A Loophole in the Kingdom
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.
Hungering for God’s Righteousness
February 3, 2008
The eight Beatitudes, which we have just heard in the gospel from Matthew, are some times called the Magna Carter of the Kingdom of God, the foundational principles of the gospel. One could give many homilies on each of them. But today we have time for only one homily. So let us pick one of these Beatitudes and look at it from a single perspective.
The beatitude I wish to consider is the fourth beatitude; “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied.” The first thing to notice about this beatitude is that it does not call us to an action but to a feeling, to a desire, to a hunger. It asks us to hunger for righteousness. Now what does it mean to hunger for righteousness? We should appreciate that the righteousness in question is not our righteousness but God’s righteousness, not our goodness but God’s goodness. Another word for righteousness is justice. So this beatitude tells us that we are blessed if we hunger for God’s righteousness, for God’s justice in our midst. It is becoming clearer what this beatitude means. We are called to yearn for the righteousness, the justice, and the goodness of God to be present in our world. We are called to hunger so that injustice, violence and hatred are eliminated. This beatitude is very similar to the petition in the Our Father, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are called to yearn for the coming of God’s kingdom, to hunger and thirst that God’s righteousness and God’s justice cover the earth.
So far so good. But you say, “Isn’t it important that we not only hunger for God’s righteousness but work to produce it?” It certainly is. We are all called to act on behalf of God’s kingdom and there are several beatitudes that cover that responsibility: Blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are the merciful. But this beatitude recognizes that there are times where the injustice, the sinfulness, the evil that surrounds us, is of such a kind that we cannot even think of an action to undertake. Evil is bigger than us. No simple action on our part will deal with it. In those circumstances, where clear actions are not visible, we are called to feel the injustice, to hunger for God’s justice and God’s righteousness to come.
Common wisdom says, “If there is nothing you can do, just forget about it. If there is nothing you can do, don’t worry about it. Don’t feel anything.” This beatitude pulls in another direction. It says even in those circumstances when we cannot identify a specific action by which to build the kingdom, it is still valuable for us to hunger for that time when God’s righteousness and justice will be present.
This beatitude invites us into a compassion for the brokenness of the world. It invites us to feel the pain of those who suffer injustice, of those who undergo violence and evil. We are called to feel with them and to hunger for that time when the evil of our world will be removed.
This Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent and this beatitude could serve as a beneficial Lenten practice. What if we approached Lent in an effort to deepen our compassion for the brokenness of the world? What if we were called to feel more completely the incompleteness and the injustice and the violence that is around us. We can do this on a personal level. We can identify a brokenness, a dysfunction in our families, with which we have tried to deal unsuccessfully. And even in that lack of success, we can thirst that God’s righteousness might come. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in my family.
We can also hunger on an international, worldwide level. What if we took up an article from the paper each day and prayed over it. Take for example, the terrible things that are happening in Kenya, hundreds of people being killed because of political instability and racial violence. I do not know what I can do to make that situation different, but I do know that I can deepen my compassion for those who feel that injustice and that violence. I can pray for the day when God’s justice will reign. Thy kingdom come, they will be done in Kenya.
Now as we try to deepen our thirst and hunger for God’s righteousness, let me warn you. God is perfectly capable of presenting to us with an action that we can do. God can lead us to a specific deed which can build God’s kingdom. If such an action emerges, we are obliged to follow it. But even when such a specific action is not apparent, it is still valuable to yearn for the kingdom, to pray for God’s righteousness. This is why Christ calls us to compassion over the brokenness of our world. This is why we are called blessed when we hunger for God’s righteousness, when we pray that God’s kingdom come!
How God Sees the World
January 30, 2011
Matthew 5: 1-12a
Every human group or organization tries to attract new members, and often in this effort they will employ a slogan or a motto that helps identify who they are and why people would want to join them. The Marines are good at this. Over the last number of decades they have come up with a number of memorable slogans: “We’re looking for a few good men,” or, more recently, “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” In these few words you can catch the sense of who the Marines are: a select group (not everyone can join), a proud group, and a group committed to accomplishing things. Religious communities have also come up with slogans to attract members. The Franciscans recently have adopted this one: “Clothed in prayer, community, and service.” You can see by this slogan that this is a faith community dedicated to shared living and the commitment to others.
It would be helpful to us to keep this idea of slogans or mottoes in mind as we hear today’s Gospel, because today’s Gospel is the beginning of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount. Matthew begins this sermon by giving us a series of sayings which summarize what Jesus’ mission is about and what those who might want to follow him should expect. Now these sayings are not slogans. They are beatitudes. But beatitudes and slogans share the ability in a few short words to nail down the heart of the matter and what is really important. This is the way that the Beatitudes of Jesus have been seen throughout the centuries. People as diverse as Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have all understood the Beatitudes of Jesus as the central core of his teaching and the most important part of his message.
So what do the Beatitudes tell us. They tell us how God sees the world. God sees as blessed those who are poor. God sees as valuable those who mourn, those who are lonely, those who are persecuted. The Beatitudes reveal that God is committed to those who are in need and those who suffer. It is because God is present to them, they are blessed. The Beatitudes do not say that it is a blessed or wonderful thing to be poor, or to be grieving, or to be persecuted. They do assert that whenever any of these distressful things happen to us, God comes to us. God is attracted to us because God knows our needs. Because God is present in those distressful circumstances, those who are distressed are blessed. If God is with them, God will lead those who suffer to a better place: those who mourn will be comforted; those that are lowly will inherit the land; those who are poor or persecuted will rejoice in the kingdom.
So this is the God that the Beatitudes reveal to us: a God who lifts up the lowly, who cares for the poor, who stands with the oppressed. It is this vision of who God is that stands at the center of Jesus’ ministry and forms the heart of Jesus’ teaching. There are two distinct and immediate consequences that flow from this God of the Beatitudes, two things which those who follow Christ must adopt: hope and solidarity. To be a disciple of Jesus, we must be a people of hope. Because we know that when we are poor, when we are grieving, when we feel rejected or worthless or in need, God comes to us. We believe this because we know that God is close to those who are poor or in need. We believe in a God who comes to us in our struggles, a God who is with us and leads us to a place of fullness and joy. Those who follow Jesus must be people of hope because God cares for us in our need. We must also be people of solidarity, solidarity with the poor and oppressed. If God is close to those who struggle, if God is close to those who are persecuted or in need, we must act towards them in the same way. We cannot worship God and ignore those for whom God cares. We must as followers of Jesus be people who are committed to eliminating poverty and injustice and oppression because those are the very things that our God is also committed to eliminate.
The Beatitudes summarize what Jesus is about and who those who follow Jesus must be. The Marines are looking for a few good men. Jesus is looking for as many people as possible who will see the world as God sees it and therefore be people of hope and solidarity.
January 29, 2017
Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13; Matthew 5: 1-12a
I do not know whether today’s readings encouraged me or depressed me. They seem to say that any given time that there will be only be a handful of people who know God’s will and follow it. The technical, biblical term for this minority report is the word, “remnant.” It means the remainder, the leftovers, a small group. Zephaniah uses this word in today’s first reading. Zephaniah was a prophet about 600 years before the birth of Christ. Israel was flourishing, and the temple was filled with people. But, Zephaniah did not believe that all the people who were worshiping in the temple actually knew what God asked of them. He did not accept that all the people who called themselves sons and daughters of Israel really understood God’s will. Therefore, Zephaniah believed that God would create in the midst of the people “a remnant” who would understand God’s will and follow it.
Zephaniah gives three characteristics to this remnant. First, they will seek justice, do what is right. Second, they will be humble. Finally, they will speak no lies. Now even in this short description it is clear that Zephaniah saw this remnant as a counter-cultural group, espousing values that were not accepted in the larger society. I would suggest to you that 2600 years later those same characteristics would be considered counter cultural in our time. Look at the people who have influence or power. Look at the ideas that control many people’s minds. How many would choose to do what is right, seek justice, as opposed to doing what is popular or profitable? How many people would see a value to be humble, as opposed to saying, “Look at me and how important I am?” How many people would reject lies and try to speak the truth rather then shaping that truth to fit their agenda? Not many, not the majority, only a remnant.
Jesus adds to Zephaniah’s thinking in today’s Gospel. He gives us the beatitudes. The beatitudes tell us who God intends to bless. God does not bless the wealthy and proud. God blesses the poor, the lowly, the hungry, and the persecuted. The beatitudes tell us that God is always thinking about the least and the last among us. And, of course, Jesus’ message is that we should have that same concern. But again, how many people—even those who call themselves Christian—would see their first responsibility to care for the poor, the lowly, hungry, and the persecuted, rather than catering to those who have influence to help them and promote their own success. Not the majority, only a remnant.
So this is what is depressing about today’s readings. They tell us that if we look at the people who say they believe, the people who come to church, the people who call themselves Christians, many of them don’t get it. They do not have a clear idea of what God is asking them and they do not see God’s values as their own. That is discouraging.
But there is another way of looking at the remnant that is more positive and optimistic. Perhaps the remnant is simply the way things are. Perhaps God is not so concerned about numbers, as long as there is a handful of people who understand and follow God’s will. It may be that it is God’s plan to have a remnant whose purpose it is to witness to the majority, even if their witness is not accepted. Karl Rahner, one of the great theologians of the last century, once said that when the Christian population rises above twenty percent in any area, Christians lose the ability to impact society and change it. That is because at that point people start to say they are Christian simply because it is acceptable. They claim Christianity because it is convenient, not because they believe in the ministry of Jesus.
So you and I have some decisions to make. We need to decide first of all whether Zephaniah is right? Is the remnant a failure because its numbers are so small or does it have value because the witness it gives to others? And, of course, we must also decide where we stand. Are we a part of the remnant, or not?