July 25, 2017

Justice is to know Christ

Matt 5: 1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “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.

Justice that makes us blessed

“Oh taste and see that God is good; blessed are those who trust in God.” (Ps 34:8)

The beatitudes notwithstanding, consider this:

Cursed are the rich in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Hell
Cursed are those who rejoice, for they will be tortured.
Cursed are the proud ones, for they will be disinherited.
Cursed are those who have their share, for they will thirst and hunger.
Cursed are the cruel, for they will find cruelty.
Cursed are the deceitful, for they will see the devil
Cursed are the warriors, for they will be called children of evil
Cursed are those who are rewarded, for theirs is the Kingdom of Hell
Cursed are you when people commend you and promote you and say all nice things about you.
Lament and be sad for your punishment will make the flames of Hell seem pleasant

Not as comforting as the text of the gospel, is it? It is not supposed to be, for my sake and for yours. Most of us are predisposed to domesticate the passages we like most, and they would certainly be featured in bold red letters in our Bibles.

This parody of the beatitudes is aimed at making the all too nice sermon of Jesus strange. It is strange because of the fact that these beautiful consoling words in the Gospel of Matthew are addressed not to the crowd that followed Jesus, but to the disciples. However, unlike Luke, who supposes a larger audience, here every blessing is addressed in the third person, except the last one. The last one, about persecution for Jesus’ sake, is conditioned to the adverbial clause “when”: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you …” Blessed are you; but who is this “you”? And when? Who is included and who is excluded to remain under the curses implied by this exclusion. Cursed are you; but “you” who?

Where is the divide that separates heaven and hell? It is disturbing that Jesus did not pronounce even to those faithful followers of his an unequivocal “blessed are you.” No, he did not! And by not doing it, the shadows of the curse were hidden in any and every blessing that was pronounced. And in face of these implied curses, their hearts, you must imagine, were saying the hopeful but doubtful words: “Surely, not I.” Disturbing, dear Christians, is that Jesus failed to say, “blessed are you, for you are here.” And certainly he did not say, “blessed are you for you have joined the School of Theology at the Mount.”

Let us take a look into what these blessings are and make it broad, deep, and wide enough so as to extend itself all the way from the seventh heaven to the pit of hell. But it could not be done without, simultaneously, including the meek and the cruel, the peacemakers and the warriors, the rich and the poor, the persecuted and those who persecutors. And it could not have been done without betraying the very words of Jesus, who even to the holy disciples did not automatically grant the blessing, A curse is the other side of blessing. It is the reverse of hope, the inverse of salvation. A curse helps us to realize the scope of blessing; it is a genre we have grown unaccustomed to because of our polite sensibilities. But it is the very real yet other side of salvation, the underside of blessedness. So it is not that here Jesus is raising the religious expectations, it is not that here he is paying his tribute to the nice and the wise, the spiritually uplifted and the morally sanctified.

The blessings, I am afraid, are far too restricted to include the holy, even the holy. The sharpness of this distinction between holy and blessed is made clear by Martin Luther: holy many can be, and we ought to, but that still does not make us blessed, still does not bring us over the divide. Therefore: Cursed am I for I care for spirituality, but I am not poor down to the spirit; cursed am I for I have shown empathy, but I am not mourning; cursed am I for I am humble, but not meek; cursed am I for I don’t own a house, but I am not homeless; cursed am I for I work hard to keep my job, but I am not unemployed; cursed am I for I have strived for justice against many odds, but I am not really persecuted for the sake of justice; Cursed am I so nice, yet so damned, so holy, yet cursed.

The beautiful Sermon on the Mount opening with the consoling words of blessing doesn’t seem so consoling any longer, does it? The tone is no longer “blessed are you,” but a removed distant “blessed are those.” And in this remoteness resonates the question: “Am I the one, Sir?” It resonates in our hearts and minds as it did with the disciples, even the disciples. On which side of the great divide are we, blessed or cursed, apart from all the sanctity? Or have we forgotten the prophecy of Simeon, at the Presentation of Our Lord: “This child has been destined for the falling and the raising of many.” (Lk 2:34)

In an address about the state of the world delivered in 1982, Alice Walker remembers a curse prayer of an African-American woman that was recorded by Zora Neale Hurston. And she concludes her analysis with these words: “Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home-though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corner of the globe. So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home. Praying-not a curse only the hope that my courage will not fail my love, But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the Earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save
humankind, And we are not saved yet. Only justice can stop a curse.”

Yes, we are not saved yet. We are not blessed yet. But justice can stop a curse. And it is this justice that makes us blessed, it is this justice that saves. This justice which we don’t invent, the justice we don’t administer, the justice we don’t create. It is the justice we receive. It is the righteousness in which we participate by the power and the wisdom of the one who has become justice for us. It is the new concept of justice, where, to use Martin Luther’s words again, “Justice is to know Christ.” To know Christ! But where can we know Christ? In our little canon within the canon that we so like or maybe in Chalcedon? Or should we go on a quest for the historical Jesus? Or should we take a different route and find him in the proclamation and
teaching of the community?

To know Christ is to know him in the suffering, in the cross, in the crosses of this world. To know Christ is to know him in the lives and in the deaths of those whom the justice of God raises with the promise: “You are right,” when they have always been said to be wrong. To know Christ in the crosses of this world, is to know Christ in the lives of those in whom the wisdom, the Sophia, of God grades them with the gift “you truly know,” when they have been said to be fools; it is know Christ in the lives of those whom the power of God raises with the trust “in you there is strength,” when they have been deemed weak. Behold the justice of God in the silence of the broken body. Behold the wisdom of God in the foolishness of those who are despised. Taste and see the power of God in the weakness of pain. Taste and see the embodied God in the bodies
of those impoverished down to the soul and the spirit. Do you taste it? Do you see it where it is not expected to be found; justice bursting out of brokenness; wisdom weaving knowledge in foolishness; and power and strength growing out of weakness? Then, come to the table. Savor the bread and the fruit of the vineyard and enjoy the offerings that we also bring for the eyes to see and for our ears to hear. Come then, “taste and see that God is good; blessed are those who trust in God.” (Ps 34:8) For if you taste and see the power of God raising the weak, the Sophia of God weaving wisdom where none care to look for, the justice of God in the raising of broken bodies, for if you taste this, it is also for you that it has been written:
Blessed are you. Blessed are you.

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