Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Greatest Speech of All Time

Homily from the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year A

A couple of weeks ago, our nation had the occasion to take note of two of the most memorable speeches in 20th century American history.  As our nation observed Martin Luther King Jr. day January 17th, we recalled, of course, Dr. King’s moving “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he cried out for racial equality and an end to discrimination.  Three days later, was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address in which he uttered those unforgettable words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

And as powerful and moving and memorable as these two speeches may be, neither they, nor such speeches as Winston Churchill’s “We Will Fight on the Beaches,” Abraham Lincoln’s immortal “Gettysburg Address," or, dare I say it, Knute Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper" can begin to approach the beauty, the importance, the magnitude, the influence or the effect of the speech whose opening words we hear in today’s Gospel.

Today, we hear the beginning of the greatest speech in the history of mankind: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  No speech has been more pondered, more influential or more quoted.  And no speech has ever been more revolutionary.

Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus completely turns upside down our previous ways of dealing with one another.  Gone are the days of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  Here are the days of “turning the other cheek.”  Gone are the days of “love your neighbor and hate your enemy."  Now are the days of “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we hear the Golden Rule: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.”

Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we are given what are quite possibly the most frequently recited words in the history of human speech, the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father.” 

And here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we hear its beautiful preamble: today’s Gospel the Beatitudes.  And as Jesus talks about the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, he’s not just talking about us and who he wishes us to be; he’s talking about himself.

The poor in spirit are those who are detached from the things of this world and attached only to God.  Who is more attached to God than the one who is “one in being with the Father”?

Those who mourn are those who show sorrow in the face of sin and compassion in the face of injustice.  Who is more mournful than Jesus in his agony in the garden or he who wept at the death of Lazarus?

The meek are the humble and the selfless.  Who is more meek than he who opened not his mouth but was led like a lamb to the slaughter and gave his life for us?

The merciful are not just those who show pity, but those who show true empathy for another and step into the shoes of another and see with their eyes.  Who is more empathetic to you and I than the one who stepped into our shoes by becoming a man and truly entered the human condition?

The peacemakers are not just those who love peace talk about it, but those who do something about it.  And who in the whole history of the world has done more to make peace than the one who offered his life on the Cross in order to make peace between an all-loving God and a people who rejected that love through sin?

In the beatitudes we hear who we are called to be: poor in spirit, merciful, meek, peacemakers.  And we are shown how to be who we are called to be by looking at the one who is perfectly poor spirit, perfectly merciful, perfectly meek: Jesus Christ.

We become like him because he became like us.  We come to share in his divinity because he humbled himself to share in our humanity.  And we will have the grace and the courage to be insulted and persecuted and have every kind of evil uttered against us for his sake, because he was insulted and persecuted and had every kind of evil uttered against him for our sake.

Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount is the greatest speech of all time.  But to be quite honest, to qualify it as a speech, does not do it justice and is, quite frankly, a rather trite categorization.

The Sermon on the Mount is so much more than just a speech because of who speaks it.  Not a political leader or a great sports figure.  These are the words of Jesus Christ, the Son of God

It is so much more than a speech because of who it is spoken to.  Not just a nation or a people living in a particular century.  These are words spoken to every single human being in every nation in the whole history of the world.

And it is so much more than a speech because of what it does.  Not just inspiring people of one color to live in harmony with people of another color or asking us to ask what we can do for our country.  These are the words that tell us how to get to Heaven.  Here, Jesus tells us to “enter through the narrow gate”, to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect”, to “ask… seek… and knock.”

These are words that do so much more than amuse or inspire.  These are words that change our very lives.

For the next 6 weeks, from now until Lent, all of our Gospel readings are going to march us through a good portion of the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew.  Let us be like the disciples who climb up the mountain with him.  Let us sit as his feet and be taught by him.  Make the Sermon on the Mount, your own daily spiritual reading for the next 6 weeks and pray with the greatest speech of all time.

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