When the Bible reverses the status quo
In music, a motif is a brief and repeated melody that anchors a longer composition. Literary motifs, by extension, are themes or expressions that animate longer passages of text. The Bible includes many such motifs. A common one is that God honors those whom the world considers disgraced. The readings this Sunday illustrate dramatically this reversal of the status quo.
God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something. (1 Cor 1:28)
Can you hear the song of the lowly and humble that the readings highlight this week?
Do the beatitudes ring true? How do they embody a reversal of the status quo?
How can you move from the prayerful motif ‘the lowly are lifted up’ to concrete action in your discipleship journey?
In the first reading, the prophet Zephaniah describes judgment to come “on the day of the Lord’s anger” (Zep 2:3). Zephaniah’s brief book describes the disappointment many felt in Judah’s leadership in the years before the fall of Jerusalem and before the Babylonian exile in 587 BCE. Jerusalem’s elites ruled with tyranny over the lowly, its political leaders were wolves, its prophets were reckless, its people treacherous, and its priests quick to profane the sacred and do violence against the law (see Zep 3:1-4). These were honored positions in the eyes of society: rulers, judges, prophets and religious professionals. In response, Zephaniah proclaims the less notable as honored in God’s eyes, “But I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly” (Zep 3:12). That the ‘lowly and the humble’ will inherit the land is this Sunday’s motif.
This Sunday’s psalm comes from near the end of the Psalter. Several of the final psalms dream of the new kingdom closer to the peace God will establish. Central to this dream is the belief that, even now, the Lord esteems the lowly who the world forgets. The hungry have food, prisoners are set free, the blind are given sight and the orphan and widow may lean against the comfort of their Lord (see Ps 146:6-10). The motif of reversal of fate is again pronounced, “The Lord raises up those who were bowed down” (Ps 146:8).
One of the Bible’s common motifs is that God honors those whom the world considers disgraced. The readings this Sunday illustrate dramatically this reversal of the status quo.
In this Sunday’s second reading, Paul reminds members of the Corinthian community of this biblical truth. They lived in a culture with a deeply ingrained system of honor and shame, and the realities of the “lowly” might seem to be an instance of shame that the honorable should avoid. Paul reminds them to consider the circumstances of their own calling (1 Cor 1:26). The Corinthians were not powerful or of noble birth or wise by human metrics. Nonetheless, Paul says, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong (1 Cor 1:27).
Like a musical phrase, the motif, “Blessed are the lowly, for they will inherit the land,” has been playing subtly throughout these readings. Now it reaches a crescendo in this Sunday’s Gospel with Matthew’s beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are they who mourn… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”. (see Mt 5:1-6). These are the lowly ones who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
The original Greek form of this passage reads like a harmonious melody for the lowly. The use of ‘blessed’ (makarioi) repeats through eight or nine verses depending on how one counts. The first four beatitudes are identified with words that begin with p in the Greek: the poor in spirit (ptochoi to pneumati), the mournful (penthountes), the meek (praeis) and those who hunger (peinontes). The song-like nature of the text could have been memorized and repeated as future generations of disciples inherited this teaching of Jesus revealed to his closest disciples. The Evangelist Matthew considers the motif ‘God honors those who the world considers disgraced’ central enough to write down in a literary form fit for memorization.
The motifs of this week’s readings will continue in next week’s as well, when Jesus teaches how the lowly and humble are salt and light for the world. The ‘salt of the earth’ will be described as the people of the beatitudes in the opening lines of next Sunday’s Gospel. Perhaps it is enough this week to focus on the lowly in our lives and the response these readings enkindle within us.