Long ago in China there was an old farmer. One day his horse ran off. As news of this reached his neighbors, they visited the old man to express their sympathy: "What bad luck to lose your horse!"
The farmer thought for a moment and replied, 'Perhaps..."
The next morning the farmer awoke to find his horse had come back. What's more, several wild horses had followed his horse home. The neighbors rejoiced, and came by to tell the old farmer how happy they were for his sudden good fortune.
The old farmer paused and said "Perhaps..."
Shortly after, the farmer's son decided to ride one of the wild horses. Unaccustomed to a rider, the horse threw the boy off and the son broke his leg in the fall. Again, the neighbors arrived to offer their sympathies for the misfortune: "What a terrible run of bad luck you're having!"
The old farmer thought for a moment and said "Perhaps..."
The very next day, military officials came into the village with orders to draft young men for war. They went from house to house, rounding up all the young men. But when they got to the old farmer's house and saw his son with his broken leg they moved on, leaving the boy alone. Once again, neighbors came to share words of congratulations to the old farmer for the good fortune to have his son passed by.
Once again, the farmer paused and said… "Perhaps."
The story is an old Buddhist parable, but it could be used to illustrate one of the great verses of the Old Testament, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8, NAB). Natural human thinking isn't automatically right.
Equally, the parable can demonstrate a powerful New Testament teaching, St. Paul's hope-filled words "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…" (Romans 8:28).
And perhaps it opens a window to understanding this Sunday's Gospel, which is anything but natural human thinking. You could go through the entire Bible line by line without finding a text more difficult to accept and understand. And yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church says "The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching" (CCC 1716).
How can this be? Which of us associates anything good with mourning, one of the most truly painful of all human experiences? Who doesn't resent persecution, especially for doing right? Not to mention libels and slanders and evil gossip, which send us running to a lawyer.
I think I could buy the notion that Jesus is talking to the apostles, or to future saints, or perhaps to the persecuted Christians of Iraq or the Sudan. But you sure can't square that interpretation with the catechism teaching that "The Beatitudes are at the heart of Jesus' preaching."
However, in the same place the catechism explains itself by saying that the Beatitudes show us the face of Jesus. Given his willingness to suffer and even die for us, that makes sense. It's easy enough to accept the Beatitudes as a picture of Jesus. But then the catechism hits us square in the face with what his words actually mean to each of us: it says the Beatitudes express our calling. It says "they shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristic of the Christian life" (CCC 1717)
In other words, the Beatitudes are meant to be lived. By how we act and how we think. Every day.
I try to be honest in my preaching, so I'll tell you frankly that scares the heck out of me. I was writing my homily before dinner and thinking hard about the Beatitudes as an actual vocation took away my appetite—which, as you know, doesn't happen very often.
I'm really not sure where this homily would have gone if the catechism hadn't come to the rescue. It was almost like one of those "Good news, bad news" jokes. After terrifying us with the challenge of living the Beatitudes, our magnificent Catechism of the Catholic Church calls them "the paradoxical promises that sustain hope in the midst of tribulations;" it says "they proclaim the blessings and rewards already secured, however dimly, for Christ's disciples" (CCC 1717)
Talk about reassurance! Far from being unbearable demands, the Beatitudes are promises that keep hope alive in the darkest circumstances. They contain blessings and rewards already guaranteed, even if postponed for a time.
I said a few minutes ago that the Beatitudes contain much that goes against natural human instinct. The catechism turns that thought around completely, saying that "The Beatitudes respond to the natural desire for happiness." But of course the Church also teaches us that this "natural" desire is of divine origin: God placed it in our hearts in order to draw us to himself, the only One who can fulfill it (CCC 1718).
The Beatitudes take over where God's promises to the chosen people left off: they fulfill the promises not in terms of the Promised Land but something much greater, the Kingdom of heaven (CCC 1716).
There's simply nothing that should frighten or dismay us in this teaching, because it tells us the ending of our story. There's no suspense about how things will turn out. God calls us to his own beatitude (CCC 1719). In the face of that, all else is relative.
The catechism says we can already see the Beatitudes lived out, and the blessings they bestow, in the lives of the Virgin Mary and all the saints. But I'll take that a step further: in our own parish community I see people sustained by the hope that springs from the "paradoxical promises" Jesus makes in the Beatitudes. I see them comforted as they mourn; I see them blessed as they accept disappointments and unfairness; I see them living here with eyes fixed on heaven.
With due respect to the wise old farmer, there's really no "perhaps" about it. Christ has promised and Christ is faithful.