In this reading for the 28th/29th January, the beatitudes of Jesus present a radical challenge to commonly accepted ideas, challenging us to rethink our behaviour and beliefs. Fr Adrian Graffy reflects.
1 Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the hill. There he sat down and was joined by his disciples. 2 Then he began to speak. This is what he taught them:
3 ‘How happy are the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage. 5 Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted. 6 Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right: they shall be satisfied. 7 Happy the merciful: they shall have mercy shown them. 8 Happy the pure in heart: they shall see God. 9 Happy the peacemakers: they shall be called sons of God. 10 Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.’
Matthew’s gospel is a gospel of teaching. It celebrates Jesus as the great teacher, who surpasses even Moses. The evangelist sets down five major speeches of Jesus in the course of the gospel, and the first of these is the famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, like Moses, goes up the mountain. He sits down and begins to speak.
The beatitudes, which open the Sermon, are a type of saying already found in the Old Testament and adopted by Jesus. The beatitudes of Jesus present a radical challenge to commonly accepted ideas. Jesus proclaims that the poor are ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, not the rich. It is the gentle, the meek, who will inherit the earth, not those who are violent.
Eight beatitudes describe eight qualities or situations, such as those who mourn, those who show mercy, those who are persecuted. Each of these qualities or situations is described by Jesus as a special channel of God’s favour. Jesus presents what we might call the ‘scandal’ of the gospel, a profound challenge which invites us to reconsider and to change the way we think and the way we behave.
The passage ends with a final beatitude, this time spoken directly to the disciples of Jesus: ‘Happy are you’. How can we possibly consider persecution and abuse to be blessings? If we can unite our own sufferings with those of Christ, we can begin to know God’s presence in an entirely new way. With his very first words of teaching, Jesus calls us to radical change.
Is it absurd to look upon personal suffering as a gift from God?
What should our attitude be to the suffering of others?
We ask for the strength to transform our attitudes and behaviour.
We pray for all those who are persecuted and abused.
Rev Dr Adrian Graffy is a member of the Vatican Commission that takes a lead in Bible scholarship, interpretation and promotion in the Catholic Church.
Rev Dr Graffy said of his five-year appointment by Pope Francis in 2014: “It is an honour to be nominated by Pope Francis as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. I feel humbled and very much look forward to being of service to His Holiness and the Church.”
He added: “A great deal has been achieved in England and Wales in recent years by many co-workers to advance Biblical scholarship and the provision of easy-to-use resources. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them and the Bishops’ Conference Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis for their efforts to promote understanding and love of the Bible, particularly through the publication of the teaching documents, The Gift of Scripture and the study guide to Verbum Domini, The Word of the Lord.”
Rev Dr Graffy received his doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in 1983. He taught for over 20 years in St John’s Seminary in Wonersh, and is Chair of the National Scripture Working Group, which is an instrument of the Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Fr Graffy is a past director of Brentwood’s Commission for Evangelisation and Formation and parish priest of Christ the Eternal High Priest in Gidea Park, Essex. Among his publications are the Gospel of Mark and the Letter to the Romans (Alive Publishing).
Listen to BBC Essex interview with Fr Adrian Graffy