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Blessed to Do Justice

Judy Skaggs

January 30, 2011
Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

The Gospel of Matthew is often thought of as the teaching Gospel. It is arranged into five main sermons, or bodies of Jesus’ teachings. Some scholars find in Matthew an allusion to the Exodus story with God giving the law to Moses on Mt Sinai. In Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, and his preaching is likened to the giving of the Torah. Jesus even says that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, and often that is exactly what his teaching does.

The other similarity is that the 10 commandments begin with a proclamation of blessing, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  God had already shown love and care for Israel, bringing them out of their bondage in Egypt. Therefore, the Torah sets out the way God wants Israel to live in response to that redemptive action.

Here in Matthew at the beginning of what we usually call the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7, Jesus also begins with blessings. Jesus preaches that you are blessed by God, therefore here is a way you can live in response to what God is doing. Read Matthew 5.

Through the years, I have seen these beatitudes in wall hangings, perhaps cross-stitched or needle-pointed beautifully.  After all, we are struck by their poetic beauty. But often when I see these hangings or I hear someone comment on their beauty, I stop and wonder if that person has actually listened to these blessings.

We live in a time and culture where we think that blessings are usually given to those who are successful, who win, who come in first, who are on top, and sometimes at the expense of others.  My guess is that things were probably not so different in Jesus’ day.

But these blessings of Jesus turn the values of the culture upside down. We might look at them as impossible – only the greatest of saints could have all those qualities. We look for a Martin Luther King or a Mother Teresa to come along and show us the way, as we compare our pale expressions of discipleship.

And yet, Jesus seems to be giving these blessings to just ordinary people, to his first disciples who really had little understanding of this one to whom they had committed their life. Jesus is plunging them (and us) into a new reality, pointing them toward what God is doing in their midst.

Jesus begins with those who are poor in spirit, those who know their need for God, who just do not think they can make it on their own. And if we look carefully, we find that all of these blessings are given to those who have become empty, who are vulnerable, who are not asserting that they must have their own way. And it is precisely these “empty places” that Christ is commending, and it is the emptiness that Christ promises to fill.

The spiritually poor will have the kingdom – not those who seem to have their spiritual house in order, but those who struggle, who need God’s presence and help; those who have experienced great loss will be comforted; those who are meek – who have no need to assert themselves will be given the earth; those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness will be satisfied. One who shows mercy might be thought of as rather weak, giving in to a wrong done to them, rather than fighting for their rights. And peacemakers certainly do not have the power of those who make war. And of course those who are persecuted are very vulnerable. It is when we are at our poorest, weakest, most empty state that we will experience Christ’s blessings the most.

It is our ordinary, daily living into the spirit of these beatitudes that will guide us into more fulfilled lives as disciples of Christ. For they invite us into a way of living into those intentional empty places that make it possible for Christ’s spirit to change us.

At our women’s retreat last weekend, we looked at a caterpillar who is considering becoming a butterfly. Now we might look at a beautiful butterfly and we cannot imagine a furry caterpillar not wanting to be transformed in that way. So, we might be surprised to know that caterpillars can actually be very reluctant to yield themselves up to the cocoon. When the moment comes to spin the chrysalis some of them actually resist and cling to their larval life. They put off entering the cocoon for up to a year. This stage even has a name – diapause.

So perhaps we often have diapauses too, as we cling to who we are, afraid of change, of becoming someone that is unknown to us. We too fear the cocoon because we just don’t know how we might emerge.

When we begin to consider the idea of being empty, poor in spirit, vulnerable, we might be very much like that caterpillar. It might be very frightening to think of changing the way we view the world and the way we live our lives. The cocoon might be seen as a very vulnerable place.  And yet being poor in spirit and empty is where Jesus says we begin.

Dale Brunner is one of my favorite theologians on the Gospel of Matthew. He says that all the teachings of Jesus push us back to where Jesus begins – being poor in spirit. When Jesus has a hard teaching such as loving enemies or forgiving over and over again or getting rid of our possessions, we may cry out – Lord, I just cannot do it. Then Brunner says that Christ says to us, “yes, I know,” and sends us back to the beginning of becoming poor in spirit. We admit that without God’s help, we will never be able to live the way Christ teaches. Brunner also teaches that Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are not a string of commandments to be followed, but rather are a description of what Christ’s spirit is willing to do within us. Of course, we have a part to play as we cooperate with Christ’s Spirit growing within us.

In John’s gospel, Jesus uses the image of a vine and branches. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me.”  We are attached to this branch that gives us life – that gives us what we need to be God’s people in the world. It is God who is acting to bring about these qualities within us. And Jesus invites us to abide in him.

The qualities described in the Beatitudes are what Christ wants for us.  Jesus says that if these qualities are growing within us, we will truly be blessed.

We are blessed by God in order that we may go out into the world to serve others, to use our energy and our resources to make this world a better, more hopeful place. As the prophet Micah says – to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

In those verses from Micah that we read, the people of Israel wanted to know how they could be God’s people. Should we make a big show – bring huge offerings – thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I give up my child, or even my own body? But Micah responded – no, that is not what God wants. God wants justice, mercy, and humility as you walk with God in your daily life.

God wants our emptiness, our poverty, our vulnerability. And when we bring these things, Christ’s spirit will fill our emptiness, and we will be blessed. Amen.