Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.
Three years ago, I was in the market for a new car. The suspension on the car I was driving at the time was completely shot, and it was going to cost more money than the car was worth to repair it. It was becoming dangerous to drive the car, especially in the snow, but it still took me a long time to make a decision. I’m not an impulse buyer, and I spend a lot of time researching a product and reading reviews before deciding to buy or not, especially if it’s expensive. Another reason for my delay was my fear of going to a car dealership. I had never done that on my own, and I was afraid of being sold something that I didn’t really want.
In the end, I went to a local dealership and got the car I wanted. But I did end up paying for a number of extra things which I haven’t used over the past three years, and probably never will. The most ridiculous thing I was convinced to buy was a special sticker for my rearview mirror. I was told that if potential thieves see this sticker, they will not break into your car. This cheap, plastic sticker, which cost $200, is now peeling off my mirror. And only six months after buying my car, it was broken into. The thief was clearly not deterred by the presence of the sticker. As you can tell, I’m not bitter about that at all…I’ve completely gotten over it…
I think a lot of us are afraid of being scammed, or being sold something that doesn’t live up to our expectations. That’s true in a literal sense, but also in a figurative sense. We can be afraid at times that people aren’t being honest about who they are; we can see that they’re trying to earn our trust, but we wonder if they deserve our trust. Maybe they’re just trying to “sell” themselves to us in the moment so that they can later use us to their advantage. And maybe, once they no longer have need of us, they’ll betray us or cast us aside. Many of us can point to a friendship or a business relationship where we have experienced this kind of thing. We know, only too well, that people can scam us in a whole variety of ways, even if they are not literally trying to sell something to us.
We can also feel this way sometimes when it comes to our relationship with God. It’s often the case, after someone begins growing in the spiritual life in new way, that for a while they will experience a great deal of joy and spiritual delight. They begin to pray more, and they find that they are more at peace; they become involved in a new ministry, and they find that they are more excited and energized about their faith. But then there comes a time when the feelings of joy, peace, and excitement begin to diminish, and even go away entirely. Suddenly praying becomes an arduous task; suddenly the ministry, which once was a source of new energy, becomes a source of exhaustion and frustration.
As it turns out, this kind of experience is common and very normal. It’s an experience that is meant to purify and strengthen us. And if we persevere through it, we will grow in love, as we learn to do God’s will not because of the joy, peace, and excitement that doing God’s will brings, but because we love God and desire to please Him. But when we first experience this, and don’t realize that it is common and very normal, our first reaction is often to think that we’ve been scammed by God. “You give me joy, peace, and excitement, God, but then you leave me high and dry.” “You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped.” The famous words of the prophet Jeremiah are often our own in those moments.
If we hadn’t heard the Beatitudes so many times before, we might also be afraid that we were being duped or scammed by Jesus when we hear these words. Jesus promises that we will experience beatitude—that is, a kind of supernatural happiness—when we practice such virtues as humility, meekness, and purity of heart. Jesus also promises this supernatural happiness to those who mourn and who are insulted and persecuted for their faith in Him. And He doesn’t just say that we will experience this beatitude in heaven, but we will experience it even now, here on earth, even if in a partial and incomplete way. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus says, rejoice and be glad now, even as you are mourning, even as you are being persecuted.
If we’ve never experienced this supernatural happiness ourselves, or seen it at work in the life of another Christian, we might think, if we are being honest with ourselves, that what Jesus is saying is too good to be true. We might think that the Beatitudes are a scam, that Jesus is selling something that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. “These are nice thoughts,” we might say to ourselves, “but at the end of the day they are not a roadmap to true happiness. Happiness is not found by being poor in spirit—that is, by being humble and obedient to God’s will—but by putting myself above others and living by my own rules. Happiness is not found by meekness or purity of heart, but by indulging my desires for anger and envy, lust and gluttony. Happiness is not found by risking insults or persecution for practicing my faith openly, but by going along with what everyone else is saying and doing.” We often think this way, we often act this way, and yet we are unhappy.
So maybe Jesus isn’t scamming us. Maybe the Beatitudes aren’t too good to be true. Maybe it’s because they are so good that they are in fact true. So why not give them a try? My challenge to all of us this week is to pick one of the eight Beatitudes, and try to learn what it really means. And, then, try to put it into practice.
What does it mean to be meek, for example? Meekness, St. Thomas Aquinas says, is the virtue which moderates our use of anger. We increasingly live in a culture of outrage, where every expression of anger is tolerated and even celebrated. Anger is not always bad, but it has to be kept within reasonable limits—limits defined by what is true and good. This is what it means to practice meekness. It doesn’t mean being a doormat, but it does mean not exploding at every person who disagrees with us or who causes us inconvenience.
Instead of snapping at someone this week, instead of sending an angry text or email, instead of spending every moment of free time brooding over someone who has hurt you, try meekness. And, quite possibly, you will experience the beatitude, the supernatural happiness, which Christ promises to those who are meek.
Jesus isn’t a used car salesman; He’s not trying to sell us a lemon. The Beatitudes are a roadmap to true happiness, both in this life and in the life to come. Let’s learn more about this roadmap and try to follow it more closely this week. Amen.