I'm conflating the final two beatitudes. One promises the Kingdom of God if you're persecuted for the sake of justice/righteousness. The other promises a great reward in heaven for those hated on and persecuted "on my account". This final beatitude ends, unusually, with Jesus offering a historical consolation: "for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you".
For Jesus, the prophets were outsiders, murdered by the same type of people who were planning to murder him (Matt 23.29-36). Now, in the Kingdom he was inaugurating, the "prophets, sages, and scribes" Jesus is sending, can also expect the prophet's fate (Matt 23.34). Persecution, it seems, is part of the mix when you follow Jesus and pursue his life of justice.
It seems to me that the beatitudes envisage communities that confront a 'business as usual' type of life. They are salt and light, which makes them prophetic, and liable to misunderstanding and persecution. The real question isn't whether followers of Jesus will get persecuted, but why? Is it "for the sake of justice and Jesus', or is it because Christians are anxious to hold onto what status and standing they have accrued. Watching America from the very post-Christendom outpost of Aotearoa, the Christian complaints about losing 'religious freedom' sound more like the second.
I don't think it's our job to be persecuted. It's our job to stand out for Jesus. That will bring persecution enough. Then comes the challenge of loving our enemies and forsaking violence as a response. Whenever I hear Christians doing that I'm humbled, grateful and proud to be on their team.
So what can I do to test this beatitude? Stand out for Jesus and discipline myself to love my enemies and not respond with violence.
I mentioned the my enemies were probably people I didn't know. A few years ago now I booked in for a vasectomy. The doctor whom I went to proudly told me that he was trained by Margaret Sparrow. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable, and not for the obvious reason. He had just named one of my greatest enemies.
Dame Margaret Sparrow is my 'unknown' enemy. More than any other New Zealander, Dame Margaret is associated in my mind with abortion. She practiced as an abortionist for many years not far from where I live at the Parkview Abortion Clinic. But more than that, she has been an unrelenting advocate for more liberal abortion laws. Even worse than that, the State has lavished her with honours, presenting her to the community as an admirable and imitable person.
I don't know Dame Margaret personally. Like so many of our enemies, she represents an idea I hate. And I concede that if I ever met her, I would most likely find her to be a pleasant and intelligent person. After all, she comes from Taranaki!
The challenge I left myself last time was to name my enemies and workout what it would take to love them. Not like them or agree with them, necessarily. But see in them the image of God, treating them with kindness and respect. Here's how I've decide to love my enemy, Dame Margaret Sparrow. I'm going to read the first of her histories of abortion in New Zealand published by VUW Press. It's called Abortion Then & Now: New Zealand Abortion Stories From 1940 to 1980 (Victoria University Press, 2010). It's costing me $50. So, not such cheap grace!
I figure this is a way to treat her with respect. Listen to her. Humanize her. I think this is something like what Jesus meant by loving our enemies; a practice surely right at the heart of peacemaking.
Nearly everyone says they want peace, the question is how to get it. Mostly people believe that peace comes through security; that is we create bubbles of calm in this world when we secure our borders (however we define them) from those who threaten our peace (ie our enemies). The reference to borders and bubbles was unconsciously done, but it's true that most people imagine their peace is like a haven from the pandemic of violence that lies 'out there'.
Michael Gorman in his book Becoming the Gospel describes the way Rome (and every powerful nation?) thought about peace by drawing attention to a famous altar called the ara pacis (altar of peace). It was built during the reign of Rome's first Emperor, Augustus, and seeks to show how Augustus (and his family) have brought peace and prosperity to Rome. Most of the panels on the altar show life inside this bubble of peace, but one panel shows a female warrior (Roma?) sitting on a pile of weapons (see image). And that, of course, is how the Roman peace worked - by conquering and then suppressing the peoples of the Empire.
Gorman then offers a blunt picture of Paul's theology of the peace Jesus brings by summarizing Galatians 2.15-21: "If violence and war is the way to peace, then Rome was right, and Christ died for nothing". Jesus' way of peace was through enemy love and forgiveness. Needless to say, Rome's way is still preferred by most.
I don't however think that Paul thought of Christ's peace as only an absence of violence and flourishing of life. It is also connected to an inner confidence that one is loved and accepted by God and other people.
This week in NZ we've been hearing the victim impact statements from the survivors and families of the Christchurch terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers. Most impressive throughout the months following the attack has been one of the victims, Farid Ahmed. And again this week, when asked by journalists whether he intended to go to court and give an impact statement he said no. Instead, he said he'd like to talk with the terrorist once things have calmed down: "I do not expect a criminal to be an angel overnight,. I'm not delusional. But at the same time, I don't give up hope...I would just talk from my heart. If I can't understand, then maybe I can help to change the hate". (Dom Post 22.8.20).
He's a Muslim, but he clearly gets Jesus' recipe for peace: love your enemies.
So that's my challenge if I wan't to learn something from peacemakers like Farid Ahmed. Who are my enemies and what will it take for me to love them? Funnily enough, I suspect most of my enemies are people I've never met. I'll let you know how I get on.
I was going to right a list of the more and less pure-hearted (single-minded-kingdom-devoted) aspects of my life. Instead there have been two things in my life over the past month or more that, now I think about it, seem relevant.
The first is a new prayer-practice. I've taken on Scot McKnight's suggestion of saying the "Jesus Creed" when I wake and before I go to sleep - and random moments in between. If you haven't come across it, McKnight wrote an award winning book called 'The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others' back in 2005. He argues that Jesus, as a faithful Jew, would have prayed the Shema (Deut 6.4-5) everyday of his life. And then points out that the gospels give us his twist on the Shema in answer to the question 'what is the most important commandment' (Mark 12.29-31). So McKnight argued that it would be faithful to Jesus and good for our own prayer life to take up Jesus' version of the Shema as a prayer rhythm. So since lockdown, that's what I've been doing. Notice how closely it aligns with the interpretation of pure in heart that I'm working with. Here's the Jesus Creed:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
It's early days to see the way in which this habit changes me. But I'm hoping the constant refrain "with all", said day and night, will help align my thoughts and deeds more consistently around what Jesus said was the most important thing - loving God and loving others. Maybe I will see God more clearly; at least see his glory in the faces of others?
My second experience of pure-hardheartedness hasn't been about me, but rather a young man in our church whose prayers and witness has been touching many of us over the past while. Through Jesse God has been surprising us by his grace. Simply and beautifully, God and Jesse have got something going on that caught me by surprise. And it feels very pure-hearted, and more and more I'm seeing God's glory in Jesse's face. No one contrived it, let alone expected it. Jesse's pure-hearted love of God has just been a beautiful gift from God, wrought deep within him by the Holy Spirit. It reminds me that God is indeed with us - something I am very grateful for.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God"
If pure in heart means never having a bad thought, I'm unlikely to ever see God! Fortunately that's not what it means. Glen Stassen says pure heartedness is about integrity so that our intentions align with our actions. "Holistically focused" is another one of his phrases. For a number of years, my shorthand for pure in heart has been 'single minded'.
"Seeing God" is also tricky. In Ex 33.20 it says no one can see God and live, yet a few verses earlier (v11) we're told that YHWH used to speak to Moses face to face - like a friend. A kind of comprise happens in the narrative surrounding these verses whereby God passes by Moses, but Moses only sees his back, not his face. However we parse it all out, the bible wants to tell us that seeing God is dangerous, but also transformative. Moses shines with YHWH's glory, which has irradiated him because he 'saw' YHWH on Sinai. In the NT John says "No one has ever seen God but the one and only Son" (John 1.18). Jesus shining at the Mt of Transfiguration is surely significant here too.
So are we meant to understand that Moses and Jesus were specially pure in heart - the shining ones who have seen God?
If so, maybe it was their single minded commitment to God's kingdom which distinguished them. Moses in leading Israel from slavery, interceding for them when they rebel, and bringing them to the cusp of the promise land (read kingdom). Jesus' single mindedness/pure in heart is demonstrable. His mahi is proclaiming God's Kingdom, and even in the garden, facing the cross, it's "your will be done".
Jesus' twin parables of the buried treasure and priceless pearl (Matt 13.44-46) is, I think, all about being pure in heart. Negatively, it's what the rich young rule lacked precisely because he wasn't the sort of person to "sell everything" for the sake of the Kingdom.
So, how do I experiment with being pure in heart this month? I'll write a list. No doubt a long list of ways in I'm not single minded in my pursuit of the Kingdom, and a shorter list of any ways I am more Moses and Jesus-like in my whole-hearted devotion to God's mission. The net result I'll call a doxometer (glory meter). Whether my face shines any brighter or duller.....
Fun fact: A mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate led to many artistic depictions of Moses having horns rather than a shiny face. See here.
So I found a member of a religious order called the Sisters of Mercy. Their founder was Catherine McAuley, an Irish woman who lived during the mid 19th century.
They arrived in NZ quite early and are principally known as a teaching order.
What I discovered through my email discussions with Sis. Elizabeth was the ancient church tradition of the 7 works of mercy:
There were 2 wise things Sis Elizabeth highlighted for me. The first is that in the bible mercy is primarily an action, rather than simply a feeling. "It's a verb" she said.
Her second piece of wisdom arose after I pushed back, wondering whether mercy had become understood as somewhat paternalistic. Here's what she wrote: Yes, the one dispensing mercy can seem to be 'lady bountiful'. However, I think the first step is always the receiving of mercy. We cannot give what we do not have. And everything is gift anyway. Growth in awareness of this reality is a lifetime journey!
I'd put it like this: you can't do 'in' or 'out' without also doing 'up'. This is cryptic discipleship language for the 3 dimensions of life Jesus calls us into. While we might love our community (in), or love the people we feel God calling us to be and proclaim good news to (out), both are blighted without a deep love for God (up). When we try to be merciful without knowing ourselves as objects of divine mercy, we lose the Jesus-touch. The gospel writers are alive to this in Jesus' life, often pointing out how a time of ministry was preceded by a night of prayer.
Interestingly, the 7 tradition works of mercy, were complemented with the 7 spiritual works of mercy. I think the instinct is right. It's the balance of up, in and out which helps his followers smell like Jesus. And this is never more important when we embark on works of mercy in his name.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy
So far the beatitudes have focused on society's 'have-nots': the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and those longing for righteousness/justice. But this one seems to shift focus onto people in a position of power; those able to give or withhold mercy. My expert guide to the beatitudes, Glen Stassen, suggests that Jesus expressed mercy in two main ways. One was forgiveness of sin, and the other was forgiving debt. He points to the story in Luke of the woman ("who was a sinner") anointing Jesus' feet with ointment and her tears. Simon the Pharisee expresses shock that Jesus would allow such a woman to touch him, and Jesus responds with a parable about a creditor who forgave one man a large debt, and the other man a smaller debt. "Which of them will love him (the creditor more?", asks Jesus. Simon is forced to concede that the one who was forgiven the large debt. Jesus then then praises the woman for her extravagant display of love (in comparison to Simon), and on that basis announces that her sins ("which were many") are forgiven.
For Stassen it's Jesus' combination of spiritual forgiveness and material justice, which makes this an exemplary story about mercy.
However, in Wellington we have a well know religious order called the Sisters of Mercy. My mission this month is to try and talk with one of the sisters about their take on mercy. I figure they must have thought about it quite a bit. I hope so!
During the Covid lockdown I noticed a backpack stowed away, out of sight, down the side of the church. Previous experience suggests it might belong to someone sleeping rough - a place to store their gear when they're moving about during the day. The housing of rough sleepers is a justice issue top of mind for many Kiwis. But like lots of justice issues, 'solutions' are not so straight forward. One person I worked with last year had been homeless for years, moving about sleeping in unused sheds etc, and sometimes staying with kind people for a few weeks. But what was keeping him homeless, in my opinion, was shame and unresolved guilt. And he had a lot to feel guilty about! So he kept on the move. For him, justice wouldn't look so much like a house, but rather more like a community where he could feel accepted.
I couldn't get him off the street for more than a few weeks, but my wife and I have been able to help another family with housing. This is my ongoing experience of a kind of restorative justice in the area of housing. It involves us leaving our home and renting it to a family who came to NZ through the Government's official refugee programme. It's been going for over three years now, and will end (we believe) with the family having enough money to buy their own house. An incredible achievement on their part. Here's a video made a couple of years ago where Fiona and I describe what happened.
Two housing crises, but I think the restoring justice each was after were totally different. A refugee family needed housing in a particular area that was affordable enough for them to live comfortably and even get on the housing ladder. A homeless man needed, not so much a house, as a community to embrace and accept him.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied"
The word "righteousness" doesn't mean (at least not here) the gift of being at peace with God after we have repented and asked Jesus to come into our hearts. Like all the beatitudes, Jesus is echoing the language of the Old Testament, especially the Psalms and Isaiah. A better translation would be "justice", although not the "make my day, punk" Dirty Harry sort of justice. God's justice is about doing things to restore victims and their offenders back to full life in the community and creation, When this sort of justice happens, God's purposes are restored, and in this sense we are brought into a right relationship with God.
And who are the hungry and the thirsty? Is it a metaphor for those wanting to see justice in the world, or does Jesus mean those who really are deprived of life's necessities, who cry out to him for a justice that will restore them to life in the community? As with the first beatitude about the poor, Luke simply says "blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled" (Luke 6.21). This leads to the idea that Matthew has (again) 'spiritualized' Jesus' words. As with my take on "the poor in Spirit" [see January's post] I suspect Jesus meant those who really have missed out on life's necessities (food and water) and who look to the LORD for a justice that restores them back to fullness of life. This extended extract from Psalm 107 gives you the idea:
4 Some wandered in the wilderness,
lost and homeless.
5 Hungry and thirsty,
they nearly died.
6 “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
and he rescued them from their distress.
7 He led them straight to safety,
to a city where they could live.
8 Let them praise the Lord for his great love
and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
9 For he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.
The late Glen Stassen suggests that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) is also a good example of someone hungering and thirsting for righteousness/justice.
Well, although I often cry out for food and drink it's never because I'm in any danger of death, and has nothing to do with my sense of being excluded from the "good things" God has purposed for me. Nonetheless, I can be part of God's restoring justice.
Right now (Covid lockdown) many Kiwis are helping provide food and other basics for people who have lost their jobs. That's restorative justice. My challenge this month is to do something practical for someone struggling with the necessities of life. The aim to to participate in God's great project of restorative justice.
9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12 The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85)
If you feel inspired, give it a go too. Will report back in a month's time.
My aim this month was to find some Kiwis who were meek, and therefore (according to Jesus) will inherit the earth.
It has been tough. Partly I've been distracted by life in lockdown, but mainly I've simply struggled to think of people who fit model of humility/meekness set by Jesus.
I discussed my thoughts about what Jesus meant by meekness in the 3rd beatitude at the beginning of the month. Over the month my shorthand for what I was looking for became 'a donkey-riding kiwi'. The idea is someone who leads in that strange 'upside down' kingdom way. I figure this is what Jesus is doing on Palm Sunday. So...not just someone who is humble, but someone leading out of a meek (πραΰς) character.
Who are these meek Kiwis? I could only think of two: Sir Michael Jones and someone I knew for a year at university I'll call Fred.
I guess Michael Jones is reasonably obvious. The donkey riding bit that stands out for me was his consistent refusal to play on Sundays. Completely incomprehensible to most Kiwis, and usually just filed under the cultural-religious category - a common depository for secular Westerners to deal with beliefs and behaviours that otherwise don't make sense. But Jones was offering prophetic leadership to a society that often places far too much weight on sport "For the Kingdom of God is not food and drink [and rugby], but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" Rom 14.17)
My other example of a donkey-riding kiwi was a bloke who taught me how to do evangelistic visiting at university hostels. Fred was clearly a donkey-rider in that most people found him weirdly focused on what he believed. He was always gentle and generous, but clearly was guided by a different light than most others around him.
Someone who went to school with him told me he was always exceptionally kind and lacking in egoism. When he became a Christian his humble character simply found a cause - a Jerusalem to ride his donkey toward. And I do wonder whether God has made only a few people humble like Jesus, and the rest of us need to discover our true selves in the other beatitudes?
Perhaps some of you feel I should have put in some secular examples. Ed Hilary, or even our Prime Minister? I'd love to hear of Kiwis you've known (or know about) who fit your definition of meek. They might be important people to know on day - Jesus says they'll inherit the earth. That'll be a shock to some of our well known national posers!