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Posts Tagged ‘righteousness’

Those Persecuted for Righteousness

 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.  Matthew 5:10-12

Persecution takes many forms, none of them pleasant. Sometimes it is physical, as in a beating, lynching, or other act of violence. Other times, persecution is emotional, such as being devalued, made to feel insignificant, or misunderstood. Persecution can also be social, as in bullying, gossiping, or otherwise isolating someone from a group. Although we all suffer, not all suffering is persecution. Much of what we suffer from cannot be controlled. For example, if we are genetically disposed to cancer or heart disease, we may suffer a serious physical ailment regardless of how well we attend to our health. Persecution can occur from things we have little control over. Particularly in bullying, someone may be persecuted because of the way they look. Perhaps a speech impediment or birthmark brings the unwelcome and hurtful ridicule of others. On the other hand, there were kids from my school days who seemed to invite persecution for no obvious reason. They seemed to annoy others for the sole purpose of getting attention, even when the attention they received was negative. Regardless of the cause or motivation, persecution is painful.

Jesus refers to a specific type of persecution in this passage, however; one that is consciously chosen. This is a persecution brought about by the overt practice of one’s sincerely held beliefs. In Jesus’ words, it is being “persecuted for righteousness sake,” meaning suffering condemnation for what one believes is right. In a sense, this type of suffering is self-inflicted, for if one backed away from their expressed beliefs, at least in theory, the persecutors would stop persecuting. This suffering is consciously chosen in service of advocating for a position that is not in line with those in power. The act of speaking truth to power is an example – standing up to those in authority to point out injustice or the unethical use of authority. This type of suffering requires a dedication to a cause or a position that overrides one’s concern for one’s own safety and comfort. It is entirely selfless and can be dangerous.

It is wholly consistent with Jesus’ teachings and life that we would be encouraged to stand up for the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the poor, and the sick. And when our dedication to these groups comes at a personal cost to us, when our actions on their behalf causes us to suffer persecution, Jesus assures us of our reward. In this case, our reward is the kingdom of heaven. As I have expressed elsewhere, receiving the kingdom of heaven may or may not be an after-death experience. I believe Jesus refers to a state of being here and now, so the obvious question is this: If persecution is so unpleasant, what sort of compensating reward could override the pain?

This question cannot be answered in the same way we answer most questions because, as is typical of spiritual mysteries, words cannot adequately explain the reality. The kingdom of heaven is a real and present reality (for example, see Matthew 4:17), but we cannot experience it at the same level of consciousness where most of us live our lives. In our everyday reality, doing something that invites persecution is disagreeable, at best. We must experience life at a level deep enough to get beyond the unpleasantries at the surface, however, to the forces at work at a more foundational level. At this level we see and serve Christ by seeing and serving the disenfranchised. If we are persecuted as a result, so be it. In other words, when all we experience is pain from our acts of righteousness, we are likely not present to the state of conscious reality in which Christ exists and works in and on our world. Underneath our surface-level suffering is rejoicing and gladness because the righteous are working with God. God is working through the righteous to put the world on a more just and honorable path, making all things new.

As Jesus tells us, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The prophets knew it, and so can we.

 This is the 18th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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

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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

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Christian Values: Justice 

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

-Amos 5:18-19,24

The second most referenced value mentioned in the Bible is justice, according to research done by Ben MacConnell. Dictionary.com defines justice as “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness,” with a secondary definition of “the administering of deserved punishment or reward.” Justice is often symbolized as a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other. She is blindfolded to indicate that justice is determined the facts of an issue and not its appearance. The scales designate the unbiased weighing of the evidence from both sides. The sword is for punishment, should a proceeding find the accused guilty. Thus, justice is the product of an objective consideration of the facts, at least in theory.

The prophet Amos writes about the justice of the Lord as a day of reckoning, along the lines of the second dictionary definition above. He warns that the Lord’s application of justice will not be pleasant experience for us. Further, he says the justice of the Lord is not something we can escape. The image of fleeing from a lion only to run into a bear is a revealing image. Amos portrays an unavoidable judging of our decisions on earth.

There is another aspect of justice expected of Christians, however – social justice, which is assuring that every member of society has access to opportunities for life, liberty, and happiness. For the body of Christ, social justice is a mandate. We are to care for the disadvantaged members of our communities. Several years ago, I visited with a nun who had worked beside Mother Teresa for a time. She and her fellow sisters felt guilty for having cots to sleep on, food to eat, and shelter from the elements, when many they were serving had nothing. Why should those “necessities” not be given to the unfortunate folks they were to help? Mother Teresa explained that disadvantaged people needed to see a better life to reach for, to grow into. The sisters’ purpose was to help the people to an improved and sustainable state for themselves, in ways that could be continued once the sisters were gone. Mother Teresa told them we cannot lift another up unless we are in a higher position relative to them – sinking to their level makes it that much harder to assist. At times we argue over whether justice and mercy require us to give people a “hand up” or a “hand out.” The fact is that justice for folks in need often requires both. Certainly, we are to seek just and sustainable solutions. And we will almost certainly be held accountable for the justice we work towards in this life.

Come home to church this Sunday. Let justice roll down like waters…

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