Focus on God, not on yourself

  • January 25, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A) Feb. 3 (Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13; Psalm 146; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12)

In the animal world there are many ways to impress and intimidate others: colourful plumage, the ability to inflate one’s appearance, displays of ferocity and various forms of body language. Human beings have their own ways of dominating and oppressing others: possessions, titles and marks of respect, fancy dress and ways of life, as well as power and aggressive competitiveness. The “bad” news is that God is definitely not impressed with any of this.

Zephaniah proposes another form of living that we might call the lifestyles of the humble and lowly rather than the rich and famous.  This has nothing to do with false humility, submissiveness or self-denigration. These are the folks who do not give God mere lip service, but whose lives are characterized by one quest: to live a godly life and be pleasing in God’s eyes. They do not govern their lives by the usual benchmarks, but by how well they are walking God’s path. They seek righteousness not only for themselves but for all of society. Avoiding all forms of deceit and dishonesty, as well as competition and greed, they are content to live quiet but upright lives. They are not motivated by fear for their trust is totally in God and they have surrendered themselves completely to God’s will. They stand out very clearly from those who grasp for power and domination, and in fact they may suffer for their commitment. But in the end, Zephaniah assures us, they are the winners. The others might appear victorious in the short run but ultimately they lose everything.

All of this requires a leap of faith not only in God but in a just and moral universe. Sometimes our immediate experience suggests otherwise but a thoughtful study of history can be quite reassuring.

Paul continues the theme of lowliness and humility but in a faintly ironical way. Some individuals in the community in Corinth have been anything but humble. In fact, arrogance, pride and competition seem to be the order of the day. Paul has to refresh their memories a bit: remember who you were — nobodies! God called you as you were and then did marvellous things for you and with you. This was for a purpose: to teach the world what is truly valuable and honourable. What and who we deem to be weak and contemptible, God often holds in high regard. The cross, the sort of people Jesus called, and their apparent weakness and insignificance are all intended to deflate and thwart human posturing. As Paul says elsewhere, all have fallen short of the glory of God and all must rely on God’s gracious gift of salvation. God can be the only legitimate source of boasting, and even then with caution. The focus must always be on God and what God has done, not on the self.

The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount are widely admired and praised and even more widely ignored, even by religious people. They seem impractical, naïve and other-worldly. And yet these are the principles of God’s Kingdom and the ones that Jesus manifested perfectly at every stage in His life. The principles of the reading from Zephaniah are not superseded but amplified. What sort of people will inhabit God’s realm? Not the violent or arrogant. It is the “poor in spirit” — meaning the humble and those surrendered to God — and the “meek” — the gentle and non-violent. 

For Kingdom dwellers, peacemaking, justice and compassionate mercy are not casual or occasional practices but intense and almost obsessive concerns. When we look at these principles of the Kingdom carefully it is obvious that they are the antithesis of the dominant values of the human societies and cultures of our age. They come with a warning label: govern your life by them and be prepared for resistance, ridicule and even persecution. They challenge, provoke and destabilize, and the powers that be will not stand for it for they are fully aware of the power that the principles contain.

The Greek mathematician and scientist Archimedes insisted that given a place to stand and a lever long enough he could move the entire Earth. The Kingdom principles of Jesus — manifestations of love — are both. Act on them, use them and live them and the world can definitely be moved.