If someone were to ask you on the street “Who was the prophet Zephaniah?” you might be hard pressed for an answer. There’s no need to blush, because no one else knows either. Next to nothing is known about him from the book of his name, and nothing at all outside of it. He appears to have lived around 600 years before the birth of Jesus, around the time a civil war in what we now call Iraq led to the defeat of the Assyrians by the Babylonians and the beginning of a lot of trouble for the people of Israel. It’s a small world.
Zephaniah was considered a prophet in the area around Jerusalem. His book is largely a collection of material found in Isaiah and other older books of the Hebrews. But his emphasis on humility, lowliness, justice for the oppressed, orphans and widows, on food for the hungry, freedom for captives, and health for the weary and ill, appeals to both Christians and Jews. It lies at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, the opening verses of which we have just heard. These famous lines, Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ moral and spiritual teaching, are generally known as the Beatitudes because they begin with a blessing: “Blessed or happy are the poor in spirit.” It’s a teaching echoed in St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth as well.
Beatitudes are declarations, even catalogues of blessings, and the bible is full of them. But in the end, all blessing simply means closeness to God. For Paul, happiness flows from identification with Christ. Jesus IS God’s ultimate blessing — God has made Him our wisdom and justice and sanctification and redemption. The closer we come to Christ, the more blessed we become. But that means that blessedness is therefore inseparable from persecution, attacks on reputation, and the oppression of poverty, hunger, and grief — and you’ll notice that many of the Beatitudes focus on suffering and loss.
In both Matthew and Luke, the Beatitudes are linked by the word “poor.” Both point to the oppressed and dispirited classes of the world, those who lack worldly wealth and enjoy no esteem. Jesus locates their blessedness in their very lack of fortune and success. Jesus is telling us is that only to the extent that we see in such events the hidden gift of God’s favor, is it possible to become truly happy.
He warns us not to look to those who are wealthy, overfed, and carefree to understand happiness. We should look , rather, to the lives of those whom the world counts worthless or worse. For the seed of their bliss is hope, watered by faith in God’s promises and the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, and blossoming in love.
Here Jesus subverts the ordinary values and structures of the world and unveils for us in his own life the face of beatitude, the true and original blessing that becomes a channel of further blessing and salvation for all the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sixth beatitude, Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
For some reason, it is one of most misrepresented of the beatitudes. It has nothing to do with sexual matters, for one thing, and for another, it is not about single-heartedness. It points back to Psalm 24:3-5 —
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in God’s holy place?
She who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up her soul to what is false,
and does not swear deceitfully.
This is what we have also heard from the book of the prophet Zephaniah:
those who are left in Israel… shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall pasture and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” (Zephaniah 3:13-14)
Scripture is telling us here that someone with a clean heart has removed from it the defiling presence of untruth, the tendency to lie, to deceive, and therefore to be blind to the presence of God. The person with a pure heart is one who loves the truth.
Like Jesus, Zephaniah also expresses a strong bias in favor of the poor and humble of the earth, as if they were not only more in need of cleanness of heart, but more likely to show it.
Seek the LORD, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility;… For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. (Zeph. 2:3, 3:13)
Here, Paul’s message to the Christians of Corinth comes to mind: when God called out those who were most likely to hear the word of God and keep it, God chose those the world despises. God chose the foolish I order to confound the wise, the weak in order to shame the powerful, the low-born, those of no account, to humble those who consider themselves something. And God made Jesus, whom the world hated and destroyed, into our very justice, holiness, and salvation.
We could do a lot worse than listen to what Jesus tells us and practice it in every area of life. The smallest lie, the most harmless deceit is a seed of corruption which, nurtured on the desire for reputation, power, and prestige, can swell into full corruption. Jesus is not telling us to be foolish or silly, much less to speak the truth in such a way as to hurt others or even mislead them. He is telling us to keep our motives pure. The rest will take care of itself.