11-18-18 Sermon on the Mount Series: The Beatitudes Pt 2
The artwork of M.C. Escher has amazed, fascinated, and bewildered people for decades due to the seemingly impossible nature of what he depicts. Escher had no mathematical training, but his drawings have been used by and promoted in mathematical circles and periodicals for years. A close look at some of his work only further enhances the bewilderment we experience when we see something we know to be impossible depicted in such a straightforward and seemingly logical way.
Similarly, when we consider the vastness of the universe, the distance between planets or galaxies can test our ability to even begin to comprehend.
For example, the distance from the Earth to the Sun, as we learn in elementary school, is 93 million miles. So consider this - if we could drive from the Earth to the Sun in our car, at a constant 75 miles per hour, non-stop 24 hours a day, it would take over 141 years to arrive.
Intergalactic travel requires that we think, not in miles, but in light-years. A light year is the distance that light, going at 186,000 miles per second, can travel in one year. One light year equals roughly 5.88 trillion miles. The nearest star to our galaxy is Alpha Centauri, which is 4.3 light years away, or something over 25 trillion miles. At 25,000 mph - the speed of the Space Shuttle - it would take over 114,000 years to travel that distance. So, until we somehow manage to build a spaceship that can travel at the speed of light, we’re not venturing too far from planet Earth any time soon.
These images, numbers, and distances are nearly incomprehensible to us - so far outside the limits of what we can understand that they almost seem nonsensical to us. Rev. Matthew Kelley, in thinking about things like these, wrote, “I wonder if hearing Jesus speak had a similar effect on people. In first century Palestine, everybody understood how the world worked. Might made right. They were living under the Roman Empire, after all. The Romans got to rule most of the known world because they had the biggest military, the most money, and were willing to do whatever it took to secure their power base. The amount of resources in the world was finite, so you did whatever you had to do to make sure you got as big a share as you could. But here’s this preacher from Nazareth telling an entirely different story…Here’s Jesus saying that things like meekness, being persecuted, and being merciful in a merciless world are actually blessings from God!”
And Kelley is correct. Jesus, in his first teaching in Matthew’s gospel, is saying things that seem impossible for us to understand, or for some, even to agree with. The poor are blessed? Those who mourn are blessed? The meek, the humble, they are blessed? That seems like logic turned on its head to many people, including many devoted followers of Christ. But it is with this message that Jesus sets the tone for all of his ministry to follow. He’s telling them and us that everything we thought we knew about the world, about wealth, about society, about God - is wrong. Like so many people who would come with earth-shaking ideas after him - that the Earth was round, that the Sun was at the center of our solar system and not the Earth, that human flight was possible - Jesus was pushing back and pushing back hard against the status quo in the world and in the church.
As Kelley put it, “Jesus is forcing us to radically rethink the priorities and value systems around which we orient our lives. On the one hand there’s the story told by the empire (the ruling powers of the world) that says that the material realities of this life are the entirety of all creation, so material gain and success are the stick by which we measure individual worth. On the other hand, there’s the story that Jesus is telling, which tells us there is a higher reality than what we can perceive with our five senses, and that this higher reality and the priorities that flow out of its being are to dictate how we live our lives in the world.” It is through that understanding of what Jesus is trying to do here that we approach our three beatitudes for today.
“Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully! - Mt. 5:6 (GNT)
I chose the Good News Translation today specifically for the wording it used in this beatitude. Not the “happy” part - as I said last week, “blessed” is the better translation to get the idea that we’re talking, not about a feel-good emotion but a state of blessedness that comes from God. No, I chose it because it doesn’t use the word “righteousness.”
As Richard Rohr tells us, “This Beatitude is…both spiritual and social. Most Bibles…soften this Beatitude: “hunger and thirst for what is right” or “for righteousness” are the more common faulty translations. But the word in Greek clearly means “justice.” Notice that the concept of justice is used halfway through the Beatitudes and again at the very end. [This repetition] emphasizes an important point: To live a just life in this world is to identify with the longings and hungers of the poor, the meek, and those who weep. This identification and solidarity is in itself a profound form of social justice.”
When we hear the word “righteousness” we tend to think of “right thinking,” “right acting,” or “right belief,” or even a notion of piety. And that’s not necessarily wrong as it’s just not enough; it’s only a partial understanding of what the word translated as “righteousness” is saying to us. The word definitely is about “justice,” so while “right thinking, acting, and believing,” may also include ideas of justice, it isn’t as explicit as the original language would have us understand. The Good News translation, while not specifically using the word “justice,” does say “Blessed are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires.” And if we go back to the passage from the prophet Micah that we read earlier - what does the Lord require? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. So this beatitude might be better understood as, Blessed are those who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, for God will satisfy them fully.
John Dear, who spent his life in the struggle against the injustice of violence, writes about this Beatitude: “Righteousness [as justice] is not just the private practice of doing good; it sums up the global responsibility of the human community to make sure every human being has what they need, that everyone pursues a fair sense of justice for every other human being, and that everyone lives in right relationship with one another, creation, and God.. . . Jesus instructs us to be passionate for social, economic, and racial justice. That’s the real meaning of the Hebrew word for justice and the Jewish insistence on it. Resist systemic, structured, institutionalized injustice with every bone in your body, with all your might, with your very soul,” he teaches. “Seek justice as if it were your food and drink, your bread and water, as if it were a matter of life and death, which it is. In our relationship to the God of justice and peace, those who give their lives to that struggle, Jesus promises, will be satisfied.”
So how is it that we hunger and thirst for justice, for the things that God requires of us? We do it by making justice a priority in our lives. Not our idea of retribution as justice, but God’s sacred and global justice of restoration, so that everyone has enough. There is no justice in this world when there is more than enough food to eat, but people die of starvation. There is no justice in this world when people continue to die of preventible and curable diseases because access to or the cost of medicines or medical care is out of reach to the poor. There is no justice in the world when people sleep on the streets while homes sit boarded up and empty in neighborhoods around the world.
“This Beatitude,” Rohr says, “requires us to join a grassroots movement that fights one or two issues of injustice and to get deeply involved in the struggle.
Since all issues of injustice are connected, fighting one injustice puts us squarely in the struggle against every injustice. As Martin Luther King Jr. said over and over again, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Befriend the victims of systemic injustice, side with them, listen to their stories, let their pain break your heart, [weep with them], join the movements to end injustice, tithe your money to the cause, and commit yourself to the struggle. . . While [it] may take a long time, our nonviolent persistence and truth-telling will eventually win out and bear the good fruit of justice. Truth is on our side; God is on the side of justice. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ King famously said, ‘but it bends toward justice.’”
Blessed are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them!
We need to understand that the Beatitudes are not a to-do list on how to get into heaven. Rather, they represent most fully the nature of people who have heaven in them. The beatitudes build upon one another, linking in some way to the ones that came before and that follow. Blessed are those who are merciful follows immediately after Jesus’ blessing of those who seek justice. The linking of justice and mercy in this teaching tells us that if our idea of justice is something less than merciful, we’ve gotten it wrong.
The word mercy shows up in the Old and New Testaments approximately 150 times, depending on the translation, with clear differences in how it is used.
For example, in the book of Joshua, where the people of Israel are moving into the Promised Land, the word is used most often to describe the killing and devastation that Israel visited upon various nations, showing them no mercy. In the Psalms, on the other hand, with only a few exceptions, it is used in pleas to God by David or some other writer for God to have mercy on them.
Mercy is an exercise, a tool, of power. In fact, the dictionary definition of mercy is: compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.
Writer, and researcher Brene’ Brown observes that sometimes we fall, or are pushed, into a state of guilt or shame. This is often how we respond to Sin as well. And she offers a clear and easily understood way of thinking about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt suggests “I’ve done something bad.” Shame insists that “I AM bad, I’m a bad person.”
Guilt is usually something that we bring upon ourselves, shame is often heaped on us to the point that we begin to believe it. And I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but over the centuries the church has been really good at piling on both guilt and shame to people. And one of the shovels it uses to pile on is the idea of our sinful nature - original sin. Now, I’m not going down that rabbit hole of today. Suffice it to say, I don’t ascribe to the school of “original sin,” I’m a disciple of the school of “original blessing.” God created everything, including us. God created us in God’s image and called it good and very good, and I believe it. Do we commit sins? Yes, without a doubt. But do our sins define who we are in the eyes of God? Absolutely not! Why? Because our God is a God of mercy and our sins have been forgiven.
The angry, judgmental, fire and brimstone, condemning God we read about in the Old Testament does not in any way reflect the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The Hebrew Bible gives us a record of how ancient peoples thought of gods in general, and how that thinking influenced how they considered the God of Israel in particular. The lenses through which they viewed God were based on ancient polytheistic understandings. The lens through which we view God is Jesus Christ.
That Jesus is the fullest revelation of God is at the core of our beliefs as Christians. Whereas in the Hebrew Bible many people believed that they could earn God’s mercy by following rules, laws, Commandments, or by making sacrifices, Jesus tells us that God’s mercy is there for the taking because mercy is who God is.
For example, in Matthew 9, Jesus is confronted by some legal experts - i.e. people who insisted that the way to God’s mercy was by following the law - because his disciples didn’t fast like John’s did. Jesus tells them, borrowing from Hosea 6:6, “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.
Now after this, Jesus does more teaching, preaching, and healing, and three chapters later, it is the Sabbath and Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field and some of his disciples are eating grains from the field as they walk. Jesus is again confronted, this time by some Pharisees, questioning why they’re breaking the Sabbath law by picking grain. Jesus responds, referring to what he had said to them earlier, “If you had known what this means, I want mercy and not sacrifice, you wouldn’t have condemned the innocent.”
The Pharisees are attempting to use shame and guilt in order to force compliance to a system of practice and belief that Jesus flatly rejects. And unfortunately, we continue to see that same thing happening today.
But that’s NOT what Jesus did - it’s not how Jesus was.
Another example: Remember the story of the woman who was caught in adultery? Mind you, there was a man involved too but his male privilege and the patriarchal nature of the society spared him the shaming that was piled onto the woman. When addressing her, what did Jesus say? Did he shame her? Did he agree that she should be stoned to death for her sin? No, he told her accusers that any among them who was without sin could cast the first stone, and he told the woman simply to “sin no more.” He showed her mercy. The Pharisees weren’t going to show her mercy - the woman is brought into this thinking she was about to die. When Jesus entered the story, he brought with him God’s hesed, God’s steadfast, covenant love, God’s unrequited mercy.
Like Father Richard Rohr, I believe with all my heart that mercy and forgiveness are the whole Gospel. He writes, “The experience of forgiveness or mercy is the experience of a magnanimous God who loves out of total gratuitousness. There’s no tit for tat. Grace isn’t for sale. That is the symbolism [behind Jesus kicking over the tables in the temple. One cannot buy God by worthiness, by achievement, or by obeying commandments.
Salvation is God’s hesed, God’s loving-kindness, a loving-kindness that is ‘forever.’ More than something God does now and then, mercy is who-God-is.”
So when Jesus says “Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7) we should understand that he is speaking for and as God, and that God has made a covenant with creation that God will never break. As Rohr reminds us, “The covenant is only broken from our side. God’s love is steadfast. It is written in the divine image within us. We are the ones who instead clutch at our sins and beat ourselves [up] instead of surrendering to the divine mercy. Refusing to [accept forgiveness] is a form of pride. It’s saying, ‘I’m better than mercy. I’m only going to accept it when I’m worthy and can preserve my so-called self-esteem.’ Only the humble person, [the meek,] the little one, can live in and after mercy.” As Jesus said earlier; Blessed are the meek, the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.
Forgiveness is God’s ultimate entry into powerlessness. Withholding forgiveness is a form of power over another person, a way to manipulate, shame, control, and diminish another. God in Jesus never does this; God in Jesus refuses all such power. If Jesus is the revelation of the true nature of God then we are forced to conclude that God is very humble. This God never seems to hold rightful claims against us. Denying what we often think or have been taught was the proper role or nature of God, this God, as Isaiah tells us, “has thrust all our sins behind his back” (Isa. 38:17)
When asked by his disciples how often they should forgive someone, suggesting seven times should be sufficient, Jesus replies “seventy times seven.” Seven representing wholeness or completeness, Jesus says forgive completely, fully, wholey, as often as it takes, with no limit, just as you are forgiven.
Rohr concludes, “We do not attain anything by our own holiness but by ten thousand surrenders to mercy. A lifetime of received forgiveness allows us to become mercy: That’s the Beatitude. We become what we receive, what we allow into our hearts. Mercy becomes our energy and purpose. Perhaps we’re finally enlightened and free when we can both receive it and give it away—without payment or punishment.”
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
When we move further into the Sermon on the Mount we find Jesus giving example after example of what he was talking about in the Beatitudes.
He makes the point several times that what is on our hearts, more than anything else, decides how we are with other people, that our inner attitudes and states of mind are the real source of our problems with people.
And Jesus is trying in these verses to get us to understand that we need to root out the heart of the problem at our deepest interior levels, rather than just going through the motions of doing the right things on the surface. As Rohr points out, “Jesus says not only that we must not kill, but that we must not even harbor hateful anger. He clearly begins with the necessity of a ‘pure heart’ (Matthew 5:8) and knows that the outer behavior will follow. Too often we force the outward response, while the inward intent remains like a cancer.
If we walk around with hatred all day, morally we’re just as much killers as the one who pulls the trigger. We can’t live that way and not be destroyed from within. Yet, for some reason, many Christians have thought it acceptable to think and feel hatred, negativity, and fear. The evil and genocide of both [World Wars] were the result of decades of negative, resentful, and paranoid thinking and feeling among even good Christian people.”
In considering this beatitude, I’m reminded of the old adage, “you are what you eat.” I guess I’m more pizza and french fries than I am kale salad and roasted fish. But we get what this means to our life and health.
Jesus is telling us we are what we think. He warns against harboring hateful anger against others, or calling people names like “fool” or “idiot,” because if we spend our days thinking of other people in that way, we’re living out of death, not life. If that’s what we think and feel, that’s what we will be - a death energy instead of the life force of salt and light that Jesus calls us to be as his disciples. Jesus warns us that we must stay connected to the love of God, the love that IS God, that we cannot afford even an inner disconnection from God’s love, because how we live in our hearts is the real and deepest truth about who and how we are in our lives.
James Howell equates “purity in heart” to remaining focused on the “one true thing.” So many times, he suggests, we allow ourselves to become scattered and distracted by so many different things - feelings, ideas, notions, emotions - and that we lose our focus on the one true things that matters and that will keep us moving in the right direction - the love of God. If we can remain focused on the “one true thing” - God’s love and how we are to live into that - “we would have our hearts purified, for we are a mess of misunderstandings about God, and therefore we are a mess of misunderstandings about ourselves [and others.]”
In the aftermath of being confronted by Nathan about his relationship with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, King David, writes what would become known as Psalm 51 - a psalm of lament, and confession, and grief, in which, in the midst of his brokenness, shame, guilt, he asks God to Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.(Psalm 51)
We can’t risk walking around with a negative, resentful, gossipy, angry, judgmental, critical mind, because when we do we aren’t being true to who and how God created us to be. We won’t be usable instruments for God.
That’s why Jesus commanded us to love.
It’s that urgent. It’s that critical.
Now, this is hard stuff. While we tend to make the Beatitudes sing-songy and trite, these are radically difficult teachings from Jesus and he hits us with them right out of the gate. Like thinking about the vastness of space, or considering the artwork of M.C. Escher, they go far beyond what we’re used to, they transcend the norms of what culture and society tell us is acceptable.
They truly challenge us. In fact, they’re so hard that many people, including many who call themselves Christians, reject them. The great theologian G.K. Chesterton famously said of this phenomena, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Take a moment to consider that: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
You know, Escher’s art work is great because you can’t just glance at it for a moment and get it. You have to stare at it for a long time, wondering if your eyes are playing tricks on you, and marveling at the imagination it must take to even think of things like this, which are impossible in real life. His art forces us to stretch the bounds of our understanding and reconsider what really is possible.
And when we stare into the night sky, our perspective from this single blue dot in our galaxy, fools us into thinking that all of those lights in the sky are as close the freckles on a child’s nose, when in fact the distances between them are, at this point at least, incomprehensible and insurmountable.
The teachings of Jesus are much the same for us. They strike us as so different than what our society and culture have taught for so many years, that we’re compelled to stare at them, wondering if our eyes, our ears, even our mind is playing a trick on us. But unlike Escher’s artwork, Jesus’ teachings are not impossible. They’ve just been found difficult, and left untried. What kind of world could we have if those who claimed to follow this teacher, this Son of God, actually tried to live out what he taught? Hmm. Jesus called that world the “Reign of God.” May it be so. Amen.