4th Sunday of the Year Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12–13; 1 Corinthians 1:26–31; Matthew 5:1–12a
Pope and prisoners The “poor in spirit” value God above all things and place complete trust in him.
Dr. Tom Dooley captured the imagination of the world in the 1950s.
After graduating from medical school, Dooley enlisted in the Navy as a doctor. The big day of his life came one hot July afternoon off the coast of Vietnam. That’s when his ship rescued 1,000 refugees who were drifting helplessly in an open boat.
Many of the refugees were diseased and sick. Since Dooley was the only doctor on the ship, he had to tackle, single-handedly, the job of giving medical aid to these people.
It was backbreaking, but he discovered what a little medicine could do for sick people like this. He said:
Hours later, I stopped a moment to straighten my shoulders and made another discovery the biggest of my life. I was happy [treating these people] . . . happier than I had ever been before.
Dooley’s experience that hot July afternoon changed his life forever.
When he got out of the Navy, he returned to the jungles of Asia and set up a small hospital to serve the poor and the sick.
One of Dooley’s favorite Bible passages was the one we just read: the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.
Tom said that his work among the poor gave him a new insight into the meaning of the Beatitudes.
Take, for example, the Beatitude Blest too are the sorrowing, which we sometimes translate Happy are those who mourn.
Applying this Beatitude to himself, Dooley said:
To mourn is to be more aware of the sorrow in the world than of the pleasure.
If you’re extra sensitive to sorrow, he said, and you do something, no matter how small, to make it lighter you can’t help but be happy. That’s just the way it is.
Besides calling “blest” those who mourn, Jesus calls several other people “blest.”
For example, he calls “blest” those who are “poor in spirit,” those who “show mercy,” and those who are “peacemakers.”
Let’s take a brief look at the people Jesus calls “poor in spirit.”
The “poor in spirit” are people like those Dr. Dooley ministered to in the jungles of Asia. They are people whose helpless situation in life forces them to place all their trust in God. They are the “humble people of the land” that Zephaniah talks of in today’s first reading. They are the weak and the despised that Paul talks about in today’s second reading.
The “poor in spirit” are the people who are totally detached from worldly things and totally attached to heavenly things. They are the people who regard worldly things as nothing and God as everything.
The “poor in spirit” are found not only among society’s rejected people but also among its most successful people. An example is Pope John XXIII.
One of John’s first acts as Pope was to visit a large prison in Rome.
He told the prison inmates, You couldn’t come to me, so I came to you.
He also told them that the last time he went to a prison was to visit his cousin.
The next day the Vatican newspaper omitted the Pope’s reference to his cousin. The paper was afraid some of the readers would be shocked to learn that a papal relative was in jail.
The newspaper was kept busy during Pope John’s reign editing out similar “papal indiscretions.”
Pope John was one of the world’s most successful people, yet he was as humble and unassuming as some of the world’s least people. Pope John illustrates another interesting fact. Many of the world’s truly great people rarely see themselves as great. Here we might recall that Jesus, the greatest person of all, said: Learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit. Matthew 11:29
A Malayan proverb compares great people to rice stalks in a rice field. It says:
The more grain a rice stalk has, the lower it bends down to the ground. The fewer grains it has, the higher it lifts itself into the air.
Today’s gospel is an invitation to take a good, long look at our lives. It’s an invitation to ask ourselves to what extent do we qualify to be called “blest” by Jesus.
For example, are we a person whom Jesus would give the name “merciful”? Are we a person to whom Jesus would give the name “peacemaker”? Above all, are we a person to whom Jesus would give the name “poor in spirit”?
In other words, are we detached from worldly things and attached to heavenly things? Do we regard created things as nothing compared to God, who is everything? Finally, do we put total trust in God, no matter what happens to us?
In brief, have we taken to heart the words of Jesus: Learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in Spirit. Let’s close with a prayer together. Let’s use these words from the responsorial psalm in today’s Mass:
Happy is the man . . . who depends on the LORD his God. . . .
[The LORD] always keeps his promises; he judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets prisoners free and gives sight to the blind. He lifts those who have fallen. Psalm 146:5–8
Happy is the man . . . who depends on the LORD his God.
Series II 4th Sunday of the Year Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12–13; 1 Corinthians 1:26–31; Matthew 5:1–12a
Okinawan cave “Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them!” In April 1986 two gray-haired men greeted each other warmly in Tokyo’s International Airport. Both men had tears in their eyes. One man was an American, named Ponich; the other was a Japanese, named Ishibashi.
The last time the two men met was 40 years before, as enemies in a cave in Okinawa.
At that time the American, then Sgt. Ponich, was holding a five-year-old Japanese boy in his arms. The child had been shot through both legs. Ishibashi was one of two Japanese snipers hiding in a dark corner of the same cave.
Suddenly, Ishibashi and his comrade leaped from their hiding place, aimed their rifles at Ponich, and prepared to fire point-blank.
There wasn’t a thing Ponich could do. He simply put the five-year-old on the ground, took out his canteen, and began to wash the child’s wounds.
If he had to die, what better way to die than performing an act of mercy. After all, Jesus said, “Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them!” Matthew 5:7
The two snipers watched in amazement. Then, slowly, they lowered their rifles.
Minutes later Ponich did something Ishibashi never forgot. He took the child in his arms, stood up, bowed in gratitude to the two Japanese, and took the child to an American field hospital.
How did the two men happen to meet again after all those years?
In 1985 Ponich wrote a letter to a Tokyo newspaper, thanking the Japanese people for the two Japanese soldiers who had spared his life 40 years before in that cave in Okinawa.
Ishibashi saw the letter and contacted the editor of the paper, who set up the meeting.
The meeting was long and affectionate. Each man filled the other in on the details of his life since the war.
Ponich has one last bit of unfinished business. He is now searching for the child he held in his arms in the cave. Ponich said:
He was incredible. He had those bullet holes in his legs and was in awful pain, yet he never cried, never complained. If I could just find out what happened to him, it would be the perfect ending to the story. Ronald Yate, Chicago Tribune Not every act of mercy ends so beautifully or receives such international publicity. But every act of mercy, no matter how small, underscores the beautiful and profound truth of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel:
“Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them!”
The dictionary defines mercy as “compassionate treatment toward those in distress.”
It’s the kind of compassionate treatment that Sgt. Ponich showed to the wounded child. It’s the kind of compassionate treatment that the Japanese snipers showed to Ponich when they had him in a helpless situation.
The word compassion comes from the Latin and means “to suffer with” or “to feel with.” The movie To Kill a Mockingbird contains a moving scene in which Atticus Finch says to his children: If you want to understand another person, you must crawl inside their skin and walk around with them.
That’s an excellent description of compassion. Compassion means to be able to get inside other people to see through their eyes, to feel with their feelings, and to think with their thoughts.
It means to get inside the skin of a wounded Japanese boy and see with his eyes, feel with his feelings, and think with his thoughts.
It means to get inside the skin of a trapped American sergeant caring for a wounded child and see what he sees, feel what he feels, and think what he thinks.
It means to do what God himself did in the person of Jesus Christ. In the most literal sense, God, in the person of Jesus, came down to earth, climbed inside our skin, and walked around in our shoes.
He became a human being like us. He looked through our eyes, loved with our hearts, thought with our minds, and felt with our emotions. The French have a proverb that says, “To know all is to forgive all.”
The proverb’s point is that if we could get inside the skin of our enemies and experience what they do, we would forgive them. We would treat them with compassion.
We would treat them with the same compassion that Jesus showed the woman taken in adultery.
We would treat them with the same compassion that Jesus showed the dying thief on the cross.
We would treat them with the same compassion that Jesus showed his executioners when he said, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34 Shakespeare says in his famous play Merchant of Venice: “[Mercy] is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Shakespeare’s point is that when we show mercy to another, we ourselves will be blessed for that mercy.
The American sergeant received mercy from the Japanese snipers for no other reason than that he had shown mercy to the child.
Today’s gospel is an invitation to us to show mercy to others. It’s an invitation to us to show mercy to others the way Jesus shows mercy to us. It’s an invitation to us to show mercy to others the way we would like them to show mercy to us.
And if we accept this invitation, we have the promise of Jesus himself that his heavenly Father will show mercy to us.
He will show us the same compassion that Jesus showed the adulterous woman, the good thief, and his executioners— the same compassion that the Japanese soldiers showed Sgt. Ponich.
Let us close with these words about mercy from a beautiful prayer by the English poet Alexander Pope:
Lord! Teach me to feel another’s woe, To hide the fault I see; That mercy I to others show, That mercy show to me.
Series III 4th Sunday of the Year Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12–13; 1 Corinthians 1:26–31; Matthew 5:1–12a
True holiness Using the talents God gave us for God’s work.
Jesus said, “Blest are they who hunger and thirst for holiness; they shall have their fill.” Matthew 5:6
I ’d like to share a true story with you. It was written by a young Vietnamese, named Chanh (“chon”). Permit me to read it just as he wrote it:
When I was four years old, my father was imprisoned by the Communists. Sorrow and hardship struck our family. At times we weren’t sure where our next meal would come from.
I remember longing for the comfort of an ordinary family: to be able to go to school and to have a father who was always around. As I grew older, my longing for my own needs changed into a desire to help others who had needs like my own.
Above all, I longed to heal sick people, who seemed to be everywhere. I promised myself that if I ever escaped from Vietnam, I’d become a doctor.
At last, when I was 17 years old, after twelve attempts to escape, I finally succeeded. Eventually, I made it to the United States.
There, I became aware that people needed healing not just physically, but also spiritually. But I didn’t know how to heal them.
When I got to college, I continued to think about healing. Then, one day, I felt the call to be a priest. I entered a Jesuit seminary, and made a retreat,which was based on The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.
On that retreat for the first time I felt God’s love for me in powerful way.
As I reflected on the events of my life, I began to see that God had been with me every step of my journey.
God was with me in my family. Even though we were poor in money, we were rich in love.
God was with me when I drifted for 21 days on an overcrowded fishing boat, fleeing Vietnam.
God was with me as I fell asleep night after night, shivering from the cold, wondering if I’d live through the night to see the morning sunrise.
Above all, God was with me on my retreat, teaching me how to use my talents and my experiences to be the healer I longed to be.
Then, one day I began to wonder why I longed to be a healer so badly. Suddenly, the answer came. Expressing my love in this way gave me a deep sense of spiritual joy and fulfillment. It was then that I also got the answer to another question:
Why did Jesus keep saying, “Love one another?” I now see that it is because every human heart was made for love and longs for love. Chanh Nguyen
This directs us to today’s Gospel, especially Jesus’ words: “Blest are they who hunger and thirst for holiness; they shall have their fill.”
Chanh’s story is all about what true holiness is. It is using the talents God gave me in the way God intended me to use them.
To put it in another way, holiness is using the talents God gave me, as Chanh used his: to help those in need.
Chanh’s story also suggests a paradigm for pursuing holiness. It may be summed up in three words See, Reflect, Act.:
See means I see the needs of people around me, as Chanh saw them. He saw sick people everywhere and he longed to heal them. In a similar way, I seek to become aware of the needs of people around me whether these people be in my own home, in my place of work, or in school.
Hopefully, I, too, will be moved to help these people, as Chanh was.
This brings us to the second step: Reflect. Reflect means to consider, prayerfully, how I might use my talents to address the needs of the people I see in the world around me.
Or to put it in another way, Reflect means to ask myself this question: “If Jesus had my talents, and were in my shoes, what would he do?”
We’ve all seen the letters WWJD on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and bracelets. They mean “What Would Jesus Do?” Basically, in a simplified way, this is what the word reflect means.
It means to consider how I might use my talents the way Jesus would use them if he were in my situation.
It means to do what Chanh did. He decided that he would use his talents to heal the sick people that he saw everywhere about him. The third step is to Act. Act means that I take the first step, right now, to implement my decision.
And chances are that first step is to do what Chanh did. He sought to confirm, in prayer, that what he felt inclined to do was what God was calling him to do. And that’s when it became clear that God was calling him to become a special kind of healer a spiritual healer: a priest.
So by way of review, Jesus says in today’s Gospel “Blest are they who hunger and thirst for holiness; they shall have their fill.”
Holiness may be described as using my talents as God intends me to use them.
My journey in pursuit of holiness may be summed up in three words: See, Reflect, and Act.
See means to see the needs of people home, workplace, community and, hopefully, be moved to help them. Reflect means that I ask myself: “Given my current situation, how might I use my talents to help them?” Act means I take concrete steps to implement my decision.
Perhaps the very first step should be to seek to confirm, in prayer, that what I have decided to do is what God is actually calling me to do. Let’s conclude with these words of Stephen Grellet:
I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.