January 30, 2011 - Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The readings today emphasize a central paradox in Christianity between strength and weakness. On the one hand, we want to see God glorified in every way and with excellence. We want beautiful music sung by a skilled musician, not cheesy hymns sung off-key. We want beautiful art that raises our minds to heaven, not crayon drawings and felt banners. This desire is not specific to Mass alone. We love to see Catholics and other Christians in the world who are the best athletes and the best actors. When we see a film about a Saint we want it to be interesting, well-made, not boring. In short, we might sometimes admire the effort but we would rather admire the skill. There seems little point to having Christian music and Christian books and Christian art if they are not first good music, good books, and good art.

On the other hand, throughout the New Testament we see a glorification of weakness. Not physical weakness alone but weaknesses of every kind: intellectual weakness, political weakness, poverty. The readings today praise the meek, but we would rather see someone who is confident. Not arrogant or prideful in a silly way, but genuinely sure of themself. We prefer confidence in our personal interactions, in our stars, and in our political leaders. The readings today praise the poor, but people familiar with actual poverty know that to be poor, really poor, means, in general, to have less education, worse manners, and worse hygiene.

We might see in this paradoxical praise of weakness, particularly in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the sort of disdain for elitism that has infected some of our culture. The early Christians were evidently a rather ragtag group. Did they look out at people who were better off than them and (with nothing more than jealousy) criticize the benefits of a good education, good manners, good grammar, etc.? No! Our religion is not founded on class warfare or the jealousy of outcasts.

The American Idol tryouts have begun again and this provides a good example. Some people sing very poorly, completely off-key, so badly that everyone watching knows that they have not gotten through. When the judges reject them, they complain and curse; they are certain that the judges are being completely unfair. Some philosophers say that Christians are like a group of these terrible singers who get together and discuss how mean the judges are. These philosophers have made this accusation against Christianity: that our morality is nothing more than the whining of the weak, that we invented heaven and hell so that we could take revenge in our minds on those people we could not touch in this world.

Is this true? Do we get together here on Sundays so that we can feel better about that mean world out there? Do we have readings like those today, “Blessed are the meek”, as a sort of affirmation exercise to defeat our feelings of inadequacy? The Bible is not full of nice things that sound good. The Bible is full of truth.

Let us look at the first beatitude and see the truth: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is the traditional wording, which is nice, but, since we want to understand the truth, we should consider a more literal translation: “Happy are the poor in spirit, for their ruler is God.” The person who is poor in spirit is not merely poor but also is not trying to become rich. The person who is poor in spirit does not have any debt, any chains holding them down. The person who is poor in spirit does not have any savings, no safety net. The market goes up; the market goes down; they do not care. This person depends entirely on God. Only in the most extreme hermits and religious orders in the Church can we find someone completely poor in spirit. The rest of us have to care about money to some extent. To some extent, but there are a lot of people in this world who are ruled by money, by possessions, by the desire to acquire. Jesus is telling us that if we want to be happy, we should put money in its place and be ruled by God.

“Happy are those who mourn, they will be comforted.” Jesus is telling us that we are happier when we are comforted by God than if we never needed his comfort. “Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” A meek person is someone who does not stand up for themselves when they are treated unfairly. If everyone was meek all the time, evil would just steamroll us. We have to defend our families, our country. But there is room in society for someone to be always meek, to never stand up for themself, to wait for God to give them what is theirs, and this person is a very happy person. We all can be meek sometimes and this will make us happy.

Christian weakness always presupposes God’s strength. There is nothing good about weakness in itself. What we celebrate is how our weakness makes room for God. Paul is not glad that the first Christians were dirty, poor, unintelligent, and socially low. He is admiring how God, when first forming the Church, picked out a lot of dirty, poor, unintelligent, and socially low people. God is like a kid picking teams for basketball who picks all the worst players just to prove that he will win no matter what.

God has given many natural talents throughout the world. He will use his Michaelangelos and his Palestrinas and his Karol Wojtylas. If a person can do something well, they are obligated to use their talent for the glorification of God, while remembering that the talent is not their own but a gift from God. We have a great need of skilled Christian artists and musicians and authors and politicians, and no one should fail to develop their talents, burying them in the ground. But happier than any of these is the person, completely dependent on God, working great miracles while seeming to have no natural talents. It would be truly sad to meet someone who was talented in every aspect of life, who had no weakness, no place for God.

And so, what are your talents? Use them to glorify God. What are your weaknesses? Let God use them to glorify himself. No matter what, God will be glorified.