Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘justice’

Blessed are the Merciful

 Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Matthew 5:7

As with a number of the other Beatitudes, this one seems almost too trivial for serious discussion: that those who show mercy will receive mercy in return. It is another in a long series of illustrations of the law of sowing and reaping, so common in Jesus’ teachings. We reap what we sow. In the current example, when we plant mercy, we harvest mercy.

Mercy and justice are often used interchangeably. There is a familiar fable that goes “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The fable distinguishes between short and long-term assistance. Many people consider mercy as addressing immediate needs and justice as targeting longer-term solutions that reduce the immediate needs for mercy. Ultimately, both are important, but the way we approach needs for mercy is often different from how we address issues of justice.

The oft-missed starting point for consideration in being merciful is identifying what a person actually needs. Unfortunately, many of us feel better equipped than we actually are to determine the true needs of another. Until we have established some sort of a relationship with the person, we cannot know. If a person is hungry, a meal may be sufficient. If they are hungry and diabetic, however, taking them to Dairy Queen may not be a merciful solution. If they are hungry and homeless, a meal and shelter for the night will be required. If they are lonely, a merciful person will offer company. The point is that we cannot show deep mercy to another without first becoming vulnerable enough to join him or her in their moment. In fact, according to Richard Rohr, we cannot know anything until we first love it1. Love always precedes knowledge. In other words, true acts of mercy go beyond handing money to a homeless person on the street and certainly deeper than donating money to a charity via payroll deduction (not that those types of mercy are not important, too). Acknowledging and assisting with one’s immediate need is one thing; acknowledging and knowing her or him as a unique person of value, as a child of God, is quite another. Yet, honoring and bestowing dignity on another, regardless of his or her current circumstance, is foundational to showing mercy. This requires more than money. It requires time and attention, and often is what is most needed. Sometimes, it is all that is needed.

A couple of chapters beyond this Beatitude in the book of Matthew, Jesus gives us the Golden Rule, which could as easily be named the Rule of Mercy: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12) When I am in need, help me where I actually hurt, not where you assume I hurt. Knowing a person well enough to know their need is a mark of love and often leads to the realization that his or her need is my need, too. True mercy grows out of love and relationship and requires an interpersonal connection to first be established. Ultimately, acts of mercy are exercises in self-awareness and, thus, can be unintentionally self-serving. It is God in us reaching out to God in another, becoming one in our mutual need. As such, mercy is not for the faint of heart. If we cannot see God in another, however, how will we ever recognize God in ourselves?

Clearly, mercy requires a heart for others. The most important mercy-skill, however, may be the ability to genuinely listen to another, preferably without interruption. Being heard has become a rare experience because listening has become a lost art. Certainly, we should still give money to those who ask (see Matthew 5:42), but to become truly merciful beings, we will need to ask questions and listen carefully to the responses. We must not only become advocates for others, but also advocates with others, standing side by side with them in their suffering. In this Beatitude, Jesus promises that in the end, lives that are characterized by a deep and sincere commitment to mercy will attract mercy back to themselves like a magnet.

This is the 15th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

1          Richard Rohr, What Difference Does the Trinity Make? Audio recording. https://school.cac.org/mod/book/view.php?id=8116&chapterid=1000, accessed April 9, 2018.

Read Full Post »

Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Matthew 5:5

I wish to consider three parts of this passage. First, what does it mean to hunger and thirst for something? Second, what is righteousness? Finally, in what way and with what is one filled?

When I think of hungering or thirsting for something, I picture a desire so strong that everything else fades to the background. It is said that you cannot teach a hungry child because all he or she can think about is food. Indeed, many schools have breakfast and lunch programs to help assure that hunger is not an impediment to learning. The point is that when we hunger and thirst for something, the desire is all-consuming. In Revelation 3:15, the message to the church in Laodicea is: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” I read this as a message about doing what we do with passion and not settling for half-hearted efforts. As an even-tempered person, I worry that I too often react in lukewarm ways to the life around me.

It is perhaps overly obvious to say that righteousness is about doing what is right. What is right, however, is often subjective and differs among persons, cultures, and times. Some consider a law-abiding citizen to be righteous, which is probably true as long as the law is righteous. Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed many times for protesting unrighteous laws. Yet, history has not judged him an unrighteous man. We could say a righteous person is one who follows the mandates of scripture. While I find the Bible useful for spiritual discernment and growth, I find it much less helpful as a rule book. Indeed, Jesus frequently criticized the literalist religious authorities of his day for applying scripture by its letter but ignoring its intent. It is far more fruitful, in my opinion, to strive to live as Jesus lived than to remold the laws and customs from thousands of years ago into something applicable today.

Based upon my understanding of Jesus’ life, what Jesus refers to as righteousness is social justice. In fact, I think we can reasonably translate this Beatitude as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” Jesus displayed a laser-like focus on the poor, sick, and disenfranchised of society. For much of my life, it has been difficult to recognize my responsibility for issues of injustice. Should I feel guilty because I was born white and male in a resource-rich, first-world nation? I have had a paying job every day of my life since I was 14. I inherited little or nothing from family and have worked and paid for everything I have. One can say I earned and deserve my life.

This is a tricky topic because yes, of course, pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps would certainly count for something, if it were ever true. Being honest, however, every move up the social ladder for me has come because someone I knew, often a family acquaintance, opened a door for me to enter through. Consistently throughout my life, I have had opportunities presented that may not have been offered if not for the color of my skin, my country of origin, or the connections I had. What this has to do with justice is the realization that I am not a self-made person – not even close. Everything I have is a gift. A hunger and thirst for righteous on my part might begin with a passionate commitment to open doors and give a hand up to others who have not had the same opportunities.

The last part of this Beatitude is that we will be filled. We might better understand Jesus’ meaning by reversing it – that we will no longer be empty. When we are on the upper rungs of the societal ladder, we often possess an abundance of stuff, but we may be void of the love and fulfillment that genuine relationships bring. Our stuff distracts us from what is most important in life. Whenever we choose objects over others, our life experience becomes shallow, unstable, and empty. Perhaps a better contemporary translation would be to say, “Blessed are those who work passionately on matters of justice, for they will live full and contented lives.”

This is the 14th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

Read Full Post »

A Challenging Peace

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34

“For a child has been born for us…and he is named…Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6

The season of Christmas is identified as one of peace. Unfortunately, our world is never at peace. There is turmoil across the planet and across the street. For too many, there is violence across the room. In Isaiah, Jesus is named the Prince of Peace; yet in Matthew, he claims not to have come to bring peace, but division. Father against son; daughter against mother; nation against nation. How do we reconcile the Prince of Peace described in Isaiah with Jesus’ own words in Matthew? I believe the answer is in our understanding of peace and what it requires. Jesus invites us into a different kind of peace – a non-violent peace built upon justice that we seldom see modeled or taught.

In war, “peace” comes when one side is beaten into submission and reluctantly surrenders to the other as a last resort. In business dealings between competitors, “peace” sometimes comes through acquisition, often as a hostile takeover. Peace gained by force is not peace, but only a delay in the conflict. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, when your only tools are knifes and forks, you have to cut something. In other words, when getting our way by force is the only way we know, the violence cannot end. The only peace we know is but a temporary reprieve, as the defeated attempt to rebuild themselves to a level of strength sufficient to strike back at their oppressors.

A lasting peace comes by willing surrender and carefully crafted consensus, and the peace of Jesus requires both. As individuals, we surrender to the positional and divine authority of Christ. The consensus required is one that respects, values, and includes all of creation in all of its wonderful diversity. It strives for unity of being, not uniformity. When all are recognized as being created in the image of God, none can be left behind or excluded. When we consciously submit to the higher knowledge and power of God, we willingly take our place as equals with our brothers and sisters in the family of God. There is no longer a need for anyone to forcibly take, nor withhold, anything from anyone else. We understand our blessings are not ours to hoard; rather, our blessings are gifts from God and are multiplied in their sharing (see John 6:1-14). We live in an abundant universe, and there is plenty for everyone when no one stockpiles beyond their need.

In Matthew 10, Jesus uses the language of violence to clarify his purpose, saying he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. The context of the verse and the entire life of Jesus, however, indicate no violent intention on his part. Jesus’ words are a call to war, but to a war on injustice, exclusion, and suffering. These are the underlying causes of violence in our world. We have the capability to eliminate much of what keeps large swaths of humanity in bondage and desperate need. Do we have the will to do so, however? The perpetual habit of reacting to the violence instead of identifying and resolving the underlying causes gets in our way. I think it is to us – those with more than enough – that Jesus points his sword. Until we commit to eliminating the sources of violence, there can be no peace. True peace cannot come to any until it comes to all. And peace cannot come to all until everyone has their most basic needs met. Unless we follow Jesus’ command to love one another our reality will divide us like a sword, and there will be no silent night.

We cannot attain peace by physical or emotional violence, nor is peace possible in the absence of justice. There can be no peace until everyone has adequate shelter, enough to eat, and recognition as a child of God. This is the different sort of peace of which Jesus speaks. We wonder why others attack us, steal and beg from us, and in our wondering we answer our own question. We are why there is no peace on earth. Serendipitously, we hold the key to attaining peace on earth, uncomfortable and challenging though it may be.

 

Read Full Post »

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 34: Mercy Trumps Justice

He has told you, O mortal, 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? Micah 6:8

If a starving person is offered a meal or a job, and they can only choose one, which will he or she accept? Would we judge them as lazy if they took the meal over the job? Would we judge them as less hungry than they claimed if they took the job? My guess is that a truly hungry person would always choose the meal – not because they are lazy and do not want a job, but because they are hungry, and satisfying their hunger is their most immediate need.

In this example, providing a meal is an act of mercy; providing a job is an act of justice. Mercy addresses an immediate physical, emotional, or spiritual need, where justice works toward a longer-term solution to the need. The cruelty of this example, and all too common in reality, is that a person in need is forced to choose between two important blessings, both of which are necessary. The challenge for us as individuals and as a society is how best to provide both. Time management professionals suggest separating our daily tasks into those that are important and those that are urgent. Urgent tasks must be done first because they are, well, urgent. Important tasks must be completed, but not necessarily today. Important tasks that are not addressed within a reasonable time, however, become urgent. It is easy for us to become so consumed with urgent tasks, including those that are not important, that we leave insufficient time for the important but non-urgent issues. In this time management context, mercy is urgent and justice is important.

In his bestselling and insightful book, When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi writes, “There is a tension in the Bible between justice and mercy…The main message of Jesus, I believe, is that mercy trumps justice every time” (p. 171). When there is an urgent need, mercy is required. For this reason, we quickly send many resources to the sites of natural and man-made disasters. Although mercy may trump justice in the immediate future, justice cannot be ignored if one is to be freed from the ongoing need for mercy. This is our dilemma in helping the needy. There are many immediate needs for mercy: food, clothing, and shelter; but there are equally important needs for justice: good jobs, quality healthcare, affordable housing, accessible childcare, and legal protection from discrimination. Of course, works of mercy and justice both require funding, and those funds are increasingly difficult to generate.

Jesus recognized that mercy comes first. A hungry crowd cannot hear even the most brilliant sermon, so he made sure his followers had something to eat in addition to something to learn. We can model Jesus’ example. When a person is not receiving a blessing we are trying to impart, perhaps we should ask what is standing between him or her and the blessing. Are they hungry? Are they addicted to something that draws their attention away? Are they safe? Are they in physical or emotional distress? It is possible for our best, most sincere efforts at establishing justice to fail when we do not first recognize and attend to the more immediate needs for mercy. Likewise, it is possible for our lack of focus on justice to result in our resources being consumed by a never-ending cycle of need for mercy. There is a delicate balance to establish between the two. Our challenge is to find that balance, beginning with mercy.

Mercy trumps justice. How did I miss that?

finding-grace-in-lent-jpg-ad

Read Full Post »

Life Notes logo2

Weightier Matters

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Matthew 23:23-24

How does one eat an elephant? An elephant is eaten one bite at a time, of course. No doubt, the same is true of swallowing a camel. Years ago I heard the story of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will simply jump out. If you place a frog in room temperature water and bring it slowly to a boil, the frog will lay in the water, comfortably, until it has been boiled to death. The proverbial slippery slope offers a comfortable path-to-nowhere-good. Before long, in Jesus’ example, we become so consumed and comfortable straining gnats we find we have swallowed a camel.

Biblical references to “the Law” point to the 600+ laws listed in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – the rules for righteous living established by the early Hebrews. The belief was that one must obey the Law – all of it – in order to earn one’s salvation. The “scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus was often so critical of were the religious leaders of the day. They were pious and believed themselves to be a holy cut above the common folks. Modern day equivalents to the scribes and Pharisees may be some of the televangelists and others who believe their grasp on ultimate truth is exclusive. They tell us the Gospel is so clear and the path so easy – all we must do is follow a set of rules they are more than happy to glean for us from the Bible. To me, this is the “camel” that Jesus references – we lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees; we miss the larger purpose by focusing exclusively on the details.

Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they attended to the letter of the Law but ignored the spirit of the law. Granted, the spirit of the law is more difficult to discern, requiring much prayer and contemplation. The spirit of the Law is not generally black and white because it can vary from situation to situation. It requires the application of love and perspective, making decisions more challenging. What is a loving act in one arena may be received as cold and heartless in another. In Jesus’ own words, the “weightier matters of the law,” or the spirit of the law, are “justice and mercy and faith.” It is much easier to ignore justice, mercy, and faith and simply follow a set of rules. It is much easier to write a check to a soup kitchen than to actually go and serve the poor. Certainly, soup kitchens need money, but if we think we can fulfill our obligations for justice and mercy by simply writing a check, we have probably swallowed a camel. We miss the point. God’s children need benefactors, certainly, but they also need helping hands. The weightier matters of the Law require service to others that improves their condition, not simply following a set of rules.

Those who follow a blind guide down a slippery slope may end up swallowing a camel.

Read Full Post »

Life Notes

A Reverse Mission

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Matthew 5:7

In his book Here and Now, Henri Nouwen writes, “I have become aware that wherever God’s Spirit is present there is a reverse mission.” He refers to the common realization that those whom we believe need our help – our mission field – often have more to offer us than we have for them. Nouwen continues, “The poor have a mission to the rich, the blacks have a mission to the whites, the handicapped have a mission to the ‘normal,’ the gay people have a mission to the straight, the dying have a mission to the living. Those whom the world has made into victims, God has chosen to be bearers of good news.”

I first heard about reverse missions on a mission trip to Honduras. While my church sends mission teams to Central America every year, I was surprised to learn that Central American churches send missionary teams to the United States, too. This was an easier idea to process once I spent time with some of the people of Honduras. Were they poor? Certainly. Did they lack some fundamental needs like clean water? Yes, they did. Did I return home feeling I had done God’s work in Honduras? No, I did not. I came home feeling like God’s work had been done to me in Honduras.

When we feed the hungry or house the homeless, we perform acts of mercy – meeting a need that another cannot meet on his or her own. Jesus says those who are merciful – those who give mercy – will receive mercy. This is exactly what Nouwen writes. And it fits perfectly with what I experienced in Honduras. What I gave, what I accomplished on behalf of those I went to serve paled in comparison to what I received. My first hint of a reverse mission occurred at the church services I attended the day after I arrived. There was energy and joy beyond anything I had experienced in church before. Congregants praised God with abandon, and reached out in loving fellowship to others (including our mission team) as if we were long-lost members of their own family. I was perplexed that people lacking in so many basic necessities could be filled with such joy. But they were.

I went to Honduras on a mission – to give some of what I have in the United States to the people of Honduras. I left Honduras with the knowledge that much of what we value in the United States is of little or no lasting value, and much more valued here than it should be. We are distracted from our true blessings of love, relationship, and fellowship, by the sheer abundance of our dominating distractions, like perpetual internet access and cell reception. Our relationships become shallow and impersonal. Deep, loving, and healing connections happen face-to-face, not text-to-text.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be a blessing; be blessed.

Uncovering God in Christmas - Ad

Read Full Post »

Life Notes

Less Human

Terrors frighten them on every side, and chase them at their heels. Their strength is consumed by hunger, and calamity is ready for their stumbling. Surely such are the dwellings of the ungodly, such is the place of those who do not know God.  Job 18:11-12, 21

Recently, I heard a radio interview with a Syrian refugee. He had been displaced from his home and life by the intense violence and unrest there. In describing the desperate state of his homeland and fellow Syrians he said, “Nothing makes you less human than being hungry.” My life is so sheltered and blessed compared to the lives of so many that it is difficult to imagine being that ravenous. I recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which illustrates how we cannot strive for higher, more human traits when our most basic needs are left wanting. When a person has no sense of security – no food, roof over their head, or basic space of their own – they cannot worry about how their words or actions will impact others, and so they may act in ways less human. Fundamental needs must be met before other more human traits can manifest.

It is difficult for those of us in first world countries to imagine such a degree of desperation. Typically, when we say we are “starving” it means we have not eaten for several hours, not that we have not eaten in days, or that we have not eaten adequately – ever. When we say we need “space,” we do not mean we need protection from the elements or criminals as much as we need a break from the abundance of people and material goods around us. I recall the secured fortresses around most living spaces in Honduras and understand them to be the result of their desperate need for safety. It seemed to me, at first glance, there were many needs the money could be better spent meeting than on personal security, but basic needs always come first.

We all hunger for different things in our lives and some of our desires cause us to be less human to others. Obviously, not all of us hunger for things as basic as food and safety. Rampant gang violence, civil wars, and other acts of lethal violence seem to occur mostly in poor countries and in the poorest sections of first world countries. Perhaps the conditions that result in the widespread loss of innocent human lives continue because the basic needs of the perpetrators are not being met – and so they act in ways we consider less human. The finger of judgement I point at these wrongdoers, however, ultimately points back at me. What am I doing to assist with the basic needs of people less fortunate than I am? What am I doing to feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and protect the vulnerable? If I am honest with myself, I am doing far too little. The Job passage above implies these are the conditions of the “ungodly” or of “those who do not know God.” Perhaps we can best help them know God by finding ways to feed them.

Come home to church this Sunday. The body of Christ needs you.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »