Perhaps you do not recognize this sixteen line sonnet from its title, The New Colossus, yet most of us would recognize at least two lines of that sonnet most quoted, namely “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” May I cite here the first eight lines as they are emblazoned at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. . . People do not light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket; they set it on a lampstand where it gives light to all in the house.” In those powerful words, Jesus expresses his heart’s deepest desire not only for his listeners of 2,000 years ago but for all of us today. We are the light – a light of reason, a light of welcome, a light of encouragement, a light of hope. And how the world so needs our light.
Yet, there are many reasons why some would want to put that lamp under a bushel basket. Perhaps the one reason that immediately comes to mind is fear – fear of looking foolish, fear of welcoming the wrong people, fear of claiming that we are somehow greater than we really are. How sad it is that fear might diminish us, temper our witness to the truth by cloaking it within the mantle entitled “good manners.” However when we bury our light, we insult the God who so yearns for us to shine.
God created us to be a “new Colossus,” not arrogant in drawing attention to ourselves but humble servants of the light that was entrusted to us in our baptism, the truth of who we are and what God desires this world to become.
In the time of Jesus (as in, perhaps, some brands of religion today), prosperity is seen as the blessing that God has given to those who have worked hard and obeyed all the rules. As we read in the book of Leviticus, the Lord God says, “If you live in accordance with my statutes and are careful to observe my commandments, I will give you your rains in due season, so that the land will yield its crops, and the trees their fruit; your threshing will last till vintage time, and your vintage till the time for sowing, and you will eat your fill of food, and live securely in your land.”
Of course, throughout the history of God’s people, those experiencing struggles and afflictions in their life wonder what they did wrong to deserve such tribulation. Job, of course, is the classic case of the good man who undergoes all these tests and questions why all these evils are befalling him. And so, we too begin to wonder in those moments of trial, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”
The classic question that asks. “Why do the good suffer?” can never be answered with a kind of logic that will then have all suffering finally make sense. Would that it could be so easy! But somewhere, in the midst of the pain and struggle, the Kingdom is being experienced. In last week’s gospel, Jesus proclaims that the “Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” God’s loving design for his world and for all its inhabitants is about to unfold. Immediately, I am sure, Jesus felt the need to offer hope and comfort to those who experience various challenges in their life. How is the Kingdom present to those who are poor, those who have lost a loved one, those who feel taken advantage of, those who struggle so hard to bring about a right order and feel either persecuted or even disparaged for their efforts?
And so, Jesus offers to the weak, the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden, the good news encapsulated in these beatitudes, the familiar opening to the Sermon on the Mount that we hear in today’s gospel. The fact is that God labors to love us even more in those moments when we feel spiritually poor, in the moments of grief and loss, in the moments when we feel treated poorly by others even when we have tried to do the right thing. To you belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.
We must be careful not to think that the “reward” proclaimed in each beatitude is only to take place in some other world we call heaven. In Jesus, heaven and earth have met; the Kingdom of Heaven is the mustard-seed size of God’s new order, already taking root and eventually coming into a fullness at the end of time. Right now, even in the midst of struggle, a new order is being born where we are being consoled, fed and being immersed in an eternal Love that will never abandon us.