“Live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (or words to that effect) can often be seen painted in a ribbon of gold above the sanctuary in old churches. (Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; and Matthew 5:1-12.) In isolation they are beautiful words that tug at the heart and the yearning many of us have to live and love more simply and fully. When heard in dialogue with the Beatitudes they are radical words to live into.
When these familiar words are heard in the fuller context of the prophet Micah’s rebuke and strongly worded corrective to a faint heart people, and connected to the Be-attitudes, they are beautiful and radical words to live into. They are confounding wisdom teachings about what it means to be a seeker of God and lover of self and neighbour on the path that Jesus taught. This is the inside out, upside down, wisdom of Jesus that his church glimpses but has never quite mastered . Possibly because mastery is not what is required but surrender, desire, a spark of hope in a dark place, a seeking after the divine beloved as though one’s life depends on it! (Which of course it does in a manner of speaking!)
The prophet Micah depicts a passionate and difficult encounter in an imaginary court room setting, in which a frustrated, bewildered, imploring God asks a disengaged, disobedient people what is wrong with their relationship? And so the words we love are a corrective to an errant people, a simplification of the ten commandments, a poetic summary of the rules for being in community, a simple yet impossible standard to live toward that will keep us on the way, on the path of growth and closer and closer union with our God and neighbour, for the rest of our lives. A holy and impossible calling.
And in this same wisdom tradition Jesus outlines his teaching on what it is to give your life over to God, what is required to experience the kingdom of heaven now here in this troubled and troubling world (rather than a vague far-away after-life spiritual retreat centre!) Jesus was in some ways the culmination of the ancient wisdom tradition of Israel. And in some ways he was radically different. One way of understanding the central teaching of Jesus was that of “self-emptying love”. The way to God that Jesus lived was not one of ascent, of reaching up and achieving greatness, but of descent and finding God in the depths of life, including in suffering, sin and death. This is what we acknowledge every Lent and Easter, every time we are able to share the Eucharist together, every time we pray when we are sad and lost, heart broken and contrite, lost but still looking. And this, I think, is the key to entering into the wisdom of the Be-attitudes.
If I may suggest an amplification of the Be-attitudes that expresses this understanding.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. When you are broken and can no longer hope for worldly success or comfort, you are blessed for you are ready to be open to the kingdom, to God’s way of living and loving. You are no longer invested in the little changes that are not really change at all, you are ready for a new creation, a new world.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. When you grieve for those no longer with you, for faculties, position and powers gone from you, you are blessed for your heart’s desiring and seeking may open you to the comfort of God’s holy spirit, to what is not limited to those who already have what they want, to what is eternal and not temporary.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. When you are not important or wealthy, when you are aware of your smallness and ordinariness, when you give away your sense of importance , you are blessed because you are the place God wants to be, your humility and emptiness creates room for God’s blessings and priorities in your life and through you in the lives of others.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. When we are not satisfied with the way of the world, with watching our neighbours suffer and our planet be destroyed, when we yearn for a right way of living then we are blessed for God has room to work in us and through us. God can only set up the kingdom in hearts that are emptied out by desire for what is just and merciful, kind and compassionate.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. When we practice mercy toward others we are blessed for our heart becomes available to receive mercy. Hearts need to be open and receptive, giving and receiving. Mercy and forgiveness are not legal tender but the flow of God’s love in action through us and for us. The more we let go of control, the less bargaining we attempt, the more we will receive as mercy and love flow through us.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. When our hearts have been emptied out by love and forgiveness, for the desire for union with God and neighbour, then the eyes of our hearts will be able to discern God, we will be able to see. Where love and mercy have been flowing through us our vision will have been washed clear.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. When we dig deep in order to courageously work for peace (not simply be conflict avoidant) we are blessed and we are a blessing for we are not only doing what is right we are playing our part to create the environment where real peace can grow. And in this we will be helping build the kingdom of heaven here in the midst of what sometimes feels like hell.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. When our lives and actions for God’s way of life stirs up trouble and disturbs the darkness we are blessed for we can know that we are being the kingdom now. (The caution is that this is only true if it is the light in us that is stirring up the darkness, not if it is our own darkness. Too many Christians have used criticism and pushback as evidence of their rightness when they would have been advised to listen humbly and repent of their wrongs.)
To follow Jesus is to stumble onto the holy fool’s path, the inside out, upside down, journey of descent into humility and openness rather than the self aggrandising task of becoming right and wise in the eyes of others. Jesus lived a life of self emptying love and so also are we called to do.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come confuse us with you mercy and humility, your power and your vulnerability. Come make us a holy dwelling place for your kingdom.
I am very grateful to the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault, “The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message”
You might also like to see what I wrote three years ago reflecting on the same readings.
If you are beginning to think about Lent and Easter do check out this resource.