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Sunday Worship 12 March | Beatitudes 2

Updated: Jan 19

Last week we started a series on the beatitudes, the eight expressions of blessedness that begin the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters five to seven. I offered a bit of an introduction to the beatitudes, and then some reflections on the first two phrases, which we heard in a number of translations and interpretations. If you missed all of that, you can catch up online or ask me for a text copy, but I thought it might be helpful to return to some of what we covered before we move on to the next two beatitudes.

 

Most particularly I want to think again what it means to be blessed. The standard definition is that it means to be happy or favoured, but it seemed difficult to accept that was what Jesus had in mind when he began with "blessed are the poor in spirit" and "blessed are those who mourn", neither of which seem like happy or favoured states. As I said last week, I do not believe that these beatitudes mean we should accept suffering or ignore the plight of others, because we believe we should be happy with it or see it as a sign of favour. Instead I believe these beatitudes mean that even when we do not feel happy or favoured, we are still held within the grace and goodness of God. If I want you take anything away from this series, it is that assurance that God is with us in all the fullness of life, so don't be surprised if you hear it again.

 

Blessed are the meek
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (NIV)
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. (The Message)
Remember the one leper out of ten who came back after Jesus healed them and said thank you. He had the humility and the patience to return, instead of rushing off into his new life, and he received an extra blessing for it, as Jesus commended him for his faith. This kind of meekness is not weakness, but recognising what God has done and so being ready to see what more God will do.

 

Those of you who have seen the Monty Python film Life of Brian may remember the scene with the sermon on the mount. We see Jesus preaching to the crowds, and then the camera pulls away until we find Brian and his mum right at the back struggling to hear. Someone else in the crowd says "Did you hear that? Blessed are the Greek. Apparently he's going to inherit the earth. Did anyone catch his name?" Then after a bit of a kerfuffle someone else says "Oh it's the meek. Blessed are the meek. Oh that's nice, isn't it? I'm glad they're getting something because they have a hell of a time."

 

It’s an amusing scene, but as good satire it also makes an interesting point. Because maybe we really have misheard, or at least misunderstood. We've already seen from our reflections on what it means to be blessed that words don’t always mean what we think they do. They hold different meanings to different people and they change meaning over time. In modern language, meekness is associated with weakness. It suggests an inability or reluctance to speak up, someone who is submissive or easy to impose upon. Perhaps that is what Jesus meant and this is part of the subversion of the beatitudes, an example of one of the ways in which the first will be last and the last will be first. The problem is that such meekness is easily abused by oppressors to keep people down, and I can’t believe that is the will of God. And I’m clearly not alone in my discomfort with this understanding of meekness, as the readings we have just heard lean anyway from any sense of weakness.

 

Let’s take a closer look at this word then. The Greek used here is difficult to translate, but according to Strong's Lexicon, it conveys a sense of exercising God's strength under God's control. It is not powerlessness but power used appropriately. Bible scholar Warren Carter says that the meek are “those who are aware of their identity as the oppressed of God in the world, those who have renounced the violent methods of this-worldly power,” while theologian Kenneth E Bailey described the meek as “the one who becomes angry on the right grounds against the right person in the right manner at the right moment and for the right length of time.” This is being meek as Jesus was meek, strength and conviction exercised with compassion and restraint.

 

That may not obviously lead to the humility that was commended in the Godly Play retelling or the contentment that was expressed in the Message version, and I don’t think either of them quite capture the sense of this beatitude, but I don’t think they are entirely without merit either. Power used appropriately must surely include a humble recognition of where that power comes from, as we see demonstrated by the leper who returned to thank Jesus. And unless we are content within our own limits, we may be led to grasp for power that is not legitimately ours. The gift of these alternative interpretations is not that they replace more straightforward translations, but that they can sit alongside and enrich them.

 

There’s another way to approach this too, as it is possible that Jesus was drawing on Psalm 37, which says: "those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land...the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity." The parallel between “those who hope in the Lord” and “the meek”, both of whom will “inherit the land”, suggests that the meek are those very people who hope in the Lord. If we are to exercise God’s strength under God’s control, renouncing the violence of worldly power and keeping our anger in check, then we are going to need to hold fast to hope, because there will be times when all our efforts seem futile. There is assurance here though, because every beatitude comes with a kind of promise, and this one declares that the meek will inherit the earth.

 

The previous promises were an inversion of the beatitude - those who have nothing will receive everything, those who mourn will be comforted - but the promise here reads more like a reward. That suggests to me that meekness is not just a state of being we experience as part of the fullness of life, but a way of living we should actively seek to pursue. Perhaps there is a suggestion that only if we are meek will there be an earth left to inherit, because if we abuse our power then we risk destroying each other and our planet. Or perhaps Jesus is simply saying that the way of the meek will win out in the end, because it is God’s way. He was speaking to people who were oppressed by a callous empire, and for many the only alternative seemed to be a violent revolution. Meekness denounces both options and declares a third way, a way which uses power to lift up rather than beat down, and which opens a way for peace and prosperity for all who have hope and imagination for it. That is the meekness of Jesus, and it should be the meekness of all who follow him.


Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (NIV)
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. (The Message)
Remember the prophets like Isaiah, who called on the people to learn to do right and to defend the oppressed. He may not have seen an end to all injustice, but he was given a vision of a feast for all nations on God’s holy mountain, a place where death and disgrace will be swallowed up. At that feast, we shall all be filled with the righteousness of God.

 

Let’s start by digging into what we mean when we talk about righteousness. It has a sense of judicial or divine approval, and so one way of describing it would be to say that it is what is good in God's eyes. For me that is not only about personal devotion but primarily about social justice, and so I think the Message misses the mark again here. Yes we should work up an appetite for God, but we also need to work up an appetite for God’s work, or what Desmond Tutu's Children of God Storybook Bible speaks of as God's dream. I have sat in churches that have talked about wanting more of God and then failed to engage in praying for the world, as if faith is just a personal experience and not the means by which we participate in the renewal and transformation of all things, and I have walked away from those churches with a deep sense of sadness and dissatisfaction.

 

This is why I love the Godly Play retelling, which draws on prophetic visions of God’s righteousness fulfilled. In Isaiah 11 we read: "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." And in Isaiah 25: "On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken." It is an incredible vision of peace and plenty, joy and justice, freedom and flourishing. It is all that is good in God’s eyes, and all that God desires for us as beloved children.

 

What then does it look like for us to hunger and thirst for this righteousness, to partake in the realisation of this vision? If we hunger and thirst for something, that means we are not satisfied without it, that we will take action to see those needs are met. And so hungering and thirsting for righteousness must mean working for righteousness. I spoke last week about mourning with those who mourn, and this is taking the step from feeling to doing. Of course we cannot hold all the sorrows or answer all the problems of the world, but we can all do something. As a text from the Talmud puts it: "Do not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s grief: walk humbly now, love mercy now, do justly now. You are not expected to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it."

 

In his book on the beatitudes, the Christian activist Dave Andrews writes: "For Jesus, the pursuit of justice involved five different tasks: confronting injustice in society, delivering the poor from exploitation by the rich, liberating the powerless from oppression by the powerful, freeing people from the cycles of violence and counter-violence which are a constant threat to vulnerable populations, and creating just communities which are intentionally committed to including outcasts." It's not your usual to do list. We're not going to tick "confront injustice" off in the morning, and start on "liberate the powerless" after lunch. This is the work of many people over many lifetimes, but it is the work that should inspire and sustain us as people who share in God's dream.

 

As I reflected on righteousness this week, my mind kept coming back to the Illegal Immigration Bill, which has been much in the news this week, and which we have already responded to in prayer this morning. I'm not going to pretend there are straightforward answers to the refugee crisis, and I speak here not as an authority but as an individual. Of course we must stop the boat crossings that endanger lives and line the pockets of smugglers and slavemasters, but surely the answer cannot be to effectively ban people from seeking asylum by criminalising irregular entry without making provision for safe entry, and we should shudder at the thought of those trafficked into modern slavery being shown the government proposals and told help is not coming. As a statement from leaders of the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches said this week, "If ever there was a contemporary example of ignoring our neighbour and walking by on the other side, this is it." We who hunger and thirst for righteousness must not walk by, and whatever else we may think about asylum policy, surely we can do better than this, and so I encourage you to speak out as a matter of confronting injustice.

 

If the news has felt disheartening this week, as it does many weeks, we can find a measure of assurance in the beatitudes. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled. The promise here is satisfaction. As we heard last week, one day everything sad will come untrue, and one day the world will fulfil God's dream for creation, that vision of peace and plenty and joy and justice and freedom and flourishing for all. The wait may feel agonising, but may we not only wait for that day, but actively work to bring it about.

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