Sometimes the juxtapositions of the Revised Common Lectionary people seem completely arbitrary and puzzling. Other times they may end up being quite thought-provoking, as is the case today. We have a passage from the prophecy of Micah that concludes with a verse I just happened to have quoted in last Sunday’s sermon, the second-most famous verse in the book after the verse in the previous chapter prophesying that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. Here we read, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). Then we come to our psalm, where David asks a similar pair of questions and gives a somewhat similar threefold answer: “O Lord, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart” (Psalm 15:1, 2).
Next we come to our epistle reading from I Corinthians 1 where we find the apostle Paul asking his own questions: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” And as usual Paul needs more words to answer his own questions. But the clincher in Paul comes at the end when he writes, “By His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
When it comes to practicing Biblical ethics, most of us find it much easier to quote verses than to do them. If we could find a society somewhere in the world where everyone did justice, loved kindness, walked humbly with God, walked with integrity, worked righteousness, spoke truth and exuded godly wisdom, we would be looking at once for an affordable piece of real estate and a means of supporting ourselves. Why would we ever want to leave such a place? But in our heart of hearts we would know that just as soon as we joined the community, there would be diminishment and we just might get chased out or, as with Jonah, reluctantly thrown overboard.
Paul is saying that we don’t need to go anywhere in particular other than to the feet of Jesus if we’re in quest of “wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.” He is acknowledging that whenever we try to go it alone, to find our moral and ethical principles and to live them out in our own wisdom and power, we can expect only to fail. The answer is that by God’s doing we are “in Christ Jesus,” a concept to which Paul clings again and again. Living “in Christ” is at the center of Paul’s gospel.
What we are “in Christ” is so much more than we ever could hope to be without Him. And when we are “in Christ” and find ourselves characterized by justice, kindness, humility, integrity, righteousness, truth and wisdom, we have something to boast about. But Paul, loosely quoting from Jeremiah, writes, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” In other words, when we’re acting according to God’s Word, all the credit goes to the Lord. Therein lies the Christian’s true boasting: “I can do all things through Him Who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). The Name of Christ is not found in that verse, but the Person of Christ is; and the preposition is not “through” but “in.” Once again, our righteousness is played out only when we are found “in Christ,” where we are found only “by God’s doing.”
So how can we know more specifically what it means to be living out our spiritual residency “in Christ?” For starters we can turn to the words of Christ Himself, who gave more principles of ethical living than any of us could ever hope to follow on our own. If we’re inclined to say that we’re not wise enough to follow them, Paul answers that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise;” and if we say that we’re not strong enough to live according the teachings of Jesus, Paul answers that “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things that are strong” (I Cor. 1:27).
That brings us at last to today’s Gospel reading from what we know as “The Sermon on the Mount,” one of the earliest discourses of Jesus and, from a practical point of view, one of the most demanding. It’s typical of the teaching of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels in that it consists of many aphorisms or apophthegms strung together into a loosely organized and broad-sweeping set of teachings. Ben Franklin was a great student of Jesus when it came to this teaching methodology: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man happy, healthy, and wise.” But often Franklin hedged his bets when it came to following Jesus very literally. Here’s a perfect example: Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but Ben Franklin wrote, “Love your neighbor; yet don’t pull down your hedge.” And the moral of Franklin’s maxims was often less serious than those of Jesus. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, 45); but Franklin wrote, “Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults.”
The Beatitudes fall into this category of aphorisms or maxims. They seem so straightforward that hardly anyone ever tries to build a whole sermon around them. But, as is the case with most of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount, a closer inspection of thrice-familiar words reveals that Jesus often is saying something completely contrary to the wisdom of this world. Sometimes it seems downright counterintuitive. Is it really “the meek” or “the gentle” who will inherit the earth? We absolutely do not look for meekness and gentleness in our earthly leaders. Quite the contrary, we want great strength, force of personality, forthright character, charisma, even chutzpah. The meek and gentle finish last in our books. They certainly don’t make political candidates, whom we seem to think are first in line for inheriting the earth.
Let’s look briefly at the other Beatitudes. What about the “poor in spirit?” Do we even know what that means? We’re not really big fans of poverty, whether it’s ours or someone else’s. But what is “poverty of spirit,” that it should merit gaining the kingdom of heaven? Once again we’re confronted with a trait that’s decidedly not part of our 21st century American success formula. It’s probably the exact opposite of chutzpah. It has to do with a self-assessment that leaves ample room to be emptied of self and re-filled with all the gifts of Spirit, the Holy Spirit gifts that God wishes each of us to have. It may be that some people have confused poverty of spirit with taking vows of material poverty, but Jesus’ words seem clear and well-chosen: He does not say “blessed are the poor,” but “blessed are the poor in spirit.” And for such persons, the blessings of the kingdom of heaven begin in the here and now and continue eternally. These persons are emptied in order to be filled. Their poverty of spirit becomes their spiritual wealth.
What about those who mourn? Comfort is promised. It always is available. There will be those who refuse God’s promises of comfort because they choose to wallow in their misery and perpetuate their mourning. But I can tell you from more than ample personal experience that when we turn ourselves over to God’s powerful healing, He will indeed give us “mornings of joy for our evenings of tearfulness,” to borrow a line from the amazing hymn, “Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness.” It’s the way God works. He stands ever ready to give comfort.
For those whose glass is perpetually half full, no comfort is able to be received. But for those who, like Johannes Brahms, turn to God’s promises in times of grief, there is abundant comfort. His Requiem was written in part to mourn the deaths of his beloved mother and of his advocate, friend and fellow composer, Robert Schumann. It both begins and ends with the word “blessed,” “selig,” and it begins with this very verse from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Brahms clearly was a recipient of that comfort, and his music flows out of that blessed place.
Some of these Beatitudes are altogether self-explanatory. It’s not hard to see how “those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” will be satisfied. We’re left only to wonder why so many more persons are hungering and thirsting after material gain or worldly pleasures and thereby forfeiting the satisfaction that’s promised only to those who are hungering and thirsting after righteousness. It’s also not hard to imagine that “the pure in heart shall see God,” or that “the peacemakers shall be called sons of God.”
But others of the Beatitudes are squarely in the counterintuitive category. What’s to guarantee that the merciful will in turn receive mercy? On the purely human level, we can think of many exceptions to such a maxim. But this is Jesus speaking, and when He says that the merciful will receive mercy, He’s using the language of heaven, what I like to call “God-speak.” It is God Who will show the ultimate mercy out of His unchangeable lovingkindness, whether or not humans have offered mercy to the merciful.
The last two Beatitudes are the ones we find the hardest. "Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Really? It’s the very same reward as the one for those who are poor in spirit. Most of us definitely would choose poverty of spirit over persecution for the sake of righteousness in order to gain the kingdom of heaven. For at least some of the persecuted, their experience of the kingdom of heaven comes rather sooner than they were expecting. For others there may be a protracted time of persecution on these shores before they find their way to the heavenly shores. All that Jesus is promising here is that the kingdom of heaven will be theirs at the God-ordained time. He seems quite sure of this, and He’s going to tell His disciples in the Upper Room that He is going to prepare a place for them. Most of the disciples had to endure a great deal of persecution first. But perhaps they were able to rest in their memory of this assurance from the lips of their Master.
The last Beatitude definitely is the hardest. In our day of self-first no matter what, we often hear verse 11 quoted without its last three words: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely.” Period. We wallow in self-pity because of those who abuse us in these ways, and we may even try to claim God’s blessing because of this very sort of abuse. But what Jesus adds is of greatest importance: “for My sake,” or “on My account,” or “because of Me.” That changes everything. It goes immediately from self-pity to the glorification of the Holy Name of Jesus Whom we are to serve with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. There’s no reward for self-pity: it is its own reward, which is short-lived and unsatisfying. But Jesus says that if we are reviled, persecuted and falsely accused for His sake, then we are able to “rejoice and be glad.” Why is that? It’s because our “reward is in heaven,” and because “our reward in heaven is great” and because we are following the example of those prophets who came before us, receiving the same persecution. By remaining steadfast they discovered God’s will for their lives and, in turn, we also may find His will for ours. This eternal perspective completely changes our perception of what persecution in this life really means.
Yes, there certainly is an unwelcome and counterintuitive ring to these final words of blessing! But, again, Jesus promises that our “reward in heaven is great.” And in the grand scheme of things, from God’s own eternal view, no amount of insulting, persecuting or false witness can compare with the heavenly reward. The apostle Paul, who was quite experienced in suffering, persecution, false witness and reviling, wrote this to the Christians at Rome, many of whom would lose their lives for the sake of Jesus Christ: he wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Clearly he lived out this, the most challenging of the Beatitudes. There had to have been at least a few occasions when he wondered why this blessing had to be his. Yet for the most part his absolute confidence in the better things that had been promised to him carried him through. He endured because, with the author of Hebrews, he had his eyes fixed “on Jesus, the Author and Finisher” of his faith. He understood the formula that would lead to rejoicing and gladness, to his eternal reward, to his being received into the kingdom of heaven. And so, in his own words, he pressed on “toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
Here in the Beatitudes, as often, the words of Jesus are hard. Here, as often, they also are comforting. The blessing of comfort is the whole point of the Beatitudes. Jesus is speaking here about the reasons why believers, those persons whose faith leads to active obedience, will be blessed, both now and forever. We open all our services with our own beatitude: “Blessed be God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” And we respond, “Blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever, Amen.” Now this same Jesus, Who is seated at the right hand of the Father and receives our prayer, still offers us His blessing, His beatitude,
whenever we’re serving Him in poverty of spirit,
whenever we’re mourning,
whenever we’re gentle,
whenever we’re hungering and thirsting after righteousness,
whenever we show mercy,
whenever we’re pure in heart,
whenever we’re making peace,
and even whenever we’re suffering persecution.
For then are we truly blessed, and great is our reward in heaven.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen