A problem with American culture today is the focus on individual rights: “I have a right to,” “I am entitled to.” Often this reduces to “I want, and I don’t care what happens to you.” Jesus’ vision begins not from rights but from duties. Our duty is to build community with outsiders.
This is the theme of the Sermon on the Mount, which began with the beatitudes in yesterday’s liturgy. There he gives the Christian virtues which lead to happiness.
To our right to wealth, Jesus commands poverty of spirit,
To our right to easy life, Jesus proposes mourning for the suffering;
For our narcissism, Jesus proposes a lack of entitlement;
For our insistence on our justice, Jesus suggests mercy for all;
For our violent war for our rights, Jesus asks for peacemaking.
Jesus’ disciples who live his way are the salt of the earth. They bring taste, enjoyment not only to those they serve, but also for themselves.
They shed light in the darkness of our mistaken rights and goals. Their actions are to be seen as motivated by a love of God which gives them joy and gives others peace. If they live this way they will give glory to the God who is outpouring love.
I draw three lessons from this teaching:
First, Jesus is primarily not asking about actions, but about virtues. Jesus does not bring a social program but an emphasis on interior conversion from the self-seeking ways of the world. (This is the way of Pope Francis: for those who want decrees prohibiting actions he asks them to contemplate the pastoral compassion of Jesus.) In the following part of the Sermon Jesus does get to actions, because it is in our actions that we know whether we have the virtues which he inculcates. Jesus calls our bluff: it is not those who say Jesus is our Lord who will be saved but those who do what he commands. If his teachings do not issue in social reforms, his disciples have not caught the urgency of his call to the virtues of the Reign of God.
Second, disciples who act as Jesus did will evoke wonder. They will manifest that their actions flow from God’s love and so will redound to His praise. Do others see in my actions a wonderful action of God?”
Thirdly, how do we catch these virtues? I tend to focus on the power of Jesus in the gospel—his healings, his courage in confronting the Pharisees. This gospel calls me to see Jesus as exemplifying the virtues he asks of us:
although he is rich, he comes among us as a poor man, a beggar;
although he knows the joy of God, he mourns for all those who suffer;
although he is a royal messiah, he denies any sense of entitlement;
although he can exercise the justice of God, he is compassionate mercy.
As disciples striving to live the Gospel today, we must hear Jesus say, ”Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”
Fr. John Topel, S.J.
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