Sunday, November 26, 2006

Doctrine & Conduct (13) - The Beatitudes - 2

The second beatitude (in Matthew's version) is:
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
In Luke's version this is the third beatitude:
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
The end of death and mourning form part of Isaiah's message of God's deliverance: "he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces" (25:8). The Revelation picks up this message as part of its climax: "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (21:4).

The prophet Amos used grieving and mourning in an interesting way. He described in vivid terms the complacency of the wealthy and their neglect of the poor and oppressed. He lists the following among the sins of the powerful, influential and prosperous:
You who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground (5:7)

You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain. (5:11)

You oppress the righteous and take bribes
and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (5:12)
Despite their neglect of the poor, and their failure to ensure justice for the oppressed, Israel in Amos's time was very religious! This is what God said about their religion:
I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies. (5:21)
In the next chapter Amos delivers a stern rebuke for these religious hypocrites:
Woe to you who are complacent in Zion ...

You lie on beds inlaid with ivory
and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs
and fattened calves.

You strum away on your harps like David
and improvise on musical instruments.

You drink wine by the bowlful
and use the finest lotions,
but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.

Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile;
your feasting and lounging will end. (6:1-7)

The LORD has sworn by the Pride of Jacob: "I will never forget anything they have done.

Will not the land tremble for this,
and all who live in it mourn? ...

I will turn your religious feasts into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day. (8:7-10)
In the first quotation Amos was saying that those living "complacently" without any concern for the ruination of their nation ought to have been grieving for the loss of justice in their society. Because they failed to mourn this loss, God would take away their liberty and prosperity and make them experience real loss themselves. They had two options: mourn for the injustice and inequalities in society and do something about it, or come face-to-face with oppression and hardship by experiencing it themselves.

Amos called on Israel to restore justice to their courts and in society in general:
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph. (5:15)

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! (5:24)
It seems that in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus had a similar concept of mourning in His mind, because this beatitude was closely followed with this one:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
What does it mean to hunger for righteousness? In the quotes from Amos above, and indeed throughout the whole of the Hebrew Bible, righteousness and justice are closely related. We tend to equate righteousness with personal piety or the virtue of an individual person. But the Hebrew word tsedaqah primarily means the kind of justice which rescues the oppressed and restores the powerless and outcasts to their rightful place in the community. In the Hebrew Bible justice is a community thing - a society is "righteous" only when everyone is treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and their needs are adequately met.

"Justice" in the Hebrew Bible and in the teachings of Jesus is such a big subject that I will have to come back to it. In the meantime, take a look at Psalm 37 and note the similarities with the Beatitudes. For example, Jesus says "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (quoting directly from Ps 37:11) but the Psalm also says "those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land" (v. 9), "those the LORD blesses will inherit the land" (v. 22), "Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever" (v. 27), "the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever" (v. 29) and "Wait for the LORD and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land" (v. 34). The whole Psalm is about the tension between good and evil people, and how God will bring deliverance from their oppression to those who yearn for righteousness and justice (the message of deliverance climaxes in the final two verses). The wicked are those who "bring down the poor and needy" (v. 14) while the righteous "give generously" and "lend freely" (v. 21, 26) . Together with Isaiah 61 this Psalm is a seedbed for the Sermon on the Mount.

It should be clear by now that the Beatitudes are introducing us to the foundation principles of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' "good news of the Kingdom". God is going to deliver the poor and the oppressed. This deliverance will be complete in the Age to Come, but right now God is calling on people to live these Kingdom-dynamics by applying Jesus' teachings of justice, fairness, inclusion and generosity in their lives.

Quite "coincidentally" today's episode of Songs of Praise on ABC television was particularly relevant, so I add this as a footnote which gives an example of how this is lived out in community. This episode came from Manchester a decade after the IRA bombing. It included an interview with a property developer - Caleb Storkey, a graduate who stayed in the city and at 27 is now a successful businessman. Storkey told the story of how he asked himself "if Jesus was a property developer what would His business look like?" He decided to build his business on Christian ethical principles. His property business, Freedom Properties is booming.

...he only buys in run down areas where injections of cash will make a real difference; takes on tenants other landlords won't touch - like asylum seekers and people with addiction problems - and despite his company's success, he continues to pay himself a modest salary in line with an average teacher's earnings.

His business is fired by his Christian faith and built on the principles of justice, generosity and freedom from oppression.

It's a good question: if Jesus ran a business in your industry or profession, what would it look like?

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