Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
January 29, 2017
The theme of our message this morning is “Happiness” as an Action Word. Specifically, we are challenged by Jesus in the Beatitudes to take responsibility for our happiness. “Blessed” really means “happy,” as in the Common English Bible, so the passage describes a happy person. This admonition of Jesus addresses the best way to help those in need. As most of us realize, it is best to help the needy gain confidence to tackle their own problems. This entails helping to identify their problems and pointing them to the reconciliation that is in Christ Jesus. The most difficult step may be for one to stop blaming others or circumstances. We need to learn the freedom that only comes when we can forgive those individuals, that we feel are causing our oppression or unhappiness. The fact that this is what Jesus addressed in the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount becomes clear when the two scriptures we read today are brought together in the lectionary. In all of our relationships, happiness becomes our responsibility with the help of the grace of God.
To explore this admonition that Jesus presents to us in the Beatitudes, we will review the scripture from Micah to discover the similarity of words. This will give us a better setting and context for the message that Jesus gave in the Beatitudes. The audience that Jesus addressed gives the background. In this way, we will see some parallels for ourselves and our world. When we consider the meaning of the words, we learn that the Beatitudes are a call to action for us to experience happiness.
Micah declares in chapter 6, verse 2, that the Lord has a controversy with his people. This word has the same meaning as saying that the prophet is bringing a lawsuit against the leaders. The prophets are calling the people of Israel to account for their breach of covenant relationship with the Lord, and this is expressed as a covenant lawsuit. The people of Israel moved into forbidden and dangerous territory, by their plunder when they would dispose of the property and even the lives of the weak. Then in verse 8, Micah specifically summarizes what the Lord requires. “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The Lord showed his people that they must do good as the moral opposite of evil, which requires emphasizing good value. The Lord also expects that the people do justice, which is to practice fairness in disputes, and in all relationships. The Hebrew word for justice in the Old Testament when translated into Greek is the word that we read as righteousness in the New Testament, rather than justice. We will look further into how this applies to the Beatitudes.
The love that the people were to exercise was to be loyal with unfailing kindness and devotion, based on the relationship to God for all that he has done for them. Then while exercising justice with the love that God requires, they were to show a humble action, or act in a manner respectful of one another and show humility and wise behavior.
With this context, we see parallels in the Beatitudes, such as love, justice, and humility. Let us expand these ideas as we consider each of the conditions for happiness. First, we will look further into the idea of justice. Most English-speaking people think the New Testament does not say much about justice. In most English translations, the word justice occurs infrequently. The Greek noun that was used for the Hebrew word for justice was also used by Plato and he used the same word to convey justice. This word in the New Testament English bibles is usually rendered as righteousness, which relates to justice as the practice of doing the right thing. Justice is what God desires and requires. We will see that reconciliation between persons, is the road to justice.
Who were those to whom Jesus was speaking in Matthew? In the population, there was a very large disparity between rich and poor. The upper class was made up of the temple priests and priestly aristocracy. The middle class was comprised of traders and merchants, artisans and craftsman. The lower class was made up of laborers, slaves, and the unemployable. This disparity led to a poor oppressed class who were exploited by the rich and powerful. When we read the Beatitudes from the perspective of the poor and exploited, we can see how the Beatitudes are a clear call to action. They 2 show that we obtain happiness by taking the appropriate actions in our relationships guided by the admonition of Jesus. We will expand on each of the conditions that Jesus gives for experiencing happiness.
Happy are those who are poor. “Poor” literally means economic dependence and ‘poor’ became synonymous with ‘oppressed’ or ‘afflicted.’ The poor therefore turned, helpless and humble, to God. There developed a specific spiritual connotation of ‘poor’ as all those who turn to God in great need and seek his help. The poor because of sustained economic privation and social distress have confidence only in God.
Happy are those who grieve with a sadness and grief due to wickedness and oppression for they will be encouraged. Their mourning includes grief caused by both personal sin, loss, social evil, oppression and impending misfortune. Mourning entails repentance of sin and recognizing utter dependence on God for forgiveness. These people are sorrowful for both their own sins and the rampant evil around them, which causes so much distress to God’s creation and to him.
Happy are those who are gentle and mild for they will receive what God promises. Those who humble themselves before God recognize their utter dependence on Him. Their humble behavior causes them to be gentle in their dealings with others.
Happy are those who desire intensely to do what God requires–to see justice, because they will be satisfied and content. They lean on God in spiritual desire, a desire to see his triumphant reign on earth and everything subjugated to righteousness. For the poor, righteousness or justice would include having their basic needs for food met, but it goes on to include a desire to see God’s standards established and obeyed in every area of life. Again, God promises that his purposes will be accomplished and that his justice will eventually reign.
Happy are those who are merciful (to others), for they will receive mercy. Now we need to ask what it means to be merciful. It means to forgive those who do not deserve it. By realizing that they have received undeserved mercy from God, they wish to extend his mercy to all mankind. Being merciful is expressed by being generous, forgiving others, having compassion for the suffering, and providing healing of every kind.
Happy are those who are right in the eyes of God, they will experience a special relationship to God. Pure is the same as the English ‘catharsis’ or cleansing, which is derived from the Greek word used here. It gives some idea of the purity of which Jesus spoke. The source of purity is found only in God himself and found only in regeneration. The “pure in heart” exhibit a single-minded devotion to God that stems from the internal cleansing created by following Jesus. Holiness is a prerequisite for entering God’s presence. The pure in heart pass this test, so they will see God and experience intimate fellowship with him.
Happy are those who work for peace among people – reconciliation between persons. People will speak of them as children of God. Peacemakers spread the peace of God. They focus on interpersonal relationships and work for shālôm. The Hebrew prophets spoke of peace as Shalom, a concept that encompassed more than the absence of strife between people. Shalom is a total wholeness, well-being, and joy that is the essence of God’s preference for human beings and society. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa whose suffering is well documented said the following1 :
To forgive . . . is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger. However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too. But the process of forgiveness also requires acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator that they have committed an offence. I don’t like to talk about my own personal experience of forgiveness, although some of the things people have tried to do to my family are close to what I’d consider unforgivable. I don’t talk about these things because I have witnessed so many incredible people who, despite experiencing atrocity and tragedy, have come to a point in their lives where they are able to forgive.
Happy are those who suffer persecution, because they do the justice that God requires, for they are now experiencing the kingdom of heaven. They are persecuted due to their doing the right thing – righteous living and not due to individual sin. It is tragic when one Christian persecutes another, allegedly “because of righteousness,” when the persecution actually stems from too narrow a definition of Christian belief or behavior.
Happy are those who suffer persecution, are oppressed, are made a public spectacle by insults and distress, or receive false accusations. They are identified with the prophets and saints that have gone before. The only persecution that is blessed is that which stems from allegiance to Jesus and living in conformity with his standards. When we suffer, we must avoid the trap of thinking that we are the only ones who have ever experienced such problems.
After this review, what have we learned? First, we see that the Beatitudes do not represent a passive condition but active behavior that results in happiness. The poor or abused, who are treated poorly, have confidence only in God. Those who grieve due to oppression and mistreatment, look for ways such conditions can be corrected. When injustice or unkindness is experienced, then one must seek ways to rectify the relationship. Those who are looking for mercy and the end of oppression and mistreatment, must first show mercy even to forgive those who are causing their problems. Forgiveness is the essential step toward reconciliation and striving for peace in the world and in all our relationships. In the words of Henri Nouwen:
To forgive another person from the heart is an act of liberation. We set that person free from the negative bonds that exist between us. We say, “I no longer hold your offense against you” But there is more. We also free ourselves from the burden of being the “offended one.” As long as we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us or, worse, pull them as a heavy load. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves. It is the way to the freedom of the children of God.2
The upshot of the Beatitudes is in the need to counter any self-centered, self-demanding pride which invariably seeks personal security and survival above the good of others. We are only able to do this when we recognize the source of peace in God and we experience the changed life that flows from commitment to Christ. Simply put, in the face of mistreatment, misunderstanding or even insults the quickest way to resolve the problem is to follow Jesus’ admonition in the Beatitudes. Jesus desires us to always be ready to forgive and work toward peace!
2 Henri Nouwen Society <firstname.lastname@example.org>; on behalf of; Henri Nouwen Society <email@example.com>