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A Remnant People - Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
by Stephen Bevans, SVD | January 29, 2017
A REMNANT PEOPLE
Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
January 29, 2017: Zephaniah 1:2; 3:12-13; Psalm 146:6-7, 8-9, 9-10; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12a
Last week I was in Atlanta, Georgia, attending a meeting sponsored by the World Council of Churches. One of the highlights of the meeting, on the weekend of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, was a visit to Atlanta’s new Museum of Civil and Human Rights. Going through the exhibits that chronicled the Civil Rights Movement here in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, and experiencing other exhibits that highlighted people’s struggle for human rights all around the world was like a mini-retreat. It was a chance to re-commit myself to the struggle for human dignity and freedom, and to be inspired by great leaders such as Ghandi, King, Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Aung San Suu Kyi (for the website of the museum, see https://www.civilandhumanrights.org).
In the plaza outside the museum stand two glass panels, leaning at angles to each other, framed in stainless steel. On each of the panels is etched a quotation, but the one that caught my eye was one with a quotation from the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead. It read: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
In many ways, I think that quotation captures the meaning of our readings for this fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. These readings speak about the power and importance of a small group of women and men—to paraphrase Mead, “thoughtful, committed Christians,” and how they might change the world by their weakness and vulnerability.
The first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, speaks of a “remnant … humble and lowly,” who “shall do no wrong and speak no lies.” This is the “remnant of Israel,” that small group of faithful Israelites from whom would come the Messiah, who would save God’s People Israel. It is to this concept of “remnant” to which the earliest Christians appealed for their meaning in the History of Salvation. In the second reading, from near the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds the Corinthian community of their own weakness and vulnerability. They were not “wise by human standards,” and “not many were powerful” or “of noble birth.” And yet it was this rather ragtag group that God chose “to shame the wise, … to shame the strong,” and “to reduce to nothing those who are something.” Zephaniah and Paul are pointing to an alternative understanding of power, one that emerges out of an alternative way of life. But it is this group of “thoughtful committed Christians or Israelites” that will ultimately change the world.
In the time between Zephaniah’s call to the “humble of the earth” to “seek justice, seek humility” and Paul’s reminder to “consider your own calling” as the vulnerable who will change the world, stands Jesus. He offers the same alternative vision, and we read it in these opening lines of his “Sermon on the Mount.” Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses who offers a prophetic vision of the Law, not given on Mount Sinai now, but on an unnamed mountain in Galilee. Jesus’ new law is a law of vulnerability. It is about embracing poverty of every kind, embracing the reality of loss, embracing openness toward others, embracing the passion for right relationships, embracing compassion and single-mindedness, embracing both sides in peacemaking, embracing persecution as a consequence. It is about vulnerability, but one that promises the deepest joy and happiness as such a vulnerable—and probably small—community is revealed as a new way of living, and a sign of God’s own vulnerability in the world.
Jesus offers a vision of vulnerability, but that does not mean passivity. Like Ghandi or Martin Luther King, being poor, allied with suffering, being open to others, being passionate for justice and right relationships, being committed to making peace are all active stances. In his New Year’s Day address for the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of living non-violently. This echoes Jesus’ vision perfectly. Here’s a bit of what he said: Nonviolence is sometimes taken to mean surrender, lack of involvement and passivity, but this is not the case. When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she clearly stated her own message of active nonviolence: ‘We in our family don’t need bombs and guns, to destroy to bring peace – just get together, love one another… And we will be able to overcome all the evil that is in the world.’” (See the whole message at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/peace/documents/papa-francesco_20161208_messaggio-l-giornata-mondiale-pace-2017.html).
At Catholics on Call, we emphasize the fact that the basic vocation of Christians is connected with their Baptism, not whether they respond to the call of the single life or married life, not whether they respond to the call of lay ministry, or religious life, or ordained ministry in the church. Baptism calls us to be part of that “small group of thoughtful, committed Christians” who can, if they strive to live out their call to be God’s remnant People, can indeed change the world. Perhaps G. K. Chesterton’s famous line is relevant here: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and so never really tried. Our basic vocation is to try!
Stephen Bevans, SVD
Steve Bevans is Professor Emeritus at Catholic Theological Union and the Faculty Moderator for Catholics on Call. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines.
His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009).
He is past president of the American Society of Missiology (2006) and past member of the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America (2007-2009). In 2009 he was visiting lecturer at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2013 he was the only Catholic to speak at a Plenary at the Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, Korea.