Jesus delivers his most well-known sermon in what is called the Sermon on the Mount. As we reflect on the Beatitudes we encounter the Lord of promise, one who bestows his blessings not just upon the community but upon each individual in their own situation in life. Hence, these blessings are specific to the characteristics of discipleship and the consequences of living out that discipleship in our daily lives. We discover here a Lord of comfort, consolation, and peace.

While the life of the ordinary Jewish person living in the Promised Land in the first century was not that difficult, they were yet accustomed to hardship and difficulties. Infant mortality rates were still fairly high, with about half of all children born not making it to their teenage years. Life under the Roman hegemony was a bit more tense for those who lived in Jerusalem and Judah proper, but for Jesus and those in the Galilee, things were not quite as harsh. 

Yet, as with us today in the midst of our plenty, there was a longing. This spiritual longing can be seen in the vast crowds who were attracted to the teaching of John the Baptizer. Now, Jesus will see large crowds as well, swelling we can imagine to about nine or ten thousand people at a time.

It is likely true that, as is often the case with traveling preachers, that Jesus delivered similar or even verbatim messages from town to town. Repetition is good for the hearer, and also emphasizes the importance of the message of the preacher. 

Jesus framed his entire message on the Kingdom of Heaven coming to its fulfillment. This reiterates the message of the Baptizer, with whom many of those who came to Jesus were familiar. While Jesus has demonstrated that he is also a miracle worker, something that the Baptizer was not, it takes a while for Jesus to step into his own as a preacher and deliver a message distinct from that of the Baptizer. 

In Matthew’s version of the Gospel, it is this Sermon on the Mount that comes to define Jesus as a preacher, becoming the total summary of all that Jesus teaches during his ministry. 

The Beatitudes, which scholars often see as Jesus re-addressing the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) handed on by Moses, serve as the opening of this sermon.

Jesus sees in front of him a crowd, hungry for a sense of God’s mercy, and that is precisely what Jesus delivers to them.

“Blessed are you when you are poor in spirit … for yours is the kingdom of heaven” What does this mean? Do I intentionally become poor in spirit, or is Jesus lifting up those who are spiritually poor -- wrestling with God, trying to remain faithful in the midst of the struggles of life? 

Jesus first recognizes us in the struggle itself. Each one of us has moments of poverty in spirit, for some this might last for a long time. This sense of longing for God is a poverty as it can seem empty and painful. A desire for a relationship with God and to place one’s total life in his hands is very difficult for those who at the same time experience a sense of emptiness or uncertainty in that very relationship. This poverty of spirit is what St. John of God called a “Dark Night of the Soul.” Every person of faith has this experience. Many people read with interest and shock, perhaps, that Mother (now Saint) Therese of Calcutta wrote of an extensive struggle with God’s absence in her life and mission. Yet, bearing in mind the kingdom of heaven, she never despaired or gave in to the darkness. 

By starting here -- with our common experience of spiritual poverty -- Jesus leads us through the life of virtue and struggle, showing how God walks with us along the way. This is not always an easy walk, but as Jesus addresses the crowds and so with us, we find hope and consolation knowing that we know God’s kingdom, justice, compassion, and mercy as we struggle with our own sinfulness, with poverty of spirit, and our desire for mercy, as we directly confront them and live lives expressing mercy and justice for others, even as we struggle to experience these gifts ourselves.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.