Devotions - Beatitudes
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Matthew 15:21-28 tells us about an encounter Jesus had with a Canaanite woman. When he first meets her she seems anything but meek. He had gone away from Galilee into the neighboring territory of Tyre and Sidon, probably to rest. The woman, a Gentile from that region, came to him and pleaded with him to heal her daughter. The child was demon-possessed.
Jesus tried to put off the anguished mother. He told her that he was sent to the Jews, not to Gentiles. But she would not desist. She got down on her knees and begged for help. Jesus said bluntly, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." (15:26) With a terrible meekness she replied, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." (15:27) In turn, Jesus showed the meekness of those who are willing to be taught. He answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." (15:28) And it was done. The child was healed.
It is faithfulness, not race or gender, that finally matters. It is faith alone that assures acceptance into the people of the promise; the future belongs to the faithful. Blood, race, inheritance, parentage, gender, social status, ethnic identity do not assure us a place at Jesus' table. Faith in Christ alone gives access.
Peter and the others had to come to terms with a reversal of their expectations of the Messiah. They had hoped for a victorious prince; they were given a crucified prophet. But are not many of the Beatitudes reversals of human expectations? We hope for financial security and hear from Jesus, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." We long for the relief of grief and an end to weeping. We hear, "Blessed are those who mourn." Our counselors and sages tell us to assert our best selves. Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek." And now, still haunted by stories of slavery and oppression and the Holocaust, we hear from the Redeemer, "Blessed are those who are persecuted." "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account."
Those who are called to follow Jesus cannot think first of bread and home and pleasant meadows and all the familiar and comforting things. In a reversal of all human hopes and expectations, they are to think first of righteousness, of God's purposes and not their own. And in return, they are promised happiness. In the Lord's Prayer, do we not first pray for the coming of God's righteous rule and only then ask for bread? If we put God's cause ahead of our own, we may expect God to take care of all our needs.
When Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful," her was not giving out a new commandment. Among the Hebrews, mercy was a cardinal virtue. Mercy was the single, most important attribute of their Lord. Their songs and prayers abound with praise to God for steadfast love and mercy:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. ( Psalm 23:6)
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Psalm 103:8)
Yet in the third Beatitude it seems that mercy has a severe condition attached to it: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
Is it possible that only those who themselves forgive can be forgiven? It is not only in this one verse that the notion appears. In the Lord's Prayer we are taught to pray, "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." And to that prayer is appended this warning, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6:12, 14-15) These passages clearly raise the question of how our willingness to forgive is linked to our receipt of forgiveness.
As old as our belief in God, as deep as our desire to be in God's presence, is also the fear that we are not pure enough to see God's face. According to biblical tradition, no human could look on God's face and live. The fear of God's presence goes back to one of the earliest stories in Genesis, when Eve and Adam at the forbidden fruit. (Genesis 3:7-8)
Moses begged to see God's glory. But he was told, "You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live." (Exodus 33:20) No wonder Isaiah was terror-stricken when he "saw the Lord sitting on a throne." (Isaiah 6:1)
Yet Isaiah did not die. He was saved when one of the heavenly attendants touched his mouth with a hot coal taken from the altar. The altar was the appointed place where sacrifices for sin were made. By being touched with fire from the place of sacrifice, Isaiah was purified. Though he had seen God, he was allowed to live. Isaiah was purified so that he might be fit to become God's spokesperson.
Jesus was believed by many of his contemporaries to be the Messiah. His extraordinary actions and words created in hearts the hope that he was the longed-for Redeemer who would put down all enemies and establish God's people in peace. No wonder there was a huge popular demonstration when Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. Passover celebrated the deliverance of Israel from the tyranny of Egypt. The name Jerusalem had within it the Hebrew word for peace, shalom.
When he entered the City of David, Jesus did an extraordinary thing. (Matthew 21:1-22) Instead of riding into Jerusalem on a horse, as befits a valiant warrior, Jesus rode in on a donkey. Whatever a donkey symbolizes, it is not martial supremacy and political power!
By entering Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus made a radical statement about the Messiah as peacemaker. Contrary to many hopes, he would not be a victorious general- not a Jewish Julius Caesar. Such hopes were futile. The might of oppressive empires would not be overthrown by a force of arms.
If you want Jesus' own commentary on his entry into Jerusalem, look at what he told the disciples about their mission: "See, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." (Matthew 10:16) By riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus demonstrated both wisdom and innocence.