Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Jesus recognizes a teachable moment with his new disciples.
Jesus has been gathering crowds, preaching and healing. Word is getting around and the crowds are swelling. Despite the growing needs of the multitude, Jesus goes up the mountain and sits. His disciples get the cue and gather around, expectant. The time has come to begin letting these new followers in on what being a disciple of Jesus requires.
“Downward mobility” might be a phrase to capture a key element of the discipleship job description. Favor comes not with climbing the ladder, or boasting about accomplishments, or doing whatever it takes to make the monthly numbers. The teacher will be pleased with the ones who are poor in spirit, meek in manner and hungry for righteousness rather than power. Persecution for the sake of this teacher will be cause for rejoicing. High praise from people is not something to be sought or valued.
Perhaps all the hype of big crowds and being close to the hottest ticket in town is not all the former fishermen had hoped.
Purity of heart, peacemaking, mercy. Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God. Foolishness to the many of the world scrambling for bigger, better and more, but the very essence of the power and will and work of Jesus. Blessing and salvation for those who respond to the call.
I wonder what those first disciples thought at this early point on the journey?
I wonder if we really consider the Beatitudes as the list of job responsibilities for Christians that they are?
That last verse of Micah, the one we know so well, the Lord’s requirements, they are the summary of what the covenant has spelled out over and over again already. No surprises here. The same is true perhaps with these verses in Matthew. We’ve heard them so many times they’ve lost their punch. Like how after a while a repeated word becomes gibberish.
Yes, do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, of course. Blessed are the poor, or poor in Spirit in this case. Blessed are the peacemakers, or is it all the dairy workers? (Thanks, Monty Python.) We get it, all those who are oppressed and suffering now, their reward is on the way. (Matthew leaves out Luke’s woes.) And that sounds nice, doesn’t it? I mean, really, they deserve a break.
We hear the blessing of the meek and pure and nod our heads and imagine that either in heaven or in some yet to be realized earthly future, the refugees will have one of the many rooms prepared for them in God’s mansion or in a violence-free country. But not now. And that’s awful. But it is foolishness to think it could be otherwise.
Our view of the needy crowds remains that of the disciples on the mountain with Jesus. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we want to make permanent what is to be a temporary teachable moment to equip us for service. We can’t participate in the blessing if we refuse to engage with the ones Jesus calls blessed.
This list, like the Ten Commandments, is prescriptive, not just descriptive. Jesus moves from “those” and “the” to “you” in verse 11. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Why will we be reviled and persecuted? When we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. All kinds of evil show up when we proclaim Christ crucified and live the Jesus life of hungering for righteousness.
Peacemaking is some of the most hazardous work around. Don’t believe me? Think about the violent ends that came to so many non-violent children of God.
Wendell Berry, poet, activist and environmentalist, writes this, “If we are serious about peace, then we must work for it as ardently, seriously, continuously, carefully, and bravely as we have ever prepared for war.” In a world where war is industry and many powerful people are profiting from that industry, peacemakers get killed. No wonder those who mourn need the promise of divine comfort – too often it is the only comfort they know.
All of a sudden the nice sentiment of the underdogs finally getting their due doesn’t sound so warm and fuzzy. The Beatitudes are no Hallmark movie script; it is the centerpiece of Jesus’ instructions for disciples. The Beatitudes aren’t only about what God has and will do, they are a clear directive of who followers of Jesus Christ are to be: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the ravenous for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted. Sounds like foolishness, doesn’t it?
And yet, to those who believe, it is the greatest cause for rejoicing imaginable. It is a life of blessedness, belonging and freedom. A life lived not for self alone, but for the sake of the One who came to save us. Foolishness? Yes, but what more could we want than to be fools for Christ?
James Martin, Jesuit priest, describes doing an internship with a fellow Jesuit, Brother Bill. Brother Bill ministered to gang members, his “buddies,” and was known for his energy, enthusiasm and fearlessness. Martin shares what it was like the first time he accompanied Brother Bill to an impeding fight between two rival gangs. The two men stand in the middle of the street, between the two groups.
“Now we pray,” said Bill.
Martin continues, “We stood for a few uncomfortable minutes under the sunny sky, until the two groups drew closer to each other and began shouting epithets. Without warning, an empty soda bottle flew silently over our heads. … Another bottle answered … the shouting grew louder.”
“But gradually the shouting died down and the two groups simply left. … Brother Bill just smiled. ‘We gave them an excuse not to fight,’ he explained. ‘With us here they don’t lose face leaving the fight.’”
“That night I told the story at dinner. ‘He’s insane,’ said one of the scholastics.”
“Perhaps. But Bill knew just what he was doing … he’d walked into such situations dozens of times before … his insanity probably saved many lives, the lives of his ‘buddies.’”
Peacemaking is dangerous business. Putting ourselves in a position to be called blessed takes courage. Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God might lead us to unexpected and hostile places. We will look like fools, but we will be called children of God. How can we not rejoice about that?
- How do we keep very familiar Scripture passages from losing their meaning? How do we hear them as if we’d never heard them before?
- This Matthew text has many connections to James and Proverbs. What do you make of those connections? What do those books have in common with this passage?
- Do we think of ourselves among the meek and poor in spirit? Why or why not?
- What does it mean to be pure in heart?
- Check out the parallel text in Luke 6:20-26. What difference do you notice?
- Take one beatitude a day and use it to shape your daily devotions and prayers for the next nine days.
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