What we are given as the gospel for today is St Matthew's preface to his account of the teaching of Jesus to his disciples. Matthew thought of it as a sort of 'New Law', a new disclosure of God's overall will for human beings, comparable to what happened at Sinai in the Old Testament, and with Jesus cast in the role of a new Moses.
This preface is a statement of the essence of discipleship, a context in which to set the detailed do's and don'ts that follow. It's usually called 'The Beatitudes', and that seems to mean sayings about how to be happy, though the traditional translation of the key-word involved was, in fact, 'blessed'. The main translation in use at Mass in English parishes (the Jerusalem Bible version) has indeed replaced 'blessed', a rich and weighty word but unfortunately rather churchy and archaic, with this possibly misleading word 'happy'. Why do I say that making a connection between Christ and happiness could be misleading?
Basically, because of the danger that we may come to think the way the Christian religion makes us happy is something like businessmen getting relaxation by doing yoga, or, again, like discovering how to make friends and influence people - a technique, in other words, for personal fulfillment. But even a passing glance at these sayings makes it clear they're hardly out to jolly us along. Instead, these sayings are disturbing, threatening, and subversive.
The Beatitudes predict that if we are discover deep happiness at all it has to be - for disciples of Jesus, that is - via a list of fairly obviously unpleasant life-situations: in poverty, tears, hunger, and even being hunted down by agents of the State.
In these sayings, Jesus washes his hands of the future of any would-be disciples who are content just to make over a bit of their lives or income to religion. He makes an appeal that we should make over our selves, turn our personal world upside-down if need be. And the way of the disciple that flows from that gift of self is 'blessed' or 'happy' because, typically, they are to find themselves without a bank account (poor in spirit probably means, first and foremost, voluntarily poor), bereft of things and persons they love, with an empty belly and under suspicion by the authorities. It sounds rather implausible, doesn't it?
Fortunately, we have a key for understanding it later in St Matthew's Gospel where the New Law is summed up in the twofold command to love: love God and neighbour. The Beatitudes are about the things that love will suffer, they are about what love will willingly endure, the things that love will find itself able to give, and to find satisfaction and even delight in giving. And these things are endless.
The teaching of Christ, then, puts a literally infinite demand on us. We can't say, 'No more' or 'That's it'. His teaching admits no limits in what may be asked of us in the way of sacrifice. We express this in the cultus we pay to the martyrs, the first category of saint to be recognized in the Church. The Christian religion is a hard way. It is the way of the Cross. But it has the right to make an infinite demand, since it springs from an equally infinite succour, an equally limitless eagerness not only to help us but also to raise us up to share the divine life.
The heart of Christ wants each of us totally, everything about us: our intellect, our emotions, our energies, our talents, our surplus income, our imagination, our freedom. It wants them so as to consecrate them to the Father that God may be all in all, and we be who we were made to be, in God's image and likeness.
There has to be a powerful element of reckless, exuberant, self-abandoned, love of God in our lives - 'folly' was St Paul's word for it - or we shall never be on the wavelength of the excessive, ecstatic, mad love of God for humankind which made him enter his own creation in Jesus Christ and there be crucified to re-make us all.