February 13, 2022

Walking Jesus’ Way

Passage: Psalm 1:1-6; Jeremiah 17:5-8; Luke 6:17-26

Life would be simple if moral and ethical issues together with daily decisions regarding a multitude of things were black and white. It unfortunately is not the case that everything is clearly right or wrong, good or bad. The ancient Jews, for example quibbled over the law prohibiting work on the Sabbath: was it work to carry 5 pounds? 10? How about 25? We sometimes must choose between two negatives, choosing what we might feel is the lesser of two evils. For example, without a certain medication I run the strong risk of a plugged arteries but the medication may adversely affect the liver or stomach. What do I do? Telling the truth does not always seem to bring positive results as some will not accept the truth and therefore turn against you. And besides, it is not always simple to ascertain the truth. For example  in a marriage dispute there is the truth as she sees it, the truth as he sees it and then there is the truth. Both view truth through their own jaundiced eyes thereby lacking objectivity.

No, life is not so simple. As I read Psalm 1, I am struck by a rather simplistic view of life, a black and white picture concerning the righteous and the wicked, the godly and the ungodly. The premise is that the godly are happy and the ungodly, miserable. The Psalm opens, Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law they mediate day and night. In today's idiom we could paraphrase this: Happy are those who do not succumb to negative peer pressure or follow the path of substance abuse, sexual misconduct and greed and who do not sit back and ridicule others but who delight to read their Bibles and faithfully attend church. The Psalmist equates such people to trees planted by life giving streams of water so that even in dry times they produce good fruit and do not have withered leaves from drought. By contrast, the wicked are like chaff that the wind drives away. They will not be able to withstand the Lord's judgment and hence are doomed. The concluding words are: the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. However in our experience sometimes the good folks seem to get shafted and the godless characters seem to prosper.

Our Jeremiah reading echoed the Psalmist’s sentiment. Jeremiah said, cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. He likens them to shrubs planted in the desert and in the parched wilderness. On the other hand, he said, happy are those who trust in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water. It shall not fear when heat comes and its leaves shall stay green. Here we have again this simplistic view of life that the righteous are happy and the wicked, miserable. Today there is a far right wing element in the Christian Church which teaches that faithfulness to Christ will bring prosperity and well-being. Business will blossom and blessing will abound for the faithful. I don't buy that concept.

Perhaps in an ideal world, the convictions of the Psalmist and Jeremiah would be a daily reality. But in the here and now we find ourselves in an imperfect world in which many righteous suffer and many godless folks seem to prosper. Many righteous have been persecuted and killed for their faith. Many righteous suffer agonizing tragedies and painful illness. Many ungodly seem to breeze through life with green lights facing them all the way. From our experience it is simplistic to dichotomise the lot of the good and the evil, the godly and the godless.

In our real world the Christian does not have immunity against the tragic or the negative. One's faith does not guarantee a perfect, problem free life but it does root us in God so that we will be like trees planted beside the life-giving stream. That is, God will give us the resources to survive the desolate times. Times of stress, tension, discouragement and defeat come to us for two reasons: we are human beings along with all others and are subject to the hard stuff of life; and we are Christians and will receive resistance from a society which rejects our convictions.

In turning to Luke's Gospel we gain another insight into the dualism of happiness and misery, good and evil. The context of the Luke reading places Christ in an all-night prayer vigil. In the morning he called together his disciples and from them choose twelve to be closest associates. To be a disciple implies that you are a learner sitting under the discipline or teaching of another. We have then the twelve and a larger group of disciples and a still larger group simply referred to as a multitude of people. They were the curious, the seekers, the ones who looked to him for his miracles and charisma. We read, they had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and he healed them all.

We then read that Jesus turned and addressed specifically his disciples, those who were seriously seeking to learn from him. What follows is a shorter version of the Beatitudes of Matthew's Gospel. To be blessed implies someone enjoys pleasant and happy circumstances. To be cursed implies being placed in a lamentable, unhappy situation. Luke notes four groups of people Christ called blessed: the poor, the hungry, the mournful and the rejected. He then pronounced woe upon four groups: the rich, the full, the laughing and the accepted. Strange list!

What did Christ mean by these blessings and cursings? We must remember the context: he was talking specifically to his disciples, to those who were serious about learning from him. So Christ proceeded to teach them his way which is often different from the way of society. We can find little if anything good about being poor, hungry, mournful or rejected. If we place Luke's shortened version of the beatitudes alongside of Matthew's, I believe we find insight into Christ's meaning. Luke said, Blessed are the poor, for your is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew said, blessed are the poor in spirit. The word used for poor implies a total lack of human resources. The poor in spirit therefore are those who realise that they have nothing with which to win God's favour but completely trust in the grace and love of God. The poor in spirit are the opposite of self-made people who feel that they have got it all together.  Christ says that it is the ones who humbly place their hope and trust in God who are truly happy.

 Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Many in Jesus audience that day might have known what it meant to be hungry and thirsty in ways that I certainly do not. Matthew's version enlarges Luke’s in stating, Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Probably most people want to see good prevail and righteousness win over evil. Jesus taught that those who really hungered for what was right, those who were prepared to work to ensure that righteousness prevailed would indeed be blest by God.

Luke continues, Blessed are you who weep now for you shall laugh. Matthew's parallel is, Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. The Greek word for mourn implies deep grief over profound loss. This beatitude can have three senses. The first is mourning over personal loss, for example, the death of a loved one. Such sorrow can do two things for us: it can show us the compassion, love and support of our God and the kindness and care of people. Grief can be overcome. Those who weep will laugh again. The second sense of mourning is the empathy that some have for the suffering and sorrow in the world. When people really care about the darkness of others, they act to alleviate the problems. The result is rejoicing for the helped and the helper. The third sense of mourning is the profound sorrow of people for their own sins and failures. Jesus began his ministry with the call to repentance. When people heed that call and repent, when they truly mourn for their own sin, they receive the blessed forgiveness of God.

Luke's final beatitude is this: Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of man. Rejoice in that day for great is your reward in heaven. Here we see the heart of Christ's way vis-à-vis the way of society. The Gospel begins with the concepts of sin and repentance, words which incriminate people and therefore words which are offensive. The good new of the Gospel is that God in Christ extends forgiveness and new life, a new style of life. Christ's way is love not hate, forgive not retaliate, bless not curse, include not exclude. In a self-centered society Jesus way is often opposite to that of society. Hence Christ warned his followers that they would be persecuted, rejected, defamed and even killed for the sake of the Gospel. When therefore a Christian in living out her faith is greeted by rejection or ridicule, we know that she is doing God's will and will be blessed by God, often in this world and definitely in heaven.

As we look at today's scriptures, we see that life indeed is not simple. There are many grey areas and there are many situations in which the godly, righteous person is apparently shafted. Being a follower of Jesus does not imply a life free of problems or a life when everything is clear cut, is black and white.  The good do not always receive in accordance with what they give. Many who ignore God seem to do well in daily living. So what is the word of the Lord for us today? It is this: amid the complexity and often seeming unfairness of life we are called to both follow and stand up for Christ, to follow his way of loving not hating, forgiving not retaliating, blessing not cursing, including not excluding. We are called to walk to the beat of God’s drum, not societies. Is a Christian's walk easy? Sometime, no. Is a Christian's walk right? Yes.