Christians are always looking for the exact rules of life by which to live. In our present day we have had those who want to post the Ten Commandments in public schools, county courthouses, and in their front lawns. But do they represent the rules of life by which we are called to live? They were given to a rather motley group of people who were fleeing slavery in Egypt, led by a charismatic man named Moses, who believes God has called him from a burning bush to lead the people into freedom.
There are others who swear by the Golden Rule. I recall often driving by one of my parishioner's homes around 7 in the morning on Sunday, on my way for the early service of Holy Communion and asking her if she would like a ride to church. As she stood with the garden hose in her hand watering her plants, she always replied in the same way, "Robert, my dear, I believe in the Golden Rule and served my time in the choir every Sunday in Bruton Parish, Williamsburg, VA. Now you go on and pray for me."
Then there are the believers in the Summary of the Law: "Jesus said, 'The first commandment is this: Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.'"
From the Ten Commandments to the Golden Rule to the Summary of the Law, we do see a picture expanding that gives us some indication of the way we should live. As some biblical critics point out, these are nothing new. Is there something special that Jesus has to say about the life we live? Perhaps it is found in the words recalled by today's Gospel lesson from Luke.
We are used to calling these words The Beatitudes. I had to learn them as written in Matthew's Gospel in Sunday School class. In that Gospel they are the introduction to what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Luke's Gospel tells us that Jesus had been on the mountain to pray; as a matter of fact, he spent the whole night in prayer. He calls his disciples to come with him, and he came to a level place where a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude had gathered to hear his words, be healed of their diseases, and to have unclean spirits cast out.
The words of Luke are poignant because Jesus has looked at the multitude of the people who had come from far and near: "Then he looked up at his disciples and said-I rather imagine him kneeling down first and touching the suffering person who lay on the ground unable to move. He then moved into the teacher's usual position, sitting, perhaps under a tree and looking up at the disciples standing nearby. Then the words came:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
So begins the sermon on the plain. The poor, the hungry, and those who mourn are mentioned with special rewards. Do we fit any of these categories? Matthew says that the poor are the "poor in spirit." Anyone who is poor would certainly be low in spirit. Most of you in the sound of my voice are not hungry for food, but is your soul really nourished? Do we weep not for others but rather for ourselves? God seeks to bring humor into our lives, not to take ourselves too seriously. That was the best piece of advice I was offered before being ordained a bishop in the Episcopal church.
Dr. Howard Rhys, a New Testament scholar, says of the beatitudes:
These are not exalted qualities to which few can attain. They demand little in the way of talent or perception. Anybody can be poor in spirit, humble, and retiring. Anybody can mourn for the neglect of the Lord's way of life, or can be meek or merciful or pure in heart. Anybody can thirst for God's will to be done or can strive to reconcile quarrels.
The question remains then--what is asked in each of the beatitudes or blessings? Is it not to know who we are? If we are poor, or poor in spirit, we know that we can do nothing on our own. If we are hungry, soul-hungering, we begin the search through the dry periods of our life for the beauty of holiness to fill us and renew us in our lives in Christ. If we weep or mourn, we find ourselves powerless to remedy the conditions of death, society, violence and injustice, until we look into the mind of Christ and pray, "What is my job now?"
The key to looking at the beatitudes is faithfulness. For in each of the beatitudes that observation is there. The blessedness about which Jesus is speaking is further explained, as he says one of these peculiar things: "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven, for that is what your ancestors did to the prophets."
Bishop Richard Chartres, Anglican Bishop of London, has written: "When we examine Jesus' own teaching method, we see how often he was concerned to open up the imagination of his hearers to fresh possibilities. In doing so, he sought to disorient them in order to open the door to re-orienting them."
Remember the beatitudes, those lovely sayings of Jesus don't end there. He follows it with the woes. Woe to you who are rich, who are full, who are laughing, and woe to you when all speak well of you for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets." But, again, he brings the re-orientation: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you." Didn't anyone tell Jesus that these things are politically incorrect? What do we have to do with our enemies but win the victory? Why should I do good to that person who has hatred in her heart for me? Bless the man who just cursed me? Why, I can do better than that. I can curse him back. Take more abuse? Absolutely not! I'll not pray for that person. That sounds more like the human way, but it is not Christ's way. He would ask us to reverse the normal way of thinking and let our minds and hearts be ruled by blessing, loving, and forgiving those persons who do these things. In the course of things, also, we learn not to do them ourselves.
"What we see here is the radical discontinuity between those who follow Jesus of Nazareth and all others who hoped in the God of Israel. Jesus' followers believed that in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, God had not only remained faithful to the promises, but had begun to fulfill them. What for the prophets were the last days were now present. And far from being merely last, they were turning out to be the first days of something wholly newÃ‰. So they pray and mourn and hunger and thirst and protest the state of the world in a context, and, above all, in relationship with their Lord, that seems to them already to be a taste of the Eden restored and the age to come."
Recently I read a sermon by the Rev. Paul Petersen, a Presbyterian minister, who wrote on the beatitudes the following questions:
Are the beatitudes your attitudes?
Do you live the simple, basic life of the poor, apart from the materialistic consumerism that rules our society?
Do you mourn over the loss of God as the recognized guide for our society, not the intellectual mourning that judges and condemns society, but the heartfelt grieving of an empty spot in our life?
Are you guided by clear vision God's desire for you?
Are you persecuted for righteousness sake?
Do your life attitudes stand in such contradistinction from society's attitudes that you are considered strange and subversive.
He concludes, "If not, why not?"
The beatitudes call us to look at our lives and accept the blessings God gives us as signs of God's faithfulness to us and in return to live in such a way that we show by word and example our faithfulness and commitment to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ to others. Just showing forth such blessings in our lives will be a blessing for others. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray.
O God, you've made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son. Look with compassion on the whole human family. Take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts. Break down the walls that separate us. Unite us in bonds of love, and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth, that in your good time all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.