Commentary on the Readings
TEACH US, O LORD, TO COUNT OUR DAYS
We leave the maternal womb and enter into this world; after childhood we enter adolescence; we leave adolescence for youth; youth to mature age and old age. Finally, the time comes to leave this world to which we have grown fond of perhaps to the point of deeming it to be the final abode and not wanting anymore to leave it. Yet on this earth our aspiration to the fullness of joy and life is continually frustrated. When, with disenchantment, we consider the reality, we check everywhere for signs of death: diseases, ignorance, loneliness, frailty, fatigue, pain, betrayals—and our conclusion is: no, this cannot be the definitive world; it is too narrow, too marked by evil. Then the desire to roam beyond the narrow horizon wherein we move emerges in us; we even dream of being abducted to other planets where maybe we are freed from any form of death.
In the universe we know, the world to which we long for does not exist. To satisfy the need for the infinite that God has put in our heart, it is necessary to leave this land and embark on a new exodus. We are asked for a new exit, the last—death—and this frightens us. Even the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, they heard Jesus who spoke of his exodus from this world to the Father (Lk 9:31). They were seized by fear. "They fell with their faces to the ground, and were so afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, and said, arise and be not afraid” (Mt 17:6-7).
From the third century there appears, in the catacombs, the figure of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulder. It is Christ, who takes by hand and cradles in his arms the person who is afraid to cross alone the dark valley of the death. With him, the Risen One, the disciples serenely abandon this life, confident that the shepherd to whom they have entrusted their life will lead them towards lush meadows and quiet streams (Ps 23:2) where they will find refreshment after a long tiring journey in the desert of this dry and dusty earth.
If death is the moment of encounter with Christ and an entry into the wedding banquet hall, it cannot be a dreaded event. It is something we expect. The exclamation of Paul: “For me, dying is a gain. I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ” (Phil 1:21,23) should be uttered by every believer.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Teach us, O Lord, to count our days.”
Sin upset the internal balance of man by putting him in conflict with his most intimate aspirations. It breaks the relationship with God who is no longer considered a friend, but an intruder, a despot to free oneself from. It breaks the harmony with the brethren: not love and mutual aid, but enslavement. It destroys the bond of life with creation: turning man from a gardener into a poacher and a predator. If these are the disharmonies introduced by sin, Job is immuned of it.
The book that bears his name introduces him thus: "Job, a blameless and upright man who feared God and shunned evil, once lived in the land of Uz" (Job 1:1). Blameless means no cracks, not dissociated, opposed to any compromise with the consciousness; right, that is in harmony with others, incorruptible and above reproach; God fearing and avoiding evil means at peace with himself, with heaven and earth.
The result of a life guided by these moral principles can only be joy and in fact, Job is completely happy. He deserves it because he has remained faithful to the Lord. Yet despite his integrity, then one day misfortune hits him.
For Israel’s traditional theology—which interprets suffering as the result of a perverse act, as a punishment for sin—what happens to Job is an inexplicable mystery. How can God punish an honest, generous person and well-liked by everyone?
There is no possible explanation if not this: Job has committed some secret sin. It is what his friends think and they try to convince him to admit his mistakes. His response is almost blasphemous. He throws a challenge to God: he declares his willingness to confront him in court, sure to have the best and to be able to prove his innocence.
Today’s passage reports the words that—aware that he has now reached the end of his days—he dictates as his will. With a pen of iron—he asks his friends—write my story in a book, nay more, carve it on the rock, like the great kings of the East who carved their businesses on the stems. Let it remain imprinted for future reference. Death does not erase the memory of my integrity! (vv. 23-24).
It is not enough for him. He is not content that his name be engraved on the rock. At the height of despair, he appeals to an "Avenger" (v. 25). Who is this character and how will he put it into effect? The text does not explain it, only saying that "lastly he will stand upon the dust." The most immediate interpretation is as follows: losing all hopes of surviving his immense pain, Job entrusts his defense to an "Advocate" who, during the trial in front of the false god, vehemently defended by his friends, will stand up to plead his cause and support his right. He will be the last one to talk; he will have the last word and will force everyone to acknowledge his innocence.
At this point in the process—Job is certain of it—the true God will enter the scene (vv. 26-27) and, after death, when his skin is destroyed, will see the Lord; he will contemplate him, with his eyes , and not as a stranger. It will not be the god of his friends, the executioner god who comes dangerously close to the satanic conception, the god who is just according to human criteria and is always ready to punish. It will be the true God, the one in whom Job has always firmly believed.
Lacking the light of Easter, he could not even imagine the ultimate destiny of man. However, the hope that death will not have the last word emerges in him. One day he will read the events in which he has been involved with different eyes and even the unfathomable mystery of the innocent suffering will be unveiled to him.
This wisdom passage is a call to recognize the finiteness of our intelligence and to give up the pretense of wanting to understand everything. On this land, it is necessary to live with the enigma of evil and pain. It cannot be understood, it can only be accepted. It is easier for us than Job because God came among us: not to give us explanations but to live—without discounts or privileges—our human condition and to teach us to love it.
The prospect of death is frightening. What we have built, the good done, the joys that we have enjoyed and endured pains, acts of love that we traded will they one day be totally zeroed? This is the question that everyone—even those who profess no religion—put to themselves when they pause to reflect, at least for a moment, on the meaning of their existence.
No less disturbing is the second question that affects only the believer, not the atheist: What will my fate be after this life, since there is a God who is waiting for me to evaluate it?
The seer of Revelation assures that human history will end with a wedding feast. He speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, of God who will pass to wipe away the tears from the eyes of each of his sons and daughters and of a world where "there shall be no more death, or mourning, crying out or pain, for the world that was has passed away" (Rev 21:1-4). These are fascinating images; they depict the wonderful reality that "eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it dawned on the mind what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9).
The question that emerges now in the believer is: Will I also be there among the guests of the eternal banquet or will the Lord and the righteous celebrate the feast without me? If the entry into the house of the Father is conditioned by our behavior, the risk of exclusion is high for everyone. Who can live in peace with this distressing question mark in the heart? The stupendous page of the letter to the Romans presented to us reassures all that for those who put their trust in Christ, nothing should undermine their joy. Their hope will not be disappointed because it is not based on their faithfulness and their good works, but on the unconditional and unfailing love of God (v. 6).
When the Lord takes the initiative to save his people he is not discouraged if he encounters obstacles. He does not stop halfway, nor breaks down, in front of the infidelity of people. He always and everywhere brings his work to completion. People—it is true—can also be obstinate in their sin, but God who loves infinitely does not resign to failure. He does not need suggestions on how to free all, even the most stubborn, from their attachment to evil.
The love of God—ensures Paul—is not weak, fickle as that of people. They love only their friends and may, rarely, even come to give their lives for those they love. God goes beyond the horizon: he loves everyone, even his enemies. Just as the people were away from him, he showed his great love by offering the most valuable treasure he had: his own Son. If God loved us when we were his enemies, the more he will love us now that we have been made righteous. It is not possible that our sins be stronger than his love. Even if we abandon him, he does not abandon us, "If we are unfathful, he remains faithful for he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim 2:13).
What is a person’s value? Does he count only for what he produces, for his efficiency, for the money that he accumulates?
For someone a human being is less worthy than a sheep—said Jesus (Mt 12:12). He comes from dust (Sir 33:10), he can’t boast of anything before the Lord (1 Cor 1:29), but he is always the image of God. Filled with surprise in front of the wonders of creation, a pious Israelite with the heart of a poet has handed his reflection in a psalm: "When I observe the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars you set in their place—what is man that you be mindful of him; the son of man that you should care for him? Yet you made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor" (Ps 8:4-6).
We define man from the bottom: reasonable animal, a step above the animals; the psalmist sees him a step below of God. It is in this biblical perspective that man and his destiny is evaluated. How does man appear before God? In what regard does he hold him? Here's the answer that he directs to everyone: "You are precious in my sight, and important—for I have loved you" (Is 43:4). It is from this statement that we may understand what God has planned for his wonderful creature, man.
In today's Gospel passage, his plan, his design of love is called by Jesus the will of the Father and he will insist on this will, recalling it four times. Which is it? To trust the whole of humanity to him, to his care. This will draw close to him, as the flock turns to its own shepherd: each sheep knows his voice, trusts him and feels called by name. Jesus does not lay down conditions to obtain salvation; he only ascertains a fact: the fate of the entire human community is to go to him. To go to him means accepting his word, to trust his proposal of life. None of those who will rely on him will be rejected (v. 37).
This is the dream that God has in mind since the creation of the world. The question spontaneously arises: will it be realized, or will there be someone that will be directed toward Jesus and some other instead—the majority judging from what has occurred so far in the world—who will reject Christ and his word, and will move away permanently from him?
The answer is contained in the second part of the passage: "And the will of him who sent me is that I lose nothing of what he has given me, but instead that I raise it up on the last day" (v. 39) . In God's plan defections or failures are not contemplated. His program will take place infallibly because it is unthinkable that Christ is not able to bring it to fruition. Without doing violence to the freedom of man, he will draw all people to himself, in an irresistible way; he will raise everyone on the last day. This expression has been mistakenly understood as a reference to the end of the world.
In John's Gospel the last day is one in which Jesus, on the cross, bowed his head, giving to humanity his Spirit (Jn 19:30). That is the last day to which the entire plan of God aimed, unending day, day in which the seed of new life, the very life of God entered the world.
With a final appeal to the Father’s will (v. 40) Jesus explains that God's plan is realized in three stages.
It is necessary, above all, to see the Son.
The memory of the encounter with Jesus of Nazareth remained indelible in the mind, heart, and also in the eyes of John, as it transpires from the first words of the letter that he writes to the Christians of his communities of Asia Minor: "What we have heard and have seen with our own eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, I mean the Word who is Life…The Life was made known, we have seen Eternal Life and we bear witness, and we are telling you of it. It was with the Father and made himself known to us. So we tell you what we have seen and heard" (1 Jn 1:1-3).
This visual experience of the man Jesus is no longer possible; it is realized in a unique moment of the world’s history. But letting our eyes be opened by his word and acknowledging in him the Son, the God who made himself present in the world, who came to bring us the bread of life, is the first step to enable us to accept his gift. After this recognition, personal adhesion follows. It is not enough to know Jesus, having seen him. Many have met him along the roads of Palestine, yet not everyone got drawn by his proposal.
The second step is to believe.
Only one who after knowing him on the testimony of those who saw and heard him, and giving him one’s own adhesion, really sees Jesus. The culmination of the path to salvation is the communication by the Father of the divine life to those who believe in Christ.
Gathered in community, today we do not remember the dead—for a Christian the dead do not exist because those who believe in Jesus do not die (Jn 11:26) —but the living, all the brethren who, having ended their gestation in this world, entered in the light, being born to the definitive life from which every form of darkness and death is excluded.
In this world, many of them might have struggled to "see" in Jesus the Son of God and to "believe" in him. Some have given their commitment to him at the last moment; others did not want to “see him” or welcome him for all their life. What will be their fate and how can we be close to them and show them our love? At the time of their birth to new life, all were certainly welcomed by the Father with the only words that he addresses to every person who, though a sinner, is his son or daughter: "Since you are precious in my sight, and important—for I have loved you" (Is 43:4). Our prayer, our love and maybe even our forgiveness help them to complete the journey that they did not finish in this life towards the definitive embrace with the Father. The joyful message that the first mass’ readings give us is that Jesus will not leave incomplete his mission as Savior for no one.
First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
Long before Christ, a wise and elderly person, reflecting on the fleeting nature of life, concludes that people are like grass, "in the morning they blossom, but the flower fades and withers in the evening" (Ps 90:6).
His bitter and disconsolate conclusion: What to do then? If life is short, we should "enjoy all the good things: let us use creation with the zest of youth, making the most of choicest wines and perfumes, and not passing by any flower of spring. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they fade” (Wis 2:6-9). "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and provide themselves with good things from their toil" (Ecl 2:24).
The wise psalmist is not seduced by such proposals and, against the inevitable event of death, he directs to the Lord the passionate invocation: "So make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart" (Ps 90:12).
It is not wise to remove from our minds thoughts of death or to try to avoid using the word. When we speak of death, we often prefer to use euphemisms, such as departure, disappearance, passing away, bereavement. Death, however, is our life’s companion. Pain, illusion, betrayal, disease and the various calamities we are subject to are all a learning of life, and remind us of the precarious state of our existence in this world; they remind us too that all earthly things are transitory.
Today’s liturgy brings us the memory of all the faithful departed, not to frighten us, but to lead us to the "wisdom of the heart" to lead us to discover the true meaning of life and to remind us of the joyful truth on which our faith is founded: the resurrection.
Tertullian, one of the great Church Fathers of the first Christian century, said: "Christian hope rests on the resurrection from the dead; we are what we are because we believe in the resurrection." It is, therefore, joy, not fear and anguish, that the word of God wants to communicate to us. It is the joy of one who has received, from above, the light of Easter that shines on all tombs.
The reading begins with a cheerful piece of news: God has decided to prepare a sumptuous feast; he will host a lavish party on Mount Zion. Who will be the invited ones? God is an unparalleled sovereign unmatched for his wealth and power. He will not only convene some notables but will gather around the same table all peoples of the earth excluding none; they will rejoice together even those who before coming hated each other, those who committed violence, who snatched from each other money land or goods.
The reading begins with a cheerful piece of news: God has decided to prepare a sumptuous feast; he will host a lavish party on Mount Zion. Who will be the invited ones? God is an unparalleled sovereign unmatched for his wealth and power. He will not only convene some notables but will gather around the same table all peoples of the earth excluding none; they will rejoice together even those who before coming hated each other, those who committed violence, who snatched from each other money land or goods.
They will witness extraordinary events; unprecedented events will happen: "On this mountain the Lord will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations” (v. 7) and everyone can behold him, sitting at the table next to them; then God "will destroy death forever ... and wipe away the tears from all faces..." (v. 8).
Why has he prepared this sumptuous feast? For God, the Lord of life and joy has routed all his enemies. He also defeated even death, the last, the most terrible and frightening of all enemies.
The prophet was not so naive as to think that one day biological death will disappear; he heralded the demise of what is defeat and death to mortals: life without ideals and meaning, the shame of failure and pain, hunger, disease, marginalization. Anything that is "not life" will be removed, "for Yahweh has spoken" (8). Nowhere in the Old Testament are found so extraordinary promises. The banquet will be enlivened with music, songs and dances.
The reading closes with the words of a hymn. It seems to have been composed to be recited in unison by the participants: "This is our God. We have waited for him to save us, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For on this mountain the hand of the Lord rests" (vv. 9-10). The Prophet alluded to the messianic times, but could not imagine the extent of the promises that, in God's name, he was doing. He could not guess that one day the Lord will destroy death itself forever.
Nevertheless, Paul will understand it. Enlightened by the events of Easter, he will write to the Corinthians: "When our perishable being put on imperishable life when our mortal beings put on immortality, the word of Scripture will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up by victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?
The seer of the book of Revelation will understand it. He, at the breaking the new heavens and the new earth, will contemplate God in the act of wiping away every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4) as Isaiah promised.
Second Reading: Romans 8:14-23
Paul, knowing the history of his people, remembers that, led by Moses, the Israelites went from slavery in Egypt to the promised land. Becoming a disciple of Christ, the apostle, has understood that the journey of Israel in the wilderness was only a pale image of the real exodus, that which introduced all humanity into the land of freedom.
At the beginning of the reading (v. 14), the Spirit is indicated, the guide in charge of leading the children of God to the house of the Father. Moses has given to Israel the law of God, the precious gift that points to the people the way of life, but it had a limit. It did not communicate the strength to practice the precepts contained in the law itself. It was like the signage for the marathoner: it shows him the way to go, but does not help, push and lead him to the goal.
The Spirit is not a law that from the outside traces the route to go. It is a force that guides and illuminates the heart. It is an inner drive that not only points out the goal, but communicates the strength to reach it. The goal is the condition of being God's children. Those who allow themselves to enter by the Spirit in this new reality become a free person.
Anyone who is not guided by the Spirit, even though he deems himself a free man is actually a servant of his own whims, mania to possess, to dominate, to appear. He is not the one who manages his own life, but the instincts, that become his masters.
Liberated by the Spirit that has been given to him, guided by a new heart, the Christian—Paul assures—can go to God and call him Father, indeed, Abba (v. 15). In Jesus' times, the people refused to call God "Father.” This term, used in daily familiar conversation, was considered too humble and irreverent. Surprising, therefore, that in the mouth of Jesus, it becomes the usual definition of God.
But there's more. To address God, Jesus has introduced an even more familiar expression. He has taught to call God Abba, a word that belonged to a language used by children up to age 12 or 13 years. Then it was abandoned. It was used again by the adult children when they want their father, already decrepit, to experience again the tenderness that they had shown him during childhood.
Adopting the term Abba, Jesus wanted his disciples to assimilate a new way of conceiving God, a simple and loving way to relate to him. To express the intimacy and trust found in this word, we should not translate it as Father but as dad or better yet, as ‘daddy’ as the kids scream when they run to the arms of their parents to be caressed.
To us ‘daddy’ sounds a little undignified. It seems as an expression of familiarity, too brash to address a deity. We, therefore, prefer ‘Father’ which is more serious. However, we lose the dimension of tenderness that Jesus wants to instill in us. God is not the Lord who distances himself, demands respect and adoration, establishes rules and prohibitions, but someone who stays affectionately close to us. If you discover that God is ‘Abba’—Paul concludes— you cannot relapse in fear: from an ‘Abba’ one would expect caresses.
None of the loved ones who have left us was alien to sin. Maybe we remember some very serious ones of some, so serious as to make us fear that they have been rejected by God. Those who still cultivate these foolish thoughts, forget that God is ‘Abba,’ not a vigilante.
Paul feels the need to clarify the difference between the filiation of the only Son, Christ, and ours (vv. 16-17). He does so using the image of "adoptive filiation," an unknown institution, unknown in Israel. However, it was very widespread in the Greco-Roman world where the adopted one enjoyed the same rights as the natural children, including participation in the family inheritance. Similarly, even more included—Paul declares—is the person introduced by God in his "family": he is offered a full sonship and the same "inheritance," the same bliss enjoyed by the only begotten of the Father.
The condition of God’s sonship is wonderful; however, as John reminds us in his letter: "We are God's children and what we shall be have not yet been shown. Yet when he appears in his glory, we know that we shall be like him, for then we shall see him as he is" (1 Jn 3:2).
We now live in a state in which we experience much suffering, however as Paul reminds us, "they cannot be compared with the glory that will be revealed and given to us" (v. 18). Suffering arises from the situation of a creation that has been subjected to expiration, slavery and corruption, so it screams in pain (vv. 12-22).
Man has been involved in an absurd project, opposed to that for which he left the hands of God. Man has corrupted it and now faces fearfully the consequences of his horrors. It threatens the soil’s fertility, cleanliness of the air, water’s potability; he notes the provoked damages to plants and animals, is conscious of having filled the seabed of toxic wastes and bombs.
This creation expects to be redeemed, redirected to the plan of God who, at the beginning, had looked with satisfaction on everything he had created, because everything “was very good" (Gen 1:31).
Paul encourages us not to despair and not to interpret the creation’s cry of pain as that of a dying person, but rather like that of the mother who is giving birth to a new child.
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
A God who ruthlessly condemns is, for a Christian, quite embarrassing. One cannot understand how the terrible threats referred to in vv. 41-46 can be regarded as "gospel", that is, as "good news", as "message of salvation."
There is an even greater challenge: how can a severe God who appears in today's passage agree with the Father the whole gospel speaks about? He who "makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good and he gives rain to both the just and the unjust", demanding of his children not to make distinctions between good and evil (Mt 5:43-48). How can one, to a certain point, order a separation which tells us not to do anything? If one throws eternal fire to his enemies, he cannot require us to love our enemies (Mt 19:10). Jesus, who came “to seek and to save the lost" (Lk 19:10) and boasts of being "a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Lk 7:34), will he be able one day to stand against us?
The "justice" of this God leaves much to be desired: could the sin of man (frail, limited, finite creature) be punished with an infinite, "everlasting" punishment? There is no proportion between punishment and failure. If, on the other hand, man remains free-as is certain-for all eternity, why should wrongdoers persist in their errors? What will make them so stubborn? Maybe the encounter with God? These are some of the many questions that are raised against this passage of the Gospel. These are serious questions, but they might have originated from an incorrect interpretation of the text.
The question arises when we consider the context in which this description of the "trial" is placed. It’s enough to read what follows. After the great scene in which the Son of Man deploys all his power, here is what happens: "In two days’ time it will be Passover and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified" (Mt 26:2). It is like being left speechless: from the celebration of triumph one passes to the most ignoble of defeats. They look like two opposing, irreconcilable situations, and yet, these are two glorious moments of a single victory, the victory of love. The Christ who "judges" also delivers himself in the hands of those he loves and justly “inasmuch as victim of love” he becomes a judge: He is the "ideal man" after God, the true man, with whom all have to be compared, even from now on, to see if they are building the life or are laying the groundwork for failure. We will return to the argument. Now let's examine the text.
In Palestine, at sunset, shepherds tend to separate the sheep from the goats. The latter are more sensitive to cold and are placed under a roof. The sheep, covered with wool, like the cool of the night and have no problem spending the night in the open. Jesus uses this image, taken from everyday life, to convey his message. To understand it, we must pay attention, first, to the literary genre. A hasty, superficial reading, perhaps a bit naïve, of the Gospel risks drawing theological conclusions that, in the light of a more attentive and careful study, may appear unfounded and even deviant.
The language is typical of the preachers of that time. To stir their listeners, they tended to use stunning images, tremendous punishments, unquenchable fire and eternal penalties. It was said, for example: "As the human race trembles, the beasts are happy, because it goes well with them that humans need not wait for any judgment.” Listen carefully, though: when rabbis spoke of the "fire of Gehenna". They did not refer to hell, but the fire that burned constantly in the valley surrounding Jerusalem that served as the city dump. The adjective "eternal" did not have the philosophical connotations it has today, but it was popularly used to mean, in general terms, a "long", "undefined" period.
This Gospel passage is generally regarded as a parable, but this is not accurate. It belongs to the genre called judgment scene, found both in the Bible (cf. Dan 7) and in rabbinic literature. The structured schema is always the same: there is a presentation of the judge, accompanied by angels who serve as assistants and security guards, then the convocation of all people, the separation of groups, the sentencing and finally the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished.
The aim of this literary genre is not to inform about what will happen at the end of the world, but to teach how to behave today. As an example, here's a judgment scene of the rabbinic literature showing an impressive analogy with our text: "In the future world who is judged will be asked: What are your works? If he answers: 'I fed who was hungry,' he will be told: 'This is the Lord’s gate, enter through it' (Ps 118:20). If he answers: 'I have given drink to the thirsty,' he will be told: 'This is the gate of the Lord come through it'; if he answers: 'I have clothed the naked,' he will be told, 'This is the gate of the Lord, go through it.' The same will apply to one who has taken care of the orphan, who has given alms, who has produced works of love "(Midrash of Psalm 118:17).
Referring to the dialogue, it is clear that the rabbis did not intend to reveal the words that God will deliver at the end of the world. They, instead, wanted to instill the values that will serve as a solid foundation for life in this world.
Let us now examine the structure of the passage in Matthew. It is easy to define. It begins with an introduction (vv. 31-33) followed by two dialogues (vv.34-40; 41-46) that develop in a parallel and identical way: the king pronounces the sentence (approval in a case and conviction on the other) and explains why. Both cases raise an objection to which the judge responds respectively.
It is also easy to set the message Jesus wants to convey: the years of man's life are precious, a treasure to be managed well. No one can go wrong because life is one: Jesus suggests how one must live.
The rabbis said: this world is like a dry land, the future world is like the ocean; if a man does not prepare food on dry land what will he eat on the sea? This world is like a cultivated land, the future world as a wilderness; if a man does not prepare food on cultivated land what will he eat in the desert? He will grind his teeth and bite his flesh; desperate, he will tear his clothes and riff off his hair.
For Jesus, human life is more important than for the rabbis, so he reveals to the disciples the values that will provide a secure basis for this human life. What values? It is not hard to spot them because they occupy half of the story and are so important that Jesus repeated them four times, at the risk of appearing monotonous: it is the six works of mercy.
The list of people to help - the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned (vv. 35-36,42-43) was known throughout the Middle East (cf. Is 58:6-7). The chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead is famous. In Egypt the text, since the second millennium B.C., was placed with the deceased at the time of burial. This was what he had to testify before the court of Osiris: "I have practiced what gladdens the gods. I have given bread to the hungry, I gave water to the thirsty, I have clothed the naked, I offered a trip to those who had no boat.” The only novelty brought by Jesus is that He identifies with these people: what is done to one of these little ones, is done to him.
The values he suggests are not similar to those for which most men lose their heads, but they are what really count in the eyes of God. What is the ideal of a successful man in our society? He who holds power, who is rich, who can afford to satisfy his every whim, who is wanted by the TV cameras. "Successful men" are an athlete driving the stadiums crazy, the TV star or anyone who has managed to become a character by notoriety or by career.
What is the thought of God? At the conclusion of the story of every man on earth, when each is alone with himself and with God, only love will be precious. The life of each one will be considered as success or failure according to the commitment of the person in the elimination of six situations of suffering and poverty: hunger, thirst, exile, nakedness, sickness, imprisonment.
A detail is carefully highlighted in the story: none of those who have done these works of mercy has realized of having done them to Christ. Love is true only if it is disinterested, even if it is free of any suspicion of complacency; the one who acts in view of the reward, even that of heaven, does not yet genuinely love.
And the sentence? The rabbis used to repeat twice their teachings to better imprint it in the minds of their disciples. Often they first presented the message positively and then negatively. They resorted to the familiar "antithetical parallelism", also used by Jesus (cf. Lk 6:20-26; Mt 7:24-27; Mk 16:16...).
Our passage is an example of this: the second part (verses 41-45) adds absolutely nothing to the first; it is a stylistic record to highlight the concept already expressed. What urges Jesus is not terrorize his listeners stirring the fright of hell, but indicating with strong images the very serious danger of wasting life –that is what really counts. He does not claim to announce what will happen at the end of the world, but to think, to open the eyes, to show God's judgment on the decisions we take today.
A simple example may help us better understand what was said. In a jewelry shop two necklaces are on display, one of pure gold but a little worn out by time, the other of burnished brass but very polished. An inexperienced buyer enters and is attracted and fascinated by the brilliance of the brass necklace. Fortunately an expert appears and warns him: Beware – he says –don’t waste your money on this bauble or trifle! This judgment saves the inexperienced buyer. Even in the case that the knowledgeable will use harsh and threatening expressions, his judgment would always be a judgment of salvation.
Believing that the judgment scene described by Jesus refers to the condemnation of sinners to the torments of hell is, at best, risky. Hell exists, but is not a place created by God to punish, at the end of life, who has behaved badly. It is a condition of unhappiness and despair resulting from sin. Of hell of sin, however, one can get out: our liberation comes from Christ and his judgment of salvation.
But, in the end, will God not punish the wicked? A judge seems just to us when, after evaluating their crime, he punishes with equity. But this is not the justice of God. He's not just because he rewards or punishes according to our standards and expectations—in this case there would be no hope for anyone and all will end convicted—but because he is able to make the wicked righteous (cf. Rom 3:21-26).
The question, therefore, is not who will be counted as sheep and goats at the end of the world, but in what occasions today we behave as sheep and behave as goats. We are sheep when we love our brother; we are goats when we neglect him.
What will happen at the end? It is truly hard to believe that the good shepherd—from whom no one will be able to snatch even one of his sheep (cf. Jn 10:28)—after leaving us jumping like kids to the right and to the left, not find a way to turn us all ... into his lambs.
First Reading: Wisdom 3:1-9
Alexandria, the opulent city of the Ptolemies, evokes many memories: its founder Alexander the Great, the lighthouse that was one of the seven wonders of the world, the famous library that attracted scholars and writers from around the world and, not least, the political vicissitudes and love life of Cleopatra. It is precisely at the time of this queen that the author of the Book of Wisdom lives. This book is the last in the order of time of the books of the Old Testament.
In this city, may Jews have settled for over three centuries. They have their synagogues where they read the Greek translation of the Holy Scriptures. They retain their cultural identity and their traditions, but also suffer the irresistible allure of the Hellenistic culture. Many, especially the young, are seduced by the temptations of idolatry and moral customs of the heathens.
Concerned about the danger of apostasy that hangs over his co-religionists, the author exposes, in a passionate discourse, put on the mouth of the wicked, the proposals for a pleasurable-life from which every pious Jew must be on guard: “Led by mistaken reasons they think, life is short and sad and there is no cure for death. It was never heard that anyone came back from the netherworld. By chance we were born; when life is over, it will be as if we never existed. Come then and enjoy all the good things; let us use creation with the zest of youth, making the most of choicest wines and perfumes and not passing by any flower of spring. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they fade. Let us oppress the upright man who is poor, and have no thought for the widow, or respect for the while hair of old age. Let our strength be our right, since it is proved that weakness is useless" (Wis 2:1-11).
Those who are inspired by these principles cannot endure for long the just living alongside them. TRheir moral integrity is for them a tacit reproach that, if they fail to involve them in their corrupt life and make them deviate from their righteousness, they must eliminate them. That's in fact the resolution with which the wicked conclude their speech: "Let us set a trap for the righteous, for he annoys us and opposes our way of life; he reproaches us…we condemn his to a shameful death" (Wis 2:12-20).
The passage reported by our reading begins at this point. Will the plans of the wicked succeed? Removing him from the among them will they have finally closed the accounts with the righteous? The author has already anticipated his judgment: led by mistaken reasons (Wis 2:1). Their calculations are wrong because they think that, with the descent of the righteous in the tomb, the dispute is closed forever; it is not so: "The righteous are in God's hands." The senseless people believed that they have died, that their passage was a disaster and their departure an annihilation. Instead they are in peace (v. 1).
For centuries the wise people of Israel sought an answer to the scandal of pain of the innocent. Faced with this enigma, even the wise Ecclesiastes was groping in the dark and was bitterly forced to admit: "I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness" (Ecl 7:15); and the Psalmist: "For I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the wicked prosper" (Ps 73:3). To those who argued that God repaid with justice the good done and the evil committed, Job—who did not believe in another life—answered mockingly: "Why do the wicked live, increase in age and in power? Their descendants flourish in their sight… live out their days and go down to Sheol" (Job 21:7-13).
In this disturbing debate, the author of the Book of Wisdom finally introduces a new and enlightening revelation: with death all is not over; there is an afterlife. The death of the righteous is not a defeat, an annihilation, but the arrival time at the destination: the bliss with God. "People thought they would suffer punishments, instead they waited for immortality." It is the first time that this term appears in the Bible, in the sense of endless life (v. 4). In the light of immortality it is possible to grasp the meaning of the suffering that the righteous have had to endure. They were not punishment, but tests through which they could demonstrate their devotion to God and to His law. They have borne them with courage, for this the Lord "found them worthy to be with him and has accepted them as a holocaust” (vv. 5-6).
At the moment of reckoning their righteousness will shine in front of everyone and their righteousness will be recognized (v. 7). In the new world they will be with God and they shall reign for ever with him (vv. 8-9).
Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-5a,6b-7
In the Bible the term ‘new’ is often used—347 times in the Old Testament and 44 in the New Testament—and this adjective means a radical change compared to what existed before. The new work of God is something unexpected, unimaginable, amazing. When, for example, he promises a "new law" (Jer 31:31-34), it does not refer to a new set of requirements, to an "update" of the Decalogue, but the gift of a radically different law, the inner dynamism leading to the fulfillment of God’s will, the impulse that moves the heart to choose the good.
In the Old Testament are announced many new realities that the Lord will implement: a new alliance, a new spirit, a new heart and a new creation: "I now create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind again. Be glad forever and rejoice in what I create; for I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight" (Is 65:17-18).
The first creation was good. All that God had done was “very good” (Gen 1:31), but man, in his freedom, introduced sin; he used creatures for evil and has oriented them to corruption. The consequences of his choices are there for all to see: wars, violence, oppression, injustices.... Is God’s plan therefore a hopeless failure? Has his creation got out of the Lord of the universe’s hand? No—the seer of Revelation replied. God has in hand the destiny of the world, no event gets him by surprise, he is making all things new (v. 5). He does not destroy the first creation, but he is preparing a new heaven and a new earth. Only the sea—a symbol of all that is contrary to life (Rev 13:1)—will be made to disappear forever, it will evaporate to the last drop (v. 1).
The vision continues: "I saw the new Jerusalem, the holy city coming down from God, out of heaven, adorned as a bride prepared for her husband" (v. 2). At no time in her life the woman is as fascinating as on the wedding day. Her gait with graceful movements, her face without spot or wrinkle are cause for admiration and the object of flattering comments from the participants at the party. The reality of the world that we can see is the opposite; the outlook is bleak and nothing preludes to such a startling transformation. It takes a lot of faith to believe that from such a corrupt reality a new world can be born. Even one who observes a caterpillar is not misled into thinking that a butterfly is about to appear.
The conclusion of the world’s history is described by the Seer of Revelation as a dream: God will dwell for ever with people, "and he will wipe every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the world that was has passed away" (vv. 3-4). It is the message of joy and hope that John addresses to the Christians of his community, tempted to fall at the apparent and relentless triumph of evil. In the end—he assures—we will realize that, against all appearances to the contrary, the events of history had never escaped the Lord's hand.
Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12a
As human being people always cultivated a desire to meet God, to question him, to know his thoughts, to find out his plans. How to find him? Where can we meet him? In ancient times it was believed that the ideal place would be the peaks of the mountains. All nations had their sacred mountains—meeting places between heaven and earth, the abode of the gods and goal of human ascent—: for the Greeks, Olympus; for the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Ararat; for the Ugarits, the Tzaphon.
Israel also shared this belief. Abraham, Moses and Elijah had their strongest spiritual experiences on the mountains: Moria, Horeb and Mount Carmel. Matthew places the first discourse of Jesus on the mountain. Christian devotion has identified this place with the hill overlooking Capernaum. The nuns who guard it have turned it into an oasis of peace, meditation and prayer. Strolling under the majestic trees, greeted by the rustle of leaves blowing in the breeze coming down from the snowy peaks of Lebanon, contemplating from above the lake that Jesus and his disciples crossed so many times, one feels almost naturally induced to raise the eyes to the sky and the thought to God.
No matter how impressive this experience is, the mountain referred to by Matthew should not be understood in a geographical sense, but in its theological significance. More than a real place, “the mountain” in the Bible refers to any place or time when we dispose ourselves to meet the Lord and to accept his word. We can visualize the scene. Jesus detaches himself from the plain, a symbol of the society where—in the words of the Ecclesiastes—“all that is done, all that succeeds, results from rivalry with the neighbor: all is meaningless and chasing the wind” (Ecl 4:4). He climbs the mountain where the judging criteria and proposed models of life are radically different: they are those of God.
The scale of values established in the plains is, in broad terms, as follows: the first place to health, then family, professional success, bank account and friends. Even God and the saints—of course—are placed in the ranking, but rather at the bottom, as useful supports of previous values that are really at heart. Will the person who lives his own life according to these ideals be successful? What does God think of it? To avoid the risk of focusing on disappointing goals and wasting one’s existence, it is necessary to confront his judgment. Which scale of values is proposed on the mountain?
Today’s liturgy invites us to reflect on the proposals of blessedness made by Jesus. They are the ones that the saints in heaven have put into practice and that the saints of earth, encouraged by their example, are inspired to follow.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
It is hard to say in how many ways this beatitude has been interpreted. Someone referred it to the miserable, the beggars, the exploited, as if they were the kind of people God is pleased with and therefore should be left in their state, indeed, it should be ensured that all become like them. It is, of course, about an absurd, deviant interpretation. The humanity dreamed by God is not the one in which his children are poor, but one in which “no one is poor” (Acts 4:34).
Others believe that the “poor in spirit” are those who, while maintaining the possession of their property, are detached from them and generous in bestowing offerings to the less fortunate. But alms—even recommended in some (rare) biblical texts—do not introduce into the world the “new justice;” it does not solve the root problem of the equitable division of assets because the concept believes in the existence of the rich and poor on earth.
The principle of “to each his own” that underpins our justice seems wise and sensible, but it stems from a false premise, derived from the assumption that something belongs to a person, while, in fact, everything is of God: “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness, the universe and its inhabitants” (Ps 24:1). A person is only an administrator of goods, and he or she will be called to render account of this administration. From the false relationship with the goods of this world, rise the evil instincts of possessing, accumulating and using goods only for oneself. All the evils: wars, violence, disagreements, jealousy ensue from there (1 Tim 6:10). The whole creation is therefore “groaning in pain and begs to be renewed and redeemed” (Rom 8:19-25).
All possessive adjectives that we use express an erroneous conception of reality: if all is of God, it makes no sense to talk about mine, yours and not even of ours because everything is of the creator. The biblical image of the world is that of the banquet hall where the Lord invites each of his children from the moment he called them to life.
The person is a table companion who rejoices with the brothers and sisters of the gifts that the Father freely makes available to all. Whoever manages them as one’s own property commits a theft. Life itself does not belong to man; it is of God and is a gift that must be offered for love. In respect to goods, Jesus never assumed the attitude of contempt that characterized the cynical philosophers. For him, the “dishonest wealth” also becomes good when it is distributed to the poor (Lk 16:19). However, although he never condemned it, he regarded it as a threat, “an obstacle—insurmountable for many—to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:23). The more a person is favored, the more goods one has, the more one is tempted to tie one’s heart with them, keep them for oneself and employ them selfishly.
To those who want to follow him—to those who want to be holy—Jesus asks for total detachment: “Everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot by my disciple” (Lk 14:33). The beatitude should be read in the context of this essential requirement to share all that is available to us from God.
Jesus does not exalt poverty as such. By adding the specification in spirit, he makes it clear that not all the poor are blessed. Only the ones who, by free choice, strip themselves of all and manage the assets according to God’s plan are blessed. The poor in spirit are those who decide not to possess anything for themselves and make available to others all that they receive.
Mind you: the poor according to the gospel is not the one who has nothing, but the one who does not keep anything for himself or herself. Whoever has had more is considered rich, if he becomes haughty, humiliates the less gifted, and employs one’s own ability to oppress others. If he spends himself for others and puts himself at the service of those who need him is poor in spirit.
Someone who is miserable needs not be “poor in spirit.” He is not, if he curses himself and others; if he attempts to improve his own condition with violence and deceit; if he thinks for himself by losing interest in others, or if he cultivates the dream of one day winning the prestigious position of the rich.
Voluntary poverty, the renunciation of the selfish use of all property that one owns, is not something optional, not a counsel reserved to some who want to be heroes or more perfect than others. This is what distinguishes the saint, that is, the Christian. The promise that accompanies the beatitude does not refer to a distant future. It does not guarantee entry into heaven after death, but announces an immediate joy: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. From the moment one makes the choice to become and to remain poor, one enters the “kingdom of heaven,” and belongs to the family of saints.
This beatitude is not a message of resignation, but of hope: no one will be in need when all will become “poor in spirit,” when they will put the gifts they have received from God in the service of others, as God does, the Holy One who, while possessing everything, is infinitely poor: he holds nothing back, gives everything, even his Son.
Blessed are those who suffer.
For centuries in the church, asceticism that exalted pain as a means of uniting oneself more closely to the sufferings of Christ was preached. It attracted legions of saints and awakened precious spiritual energies, but has also spread the mistaken belief that suffering is pleasing to God. It is not. Suffering dehumanizes and the Lord cannot be pleased with an offer that disfigures the face of his children. Jesus—quoting the prophet Hosea—said that God desires love, not sacrifice (Mt 9:13).
What does he mean then when he proclaims blessed are the “afflicted”? The term he uses is well known to those familiar with the Bible. The “afflicted” spoken of in the book of the prophet Isaiah are those who do not have a house to live in, no fields to cultivate because the legacy of their fathers has been usurped by strangers. They are those who have to put themselves at the service of unscrupulous landowners; suffer injustice, abuse of power, embezzlement and humiliation (Is 61:7).
To these brokenhearted, who sit on ashes wearing mourning garments (Is 61:3) the prophet addresses a message of hope. God—he assures—is about to intervene, he will reverse the situation and eliminate the causes of mourning: “cheer up those who mourn in Zion, give them a garland instead of ashes, oil of gladness instead of mourning, and festal clothes instead of despair” (Is 61:3). In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus applied to himself this oracle. He proclaimed that he had come to fulfill this promise of God (Lk 4:21).
The “afflicted” that Heaven regards blessed are those who are attentive and sensitive to the immense cry of pain that rises from the world. “They weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15), but do not resign themselves in the face of evil and suffering. They expect salvation from God and his word. They will be comforted in the kingdom of God—of which Jesus, the Holy One, has laid the foundation and that the saints work together to build. There, all the situations that cause pain and tears will be erased.
Blessed are the meek.
The adjective “meek” evokes the idea of a resigned person who does not react to provocations, and passively accepts the injustices without complaint. Is this the person who shuns every conflict (but perhaps revealing a weak personality) who is beatified?
The term “meek” used by Jesus is taken from the Old Testament and, more precisely, from Psalm 37 where those deprived of their rights, liberty are called “the meek ones.” They are poor because the powerful have stolen their fields, houses and even their sons and daughters. They are forced to suffer injustice without even being able to protest.
They do not give up, but refuse to resort to violence to restore justice. They do not let themselves be guided by anger; they do not feed the resentment and the desire for revenge. They trust in God and await the coming of his kingdom. Theirs is not, however, a passive waiting as that of those waiting for the bus; it is active; it translates into concrete commitment.
Jesus is the model of true meekness (Mt 11:29; 21:5). He certainly was not a weak, timid, or shy person. He has experienced dramatic conflicts, but confronted them with the provisions of the heart that characterize the “meek ones.” He repudiated violence, loved those who opposed it; by being patient, tolerant and becoming the servant of all.
Holy are those who cultivate the dreams of God on earth and, with Jesus—the Holy One—undertake to achieve them, giving evidence against those who oppose them, with the same “meekness” of the Master.
The Promise: they will inherit the earth. They will receive from God a new land; they will build with him a new world, truly human. A dream? Yes, but of God and the saints, do not allow themselves to be persuaded by the evil one who tries to convince them that God’s promises will never come true. They do not resign themselves to the often bleak reality in which they are called to operate, and maintain firmly that hope, which Paul qualifies with the Greek term ‘hupomone,’ the characteristic of semi-precious stones that resist any pressure (1 Thes 1:3).
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Hunger and thirst are the most basic biological needs. It is with the same passion—Jesus recommends—that his disciples should hunger for “justice”. What is justice? Human justice states that all people are treated according to what they deserve: the good people are rewarded; the guilty are punished and the innocent released. “Executing justice” is actually synonymous to sending to the gallows. Is this the justice of which we must be hungry and thirsty? The adjective “just” can be applied to God, but with great caution, because one runs the risk of transforming the Lord into a performer of judgments and guarantor of morality with promises of rewards and threats of punishment.
The Bible often speaks of God’s justice, but always and only as a synonym of kindness, never in the sense of our distributive justice. God is just, not because he compensates according to merits, but because, with his love, he makes righteous those who are evil. He is just because “he desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
For us, justice is done when the culprit is punished. For God justice is done when he manages to make a wicked righteous, or when he saves a sinner from the abyss of guilt. Nobody like Jesus has longed so much so that this justice would be established in the world. To the disciples who invited him to eat, he replied: “My food is to bring to completion the work of him who sent me” (Jn 4:34). Only the righteousness of God could satisfy his hunger. He announced the word that made people just and there were so many people who needed to hear it that he had no time even to eat (Mk 6:31).
Saints are those who share with Jesus his own hunger and thirst for the salvation of his brothers and sisters.
The promise: they shall be filled. They will experience—already here on earth—the joy of God and of the angels of heaven who have more joy over one sinner that is made just over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance (Lk 15:7).
Blessed are those who do works of mercy.
This beatitude seems to fit itself in the conflict between patience and desire to punish the culprits. It seems an invitation to let compassion and forgiveness prevail always. This is certainly one of the aspects of “mercy” and agrees well with the recommendation of Jesus: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Judge not lest you be judged: condemn not, and you will not be condemned: forgive, and you shall be forgiven” (Lk 6:36-37). But this does not exhaust the richness of the biblical term.
In the Bible “mercy” rather than a feeling of pity, is an action in favor of those who need help. The clearest example is that of the Samaritan—the Greek text says—he has made mercy towards the man attacked by bandits (Lk 10:37).
The rabbis of Jesus’ time taught that God is merciful because he does works of mercy and they specify: “God clothed the naked—when covered Adam and Eve with leaves; Genesis 3:21—so you have to clothe the naked. He visited the sick—In fact he visited Abraham when he was suffering from circumcision and visited the barren Sarah, Genesis 18:1—so you have to visit the sick. He comforted those who were grieving—when he comforted Isaac after the death of his father, Genesis 25:11—so you have to comfort those who are grieving. He buried the dead—he was the one who buried Moses, Deuteronomy 34:6—so you have to bury the dead.”
Merciful are the saints who, faced with the needs of a person, feel the emotion of the heart of God and intervene, performing works of mercy, as God did.
The Promise: they will find mercy. In the new world, in the kingdom of God, they too, when they need help, will meet brothers and sisters always willing to reach out to them, indeed, to give their lives to help them.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Purity was one of the most marked characteristics of the Jewish religion. Any contact with the pagan cults, with something that might recall death and was unclean, had to be avoided. From this requirement of purity, there arose prohibitions, the detailed provisions of the rabbis obliging them to stay away from what was perceived as contrary to the holiness of God. Since transgressions were inevitable, it was necessary to obsessively resort to purification rites, ablutions and sacrifices (Mk 7:3-4).
Jesus is not interested in these practices. He demands purity of heart. There is nothing external that makes a person unclean. It is only what comes from the heart that can make one unclean (Mt 15:17-20). The pure in heart are those who have an undivided heart, those who do not love both God and idols. A person, who serves two masters, whose conduct does not agree with the faith he professes, who loves God but keeps resentment toward a brother or a sister in his heart, who never commits bad actions but is adulterous in his heart, has an impure heart (Mt 5:28). The promise: they shall see God. To them is given the blessed experience of trusting abandonment in the arms of God.
Blessed are those who are committed to peace.
Among the works of mercy recommended by the rabbis of Jesus’ time, to bring peace, to reconstruct harmony among persons, was the most meritorious. Every action that aims at restoring peace—it was said—attracts the blessings of God. Blessed is certainly the one who, without resorting to violence, commits all his energy to put an end to wars and conflicts. Blessed is he who comes between the contenders and tries to convince them to dialogue, harmony and peace.
But in the Bible the word “peace” (shalom) is not just the absence of war. It indicates the total wellbeing, implies harmony with God, with others and with themselves, prosperity, justice, health, and joy. “Peacemakers” are all those who are committed to making this life as good as possible for every person.
The most beautiful of the promises is given to these saints: God considers them his children.
Blessed are the persecuted for righteousness.
> There are disasters that strike unexpectedly: fatality, illness and misfortune can happen to anyone. Other sufferings are the result of foolish or unethical behavior and these are our fault! There is a third kind of tribulations: those that we do not want, but we have to take into account—because they are an inevitable price to pay—if we choose to follow Christ.
Jesus did not delude his disciples; he has not promised honors and achievements, has not assured them of people’s approval and consent and insistently and clearly repeated that adhesion to him entails persecution: “If the head of the family has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of the family” (Mt 10:25). And again: “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you; you will be delivered to the synagogues and put in prison, and for my sake you will be brought before kings and governors” (Luke 21:12). “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Mt 10:23). The wisdom of God said: “I will send prophets and apostles and these people will kill and persecute some of them. But the present generation will have to answer for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the foundation of the world” (Lk 11:49-50).
Persecution is the uniform that distinguishes the disciple. Paul is very explicit: “All who want to serve God in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). How come? We would expect that a Christian—a messenger of peace and hope—is to be welcomed with open arms, with joy and gratitude. Instead, the proclamation of the gospel creates conflicts. The reason is that the old world order is incompatible with the kingdom of God and does not give up peacefully. It reacts by attacking those they want to disappear.
Christ paid with his life for the loyalty to his mission, and his disciples must not expect a different treatment: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you, too” (Jn 15:20).
The persecution of the righteous is often spoken of in the Old Testament. In the Psalms the righteous ask God: “Deliver me from the grip of my persecutors” (Ps 7:2); “When will you judge my persecutors? When they persecute me, help me” (Ps 119: 84.86). Jeremiah is opposed, slandered, and imprisoned in a cistern.
In the Old Testament, however, persecution is considered bad and the person who suffers it cannot be happy until God intervenes to end it. In the New Testament, the perspective changes. He who suffers for his faithfulness to the Lord is proclaimed blessed for the very fact of being persecuted.
Persecution is not a sign of failure, but of success. It is a cause of joy because it is the proof that one is pursuing the right choice, according to the “wisdom of God.” It is inevitable that those who propose a society based on the principles taught “on the mountain” are persecuted. They introduce into the world the antibodies of service that attack the viruses of power. They do not give a chance to these viruses, although camouflaged or hidden under sacred trappings.
Whoever feels his position and prestige threatened by the coming of the kingdom of God reacts with violence, if necessary. The saints never had an easy life: their fate has been sealed from the moment they agreed to act as lambs.
Subjected to persecution, they have not succumbed to the temptation to behave like wolves and have not strayed from the behavior suggested by the Master: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44) and by Paul: “Bless those who persecute you” (Rom 12:14).
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: