Our Hebrew Scripture reading from the prophet Micah contains one of the best-known questions in all the Hebrew Scriptures. “What does the Lord require of you?”
Psalm 15 (VU#736)
Our responsive reading asks the question, “Who may be a guest in God’s house?”
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul contrasts earthly wisdom with God’s wisdom. “God chose what was foolish … to shame the wise … God chose what was weak … to shame the strong … God choose what was low and despised” to change the world forever.
Our reading for the Gospel according to Matthew this morning is the passage commonly referred to as “The Beatitudes”. I have asked that this be to read this morning from the New Revised Standard Version instead of the Good News Translation which we usually use because the Good News Translation uses the word happy rather than blessed and sometimes I feel that the word happy distracts us from what is really being said.
This week in Bible Study we had a very interesting conversation about the difference between Matthew and Luke’s version of what we call the Beatitudes. Although at first glance they may appear to be the same, Matthew’s version is in fact, very different from Luke’s.
Luke is very focused on the physical realities and causes of suffering. For Luke, it is all about the counter-cultural nature of what Jesus taught. The common teachings of the time said that if you were poor or if you were suffering it was because you had done something wrong and were being punished. If you were rich, it was because God was pleased with you and was rewarding you. But Luke says that the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, and those facing social injustice are blessed. Poverty, hunger and persecution are not blessings in themselves, but those who find themselves in these situations are still loved and blessed by God.
Matthew, however, is concerned with something quite different. When Matthew talks about the poor, he talks about the poor in spirit. When he talks about the hungry, it is those who hunger for righteousness.
For Matthew, it is not about physical poverty or physical hunger. It is all about the spiritual. In the gospel according to Matthew Jesus ministry, although intrinsically bound up in the physical, is much more focused on the spiritual rather than the physical. For Matthew, it is not the circumstances in which people find themselves that is the most important part but rather it is their attitudes.
When Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” he is not using the word poor to refer to physical poverty. Rather he is using the Aramaic understanding of the word ‘poor’ as meaning without power, influence or prestige. Without power or influence, a person cannot be truly self-reliant. In this context being poor means having to rely on someone else. So one who is “poor in spirit” is one who realizes that at the very deepest level they have no real power or influence whatsoever that does not come from God, and therefore they must rely totally on God. Matthew promises that ‘the poor in spirit’ will inherit God’s kingdom, yet by their very reliance on God they have already become part of that kingdom.
Now although I said Matthew and Luke have very different takes on the meaning of the beatitudes, it might seem pretty hard to understand “blessed are those that mourn” as anything but a promise of comfort in times of pain and loss. It seems pretty straightforward. For Luke, it is God’s promise that all the suffering of this world, whether personal or sorrow caused by the injustice of the world, will someday be put right. Those who suffer will be comforted.
But perhaps there are times when at least part of the blessing is to be found in the mourning itself. When we allow ourselves to truly mourn, accepting the loss of a loved one instead of getting caught up in the anger of “why did this happen”, then we can begin to find comfort. And sometimes it’s even in the very midst of sorrow that the greatest blessings are experienced. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say, “I never knew how many people cared about me until this or that horrible thing happened.”
So what about the blessing of being meek? For many people, the word meek doesn’t have very positive connotations. In modern society someone who is meek is often seen being as weak or spineless, a doormat for others to walk all over. But for Matthew, those who are meek are the ones who are humble, obedient, and willing to serve. And, as many of you know, it is in serving others that our greatest blessings are often found.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. For Matthew, the desire for righteousness is more than simply a vague longing. It is a deep and unquenchable hunger. This is a burning need that goes to the very root of who a person is. It is a need so intense that it is almost painful. The passion for justice, the hunger for righteousness, the deep longing to be in the right relationship with God, is so intense that, for that need not to be fulfilled, feels almost like starvation.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall experience mercy. Mercy is far more than a simple refusal to take revenge or a willingness to forgive someone and forgo even a deeply deserved punishment. Mercy is about gentleness, kindness and especially compassion. It is about being understanding and non-judgmental. Being truly merciful is an act of deep love.
Blessed are the peacemakers. It’s not enough to live peacefully or to be at peace within yourself. To be a peacemaker, you have to actively work toward peace for all people. Now that doesn’t mean you’re ever going to succeed in bringing about world peace, but if you actively try to be a peacemaker than you will make a difference.
Blessed are the pure in heart. It may seem a bit overwhelming to think of trying to be “pure in heart” but what if we substituted the word motive for the word heart. Blessed are those whose motives for all that they do are pure and honest. It is a sad reality that in today’s society when we hear about some who is extremely famous or wealthy donating a huge sum of money to charity, the motive is often less than pure. It may be a way of getting some much-needed publicity or it may be a way of avoiding huge tax bills. But it is when our motives are pure when we are doing something simply because it is the right thing to do when we are being pure in heart, that we are blessed.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. It is not always easy to refuse to compromise and back down from what you believe is right. It is not always easy to take a stand, especially if your viewpoint is not popular. It is not always easy to avoid going along with the crowd, even if you know that what they are doing is not right. The blessing is not in the persecution itself, but rather in the willingness to stand up for what is right, regardless of the consequences, even if the consequences are that you end up becoming unpopular, being ostracized, being picked on and or even being persecution.
Matthew’s beatitudes do not offer some wonderful, comforting visions of an ideal paradise, a time to come when God’s kingdom, God’s heaven will become a reality. It not about suffering now in the hope of a greater reward in some future existence in a far-away “heaven”. Matthew’s beatitudes are a harsh and very demanding call to action.
The passage we read from Micah this morning is much the same. It asks what God requires of us. This is a powerful language. This is not a gentle suggestion or hint of what might be nice. This is a requirement. It’s not optional. So what does God require? Well, according to Micah, it is that we “do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.”
The thing is, that although the wording may be very different, Matthew is saying exactly the same thing as Micah’s. What does God require of us? What is it that will make us “blessed” in God’s sight?
Do what is just – hunger and thirst for righteousness … be peacemakers … stand up for what is right even if it ends up costing you dearly, even if you have to suffer for what you believe is right.
Show constant Love– be kind and merciful … stand up for what is right by standing up for others … keep your motives and your heart pure.
And lastly, live in humble fellowship with our God – be meek in the sense of being humble, obedient, and willing to serve to acknowledge how badly you need God in your life.
It is actually quite simple. But simple does not mean easy. These things are hard. They are difficult, demanding and require a great deal of commitment and perseverance. None of us are ever going to do this perfectly, but in those moments when we do succeed, even if those moments are few and fleeting, it is then that we will truly be blessed. Amen.