Once, in a biblical archaeology class, Rev. Robert North disturbed us with his opinion that the historical Jesus never thought His followers would number more than a very small minority of the world's population.

"The faith Jesus experienced and preached is too demanding for most people to pursue," the famous Jesuit said. "Jesus believed His little group of disciples would imitate Him so intensely that they would eventually change the world."

I had read something similar years before in Karl Rahner's "The Christian Commitment." He contended that one of Christianity's major problems is that we have too many Christians! Many join the Church because it's socially acceptable, not because they're determined to carry on Jesus' ministry.

We don't like to hear such opinions. We believe we're carrying out Jesus' plan of evangelization by baptizing as many people as possible. Rarely do we notice the image lukewarm Christians convey to the non-Christian world.

Sunday's three readings seem to support North and Rahner's thesis.

Remnant remains

Zephaniah, like all prophets, eventually comes to realize that only a few Israelites are ever going to "observe Yahweh's law, and seek justice and humility" (Zeph 2:3; 3: 12-13). That's why he's comforted by Yahweh's promise to "leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of Yahweh: the remnant of Israel." Though this prophet preaches to all, few actually listen and change their lifestyles.

Scholars presume the Corinthian Christian community comprised only a small part of that large Greek city's population, and they certainly weren't the most influential part. Paul reminds them of the reality they face (I Cor 1: 26-31). "Consider your own calling," he writes. "Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth."

Then he leads them to see the strength of their situation: "God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise;...the weak...to shame the strong;...the lowly and despised;...those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.... Whoever boasts should boast in the Lord."

Paul regards something most people judge to be a liability as the most valuable asset a Christian community can possess. No one can underestimate the power a person wields who chooses to imitate Jesus.

Blessings

That same insight is behind Matthew's "Beatitudes." When we hear this famous list (Mt 5: 1-12), many of us think about a future time when these blessings will be part of our faith experience. The Gospel's original audience did the opposite. Jesus' words caused them to reflect on what had already happened.

The Beatitudes aren't pie-in-the-sky promises, enticing them to carry out what Jesus commands in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. They're blessings which the Gospel community has already experienced.

In their determination to follow the risen Jesus, they had become poor and mourned. They were meek, and hungered and thirsted for righteousness. They were merciful, clean of heart, peacemakers and persecuted for the sake of righteousness. To their amazement, they had not only survived, but also were experiencing the very blessings Jesus experienced when He did these very things.

As a child, I was fascinated that water wouldn't splash out of a bucket when I twirled it in an arc over my head. It stayed in the upside-down bucket no matter what the law of gravity said. At that point, other laws of nature kicked in, which I knew nothing about.

Something parallel happens when we respond to God's call. Jesus assured us that what we naturally expect to happen doesn't happen. Something we never could have anticipated takes place. God also works within laws we've yet to learn about: laws of faith that make the small huge and the weak powerful.

(1/27/05)