Putting Things Right--September 19, 2018
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." [Matthew 5:10]
It's not just aiming for the right goal--it's also pursuing the right path to get there.
So being "pro-righteousness" was hardly a new idea or a novel suggestion from Jesus. But Jesus clarifies something about his kind of justice, which is the same Greek word we sometimes translate "righteousness." As Jesus says it here, the crux of the matter is our willingness to endure suffering as we seek justice, rather than to inflict suffering on others. For Jesus, the way to go after justice is to be willing to suffer for it, to be persecuted for it, and to endure rejection for it, rather than to use violence and coercion to get it. Because whatever you end up achieving or getting with violence and coercion and bullying and manipulating, it ain't justice or righteousness.
That really gets at the point of this beatitude, as well, and really, the whole logic of the Sermon on the Mount. God's kind of "justice" turns out to be a beloved community (to borrow a phrase of Dr. King's) in which the hungry are filled, the lowly are lifted up, the arrogant proud are deflated, no one abuses power or treats another human being as a mere object for their gratification, and where the brokenhearted are comforted. That is because "justice," for all the ways we may throw that word around to mean anything we want, is really about putting things right, putting things back to together, and relationships being in balance. It is not merely about doling out punishments in order to get a pound of flesh, but has to do with repairing what is broken, restoring what has been lost or damaged, and renewing relationships--and so, from the Bible's perspective, "justice" is at the heart of what Jesus' message and kingdom are all about--the renewal and restoration of all things in him, so that one day wolves and lambs may lie down, swords may be beaten into plowshares, and all mouths be fed with bread for the day, where they "will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain," as the old dreamer Isaiah once put it.
Justice--or, if you prefer its synonym "righteousness," or the rightness of relationships--really is that big... and that beautiful. And it is indeed something that Jesus values highly, just like the prophet Micah before him had famously said that the top three things God values from us are "to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). Justice truly is a big deal to Jesus, and Jesus also seems to think that a just world would be good news.
But, to be clear, Jesus is not satisfied to have us just wish for justice, or hope while twiddling our thumbs for righteousness, or to talk about setting things right that are out of whack. Jesus says that the way we go about pursuing justice and righteousness are to be willing to suffer for them.
Tellingly, Jesus doesn't just say, "Blessed are those who think about righteousness in their inner beliefs," or "Blessed are those who post memes on Facebook or Twitter saying that they are 'pro-justice', whatever they might think that means," or even "Blessed are those who are willing to use any means necessary to get their justice." Jesus knows that the way to go about getting righteousness in the world is to practice it ourselves, and to practice it on Jesus' terms: neither to take revenge on others, nor to stay comfortably snuggled up inside our own complacency, but to be willing to endure being wronged, to be called a "bad guy," or to risk your reputation, your safety, or your social respectability, in order to break the cycle of violence and vengeance.
Jesus teaches us not just to be "in favor of" justice rather than injustice generically like it is the latest trend and we are jumping on the bandwagon of a popular new catch-phrase, but that the way to seek after justice is to be willing to suffer for it, rather than to get a mob together or to reload our guns. In other words, to hear Jesus tell it, we know going in that living in the Kingdom way may mean suffering-love. We don't actively try to get ourselves into trouble, but we don't stumble into it unwittingly, either--we know, if we are going to be followers of Jesus, that following after him may well get us into trouble, or make us unpopular, or lead us to stand and speak up for those who are being stepped on. And if we do dare to stand up and speak up for others in those circumstances, we should be prepared that others will not want to have to come face to face with any of it. We should be prepared that we will be called--as the prophets regularly were, Jesus notes--troublemakers and feather-rufflers. We are not masochists looks for pain or heartache or suffering, but we step into those possibilities with our eyes wide open. That's what it means to be a part of the blessed way of life that knowingly risks being "persecuted for righteousness' sake."
Walter Wink offers a helpful distinction, just so that we are clear that we Christians aren't worshipping suffering or trying to keep the afflicted down and pacified. "To have to suffer is different from choosing to suffer," Wink writes in his book Engaging the Powers, and then he continues after a piece, "Martyrs are not victims, overtaken by evil, but hunters who stalk evil into the open by offering as bait their own bodies." There is a certain willingness to steer into the skid--to head into the face of danger as the only way of containing and absorbing the danger, rather than spreading it around further. That's what it means to be willing to suffer for righteousness' sake--it is a conscious, chosen act to enter into suffering for the sake of what is right, what is just, what is good, and what will help put things right that are "out of whack." Tripping and falling on the sidewalk because I am clumsy and didn't notice the pothole is not being persecuted for righteousness' sake, after all, and neither is the wasted heartache of just being lonely or depressed. But to be willing to be made alone by being imprisoned, like Paul and Silas or like Dr. King, or Nelson Mandela, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for the sake of what is right--that's what we're after. To be willing to hide persecuted Jewish families like Corrie ten Boom, knowing you will get thrown into a concentration camp for it if you are caught, or being willing to wear a yellow-six-pointed star on your clothes like her father Caspar did, in solidarity with those who were being rounded up. To be willing to lose your fortune and your career, to lose your health or your limbs, or to have your reputation and character assailed. Being willing to take the hit for someone else, or in solidarity with someone else--that's what Jesus announces blessing on here.
Today, it might not be that you are required to make a life-and-death choice for the sake of righteousness. But as Elaine Puckett so wisely says it, "When we think about laying down a life for another we usually think in terms of a single event. But it is possible for us to lay down our lives over the course of a lifetime, minute by minute and day by day.” Today, you and I will have opportunities to lay down our lives and to consciously choose to risk suffering for the sake of doing what is right. It will mean risking that profits could be lower because you refuse to cheat someone or cut corners, and that you know you could get the heat from your boss. It will mean being a voice for people around who you who get no voice. It will mean that you value justice--things being put right--more than your own comfort. It will mean steering into the skid in some sense. But as counter-intuitive as it might seem to do that, it is a blessed way of living, because in it we get glimpses of how God has loved us, by choosing to suffer for our sakes to put the world right and redeem us. That is the kind of life that is not only worth living, but also dying for, and even worth laying down in little ways, minute by minute each day today.
Because you and billions of others made in the image of God are of infinite value to Jesus, then right relationships among all of us are also of great value to Jesus. That, in a word, is what justice is all about. And that is what is worth giving our lives for, whether in one fell swoop or an ounce of life at a time.
Lord God, give to us the courage today to risk suffering for the sake of justice, the vision to see when those moments of sacrifice are called for, and the compassion to love those who need us to stand alongside them. This we ask in Jesus' name, who gave all he had for our sakes.