January 30, 2005
W.C. Fields, the famous comedian from the first half of the 20th century, was known throughout the movie industry as an irreligious person. He did not take much stock in churches or church practice. It was therefore a surprise when an associate of his came across Fields reading the bible. “Mr. Fields,” the man said, “I never would have taken you to be a person of faith.” “I’m not reading with devotion,” Fields responded. “I’m looking for loopholes.”
W.C. Fields might have been interested in today’s gospel, because there is a loophole in it, an escape clause from which a number of us might benefit. The gospel selection is from the beginning of Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount. It consists in the eight beatitudes. These eight sayings by Jesus are widely recognized to be the heart of his teaching. They have been called the Magna Charta or the Constitution of the kingdom of God, because they express both what the kingdom is and what must be done to be a part of it.
Each one of the beatitudes begins by describing a present quality or condition in us which will lead us to happiness and inclusion into the kingdom of God. Most of the beatitudes point to a virtue, a good habit, which qualifies us to belong to the kingdom: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy; Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God; Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. These qualities of mercy, purity, peace characterize the kingdom and those who belong to it.
But one of the beatitudes is different—the fourth beatitude. The fourth beatitude does not begin with a present virtue or good habit but rather with a hope or desire: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” The fourth beatitude says that we are blessed if desire righteousness. What is righteousness? It is what God calls us to be. It is righteousness that mark us for the kingdom. It is, in fact, what the other beatitudes describe. To be a person of mercy, of purity, of peace means that you are righteous. The other beatitudes say we are blessed if we have these qualities, the fourth beatitude says we are blessed if we wish we had these qualities. As such, this beatitude qualifies as a loophole, as an escape clause for us. For it tells us even if we are not completely merciful or pure or peaceful, as long as we hunger and thirst for those virtues, we can still be included in the kingdom of God.
Now when we first hear of this fourth beatitude, it can cause concern. We can question whether the high moral tone of the beatitudes is being undermined, whether we are bypassing the need to be righteous, merciful, peaceful and pure. I do not think we are. What motivates the fourth beatitude is not a disregard for righteousness, but a deep compassion on the part of God who recognizes how difficult it is to be good.
Most of us know who we should be and how we should live. But many of us struggle to find the wisdom and the strength to be what God calls us to be. We know that we should be merciful, forgiving those who hurt us. Yet time and again we cling to our anger, refusing to let go of our hurt, still longing to get even. We know that we should be peacemakers. Yet instead of taking steps to build harmony in our relationship we continue to explode with impatience and exasperation. We know that we should be pure of heart. Yet our thoughts and our lifestyle are overcome with unwholesome desires that drag us down. We know that we should be poor in spirit. But we cannot resist the temptation to throw our weight around, to promote our self-importance, to judge others because they are different.
When we recognize the ways in which we miss the mark, how we fail to become the people God calls us to be, then the fourth beatitude is our loophole, our escape clause from the expectations of the kingdom. It tells us that even though we are not yet the merciful, peaceful, pure, and loving people we should be, as long as we continue to hunger and thirst for righteousness, God will not abandon us. God will help us to grow and improve.
The fourth beatitude, then, is the beatitude for the imperfect disciple. In the1970’s there was a popular poster which read, “Be patient. God is not finished with me yet.” When we are not the people that we are called to be, the fourth beatitude gives us hope. It tells us that if we continue to yearn for righteousness, if we continue to hunger and thirst to be a true disciple, God will work with us. God will make us more merciful, more peaceful, more pure, humble and loving. As long as we continue to desire what God has called us to be, this beatitude promises that all is not lost. We can change. Someday our desire to be righteous will carry us into the kingdom of God.