Matthew 5:6, 8
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
I have come to understand as I’ve prepared this series on the Beatitudes that they provide a powerful plan for building or restoring the Kingdom of God from a broken social order. Jesus starts with those who are poor and oppressed and tells them that the earth and its resources belong to them as well as to the rich and powerful. He encourages them to claim their inheritance. I’m sorry that in trying to combine two of the beatitudes, I moved mercy before the desire for righteousness, which is also translated justice. As the words hunger and thirst indicate, this beatitude is spoken to those who have been denied justice; who long for right relationship to restore to them what has been taken from them or that they have never received. You aren’t hungry if you have enough food, and you are not thirsty if there is water to drink. Jesus is speaking to those whose bodies and spirits are starving because of injustice and oppression. Jesus tells them that they will be filled; they will receive justice. They must demand what is theirs because they are God’s children. They must make their case plain and be persistent, just like the widow in his parable who will not leave an unjust judge alone until he grants her justice. The demand for justice is a public prayer. You’ll see Dr. Cornel West’s quote on the front of your bulletin, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Cut that out, copy it, put it on your mirror or refrigerator. Let those words work their way into your mind, and your heart, and deep into your bones. Justice is what love looks like in public.
It takes a realization and conversion for those who have enough to understand how injustice has occurred and how they, or we, are complicit in preserving the status quo. It takes enormous love that can only be called mercy, to relinquish privilege and power; to release what we understand to be our right or our due in favor of another person’s well-being. Some of you have seen the movie 12 Years a Slave. I have not seen it yet, but I have heard from you how disturbing the movie is in its brutality, as it should be. There are many other, less brutal, less obvious forms of oppression against which love must stand, offering mercy, relinquishing perceived rights in favor of the well-being of others. The fraying social safety net, stagnant wages, hunger among our own citizens, guns that threaten the safety of our children and neighbors, are just a few of the forms of oppression in our own nation.
These are not new problems. We, or our forebears, have created these same or similar injustices in the past, and we and our forebears have solved them with courageous and merciful actions in the past. Let’s look at Isaiah 58 together. Isaiah, repeating what he has heard from God, calls the nation of Israel to repentance and righteousness—right relationship and justice. Let’s pay attention to how we might see God if we change our ways; if we live out of a heart that is free of greed; if we create justice.
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God. (The people are pretty self-righteous.)
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (And they whine.)
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? (Apparently God is not interested in sackcloth and ashes as much as doing justice.)
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong; (Notice the water references and remember “thirsting for righteousness.”)
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
My favorite Bible verse has always been, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I used to think it was about keeping my heart free of bad thoughts then I might catch a glimpse of God. It has taken a long time and a conversion to social justice to understand that seeing God, seeing God’s Kingdom become a reality, means that my heart needs to be free of everything that prevents me from caring for the well-being of my brother or sister or my neighbor. My challenge to you in this season of Lent is to pray Isaiah 58 at least once a day. New phrases will pop out, you’ll see something different every day. Listen for God’s call to a way of living that repairs the breach—the gaps and tears in the fabric of our common life—and that restores streets to live on, building strong and safe communities. May it be so. May we one day ride upon the heights of the earth together. Amen.