Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sermon on the Mount, sections B & B' (part 2)

Continuing where I left off in part one of this series about the Sermon on the Mount…

In the previous Beatitude we learned that “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…” and what that entails.  Here, immediately afterward in verse seven, we find “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

Who are “the merciful”?  And is this merciful character contrary to a hunger and thirst for justice? How should we distinguish between mercy and justice?

One of the round-about ways I have tried to understand such questions is to think about how Christians today describe God, Jesus, and our relationship with Him. For example, Christians tend to talk a lot about God’s “grace.” Grace has, for a long time, been defined among Christians as receiving what we do not deserve, whereas “mercy” is defined as not receiving what we deserve. Grace is “unmerited favor”; there is nothing you did or could do to receive it. Grace is uncalled for, unwarranted, and freely bestowed. Mercy, on the other hand, is underserved treatment in light of what you did or could have done differently. Mercy is called for, warranted, and conditionally bestowed. Grace is positive favor irregardless of what justice demands; Mercy is leniency or mitigation in regard for what justice demands. Justice does not necessitate mercy. Yet mercy cannot be implemented without an absolute standard of justice. I think these are all helpful distinctions.

St. Jerome also spoke with agreement, saying that “Justice and mercy are so united, that the one ought to be mingled with the other; justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice, profusion.”1

And as St. Augustine points out, mercy is "coming to the aid of the miserable.”2

Therefore the merciful could be understood as those who hunger and thirst for Godly, or absolute, justice, the justice which only God can perfectly know and dish out. Like Jesus, the merciful are meek before the wicked who oppose Him; they mourn over what absolute justice demands, and so, as St. Augustine pointed out, they come to the aid of the miserable. By contrast, those who remain “rich in spirit” should be expected to receive absolute justice without mercy.

Who, then, according to the next Beatitude, are “the pure in heart”? And what does that have to do with “seeing God”?

The Greek word for “pure” could also (and probably does) mean “clean.” It is most frequently used throughout the Torah to describe those in need of ceremonial impurity, in order to draw near to God.

For example, within God’s Law the hands of God’s people needed to be clean, free from blood and other impurities. Their clothes needed to be clean, free from blood, bodily fluids, and contact with the dead. Their sacrifices also needed to be clean, free from blemishes and sickness. Their houses needed to be clean, free from pollution, mold, and contagious skin diseases. 

All of these were necessary to draw near to God in His house, but interestingly, a “clean heart” was not prescribed; instead, a “clean heart”, was developed through a relationship with God in his Temple. Such was not only taught in the Torah, but Paul also implies that he thought it developed over time through interaction with God. According to I Timothy 1:3-11, it’s developed through understanding and trusting in the goodness of God’s Law, in accordance with the gospel of God. Through understanding and believing in the goodness of God's Law, a “clean heart” that is accompanied by a good conscience and sincere faith in Jesus Christ produces the love which Paul aims for when he commissioned Timothy to confront enemies within the Church. Go and read I Timothy 1 for yourself. It's all taught there. 

In God’s Law, a person who is “clean in heart” is one who fears God and will not betray Him; he is one who loves God with undivided allegiance with all his heart (Deut. 6:1-6). The “clean in heart” are allowed to ascend the Mountain of the Lord, and stand in His Holy Place (i.e the Temple, which was God's "House"). The clean in heart are the ones who want to remain faithful to the Lord without reservation or falsehood, in order to teach others the ways of the Lord (Psalm 24:3-4; 51:10; 73:13).
“Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-4) 

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. …Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” (Psalm 51:10, 13)

Along with the Psalmist, Christians ought to see how clear the biblical symbolism must have been for first century Jews. St Jerome even noticed it when he said that “The pure is known by purity of heart, for the temple of God cannot be impure.”3

All of this, of course, connects with the next Beatitude. So then, why do we find, in the following Beatitude, it forecasted that “the peacemakers” are going to be called “sons of God”?

I think that an understanding of that question goes along with understanding of first century history. Most Christians I know have absolutely no clue about what was going on in the first century. Nevertheless, we find a taste of something crucial woven throughout the New Testament Scriptures. Indeed, throughout Matthew’s Gospel and throughout the history of first century Christianity, the “sons of God” were divided between Christian Jews and anti-Christian Jews. The anti-Christian Jews of Rabbinic Judaism considered themselves to be the true “sons of God.” That's a fact. According to various historians (like Eusebius, Hegessipus, etc.), first century Rabbinic Judaism was hostile to the “conversion” of Jews to Christianity. Josephus is also heavy on the emphasis of how radical and extreme first century Judaism was. Christian-Jews, on the other hand, did not consider themselves to be “converts,” but rather true heirs of the faith of Abraham through Israel’s promised Messiah; and they were at peace with their rejection by Rabbinic authorities.

Jesus, therefore, was likely teaching Israel that peacemaking would be essential for the world to see who was and was not a child of God and a faithful worshiper of God. It was because Jesus forecasted that there would be warfare and bloodshed that he also forecasted the need for his disciples to be true, non-violent peacemakers. 

As I was studying the Fathers’ comments about the Sermon on the Mount, I came across an interesting comment by St Augustine about the tension between war and peace. He wrote: 
Peace is the fixedness of order; by order, I mean an arrangement of things like and unlike giving to each its own place. And as there is no man who would not willingly have joy, so is there no man who would not have peace; since even those who go to war desire nothing more than by war to come to a glorious peace.4

Here are some questions floating around in my mind, which I think are helpful for us all to consider: Is peacemaking contrary to a hunger and thirst for justice? Is peacemaking contrary to just warfare? Is there even such a thing as just warfare, if God’s people are called to be peacemakers?

One interesting implication of that statement by Augustine is the way in which it relates to God. If it is true that people who go to war desire nothing more than to come to a glorious peace through it, then what does this teach us about the desire of the God we image, who does go to war against His enemies?

When we read the history of Israel and sometimes see the Lord going to war against the evil people and corrupt gods of certain nations (which they remained loyal to), we find at least two issues looming in the background:
  1. Those wicked nations and their gods relentlessly contended with the Lord, without repentance
  2. God’s enemies would not accept His terms of peace or heed his desire for brotherly love

In light of Augustine’s statement above, coupled with the Scripture’s own accounts, one implication of such warfare by God was His desire to bring his people, who did love Him, to “a glorious peace.”

The Scriptures only continue adding to this complex paradox. For instance, it is in the Scriptures that we find God waging war sometimes, but not all times. God wages war against certain people, but not all people. Jesus, the Son of God, says that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword; yet Jesus also says blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Jesus says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword; yet Jesus is the one who promises that many people of Israel in his generation would fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem would be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles (Luke 21). And in the book of Revelation we find a whole host of examples of Jesus and his angels waging war upon "the land" from "the heavens." In chapter nineteen the sharp sword used to strike down the unfruitful vineyard of Israel even comes from Jesus’ mouth.

With all of these added complexities in mind, let me show another important quote from St Augustine, who wrote:
Because nothing can contend against God, the children of God are peacemakers; for, of course, children ought to have a likeness to their Father.5

St. Hillary also wrote something along the same train of thought, when he wrote: 
The blessedness of the peacemakers is the reward of adoption, ‘they shall be called the sons of God.’ For God is our common parent, and no other way can we pass into His family than by living in brotherly love together.6

If such claims are all true, the complexities don’t end there. They get even more difficult to sort through once some other views of these saints come into play. For instance, both St. Augustine and St. Hillary believed and taught a “just war” theory, and they even contended against many enemies of the Christian faith; yet in all of their works they also promoted peacemaking and brotherly love, and in some of their works they even pray that God would avenge His persecuted saints in order to bring them peace.

How in the world are Christians supposed to solve this great complex paradox? 

Believe it or not, I have an answer. Or, I should say, the Christian Tradition has an answer which is deduced from the Scriptures themselves. That answer might not satisfy all people, but I have an answer; and that answer begins by understanding the history behind the New Testament. 

It is pretty much an indisputable fact that many first century Jewish authorities and their disciples displayed a kind of ruthless and bloodthirsty zealousness for the expansion of their own empire. They wanted the Roman empire gone and their own independence secured. (An excellent book on this subject is The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism: Jewish and Christian Ethnicity in Ancient Palestine, by Doron Mendels.)

The first century was a time for the people of Christ’s kingdom to make peace and promote brotherly love as much as possible, and to die for the sake of Christ as necessary. By such faithful peacemaking unto death, not only would Christians be dissociated from the “richness of spirit” among the Jewish brethren, but their faithful witness to the truth-claims of Jesus would not be futile either.

With all of this in mind, one might also recall that in the book of Revelation, which describes first century Jewish persecution, we learn that the prayers of the saints who had died in the first century were heard, and the persecution they received for their faithful witness to Jesus was expected to be vindicated. That vindication of the prayers of Jesus’ peacemaking disciples occurred just as promised, by Jesus, beginning in the Jewish wars of 66 A.D. and definitively ending the old covenant administration in 70 A.D., by the destruction of Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple.
The I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the land?”  

Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake. 

…Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of wrath has come, and who can stand?” 
(Rev. 6:9-17)

According to the Book of Revelation, the prayers of the peacemaking saints were effective and necessary in bringing about God’s justice. Peacemaking is not contrary to praying for God to respond to injustice with perfect justice. We—the Church—need to learn how to put our complete trust in God. And I believe that a life of prayer is the answer to that “how.”

Those of us who tend toward being bloodthirsty for justice, who struggle with jealousy and selfish ambition, need to learn how to pray for God’s mercy and peace upon His enemies and upon ourselves. 

Those of us who tend toward an unrealistic ideal of total peacemaking and pacifism, who delight in timidity or struggle with having any desire for justice (as though that desire itself is taboo in God’s sight), need to learn how to pray for God’s perfect justice. But as we pray for God’s justice and peace, we must not pray or live according to a double-standard

If we pray that others would receive God’s peace, we must be peacemakers ourselves. If we petition God to bring justice upon others who persecute us unjustly, we must expect the same justice to applied to our own selves as well, if God ever catches us persecuting others.

All of this sheds light on the closing Beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness (i.e. justice’s) sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Why are they “fortunate” if they are persecuted for the sake of justice? And what justice (or whose justice) are they going to be persecuted for?

In the following verse (Matthew 5:11), Jesus tells us whose justice threatens their enemies: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” 

Those who are persecuted for the sake of justice are the same as those who are persecuted falsely on Jesus’ account. They go out among their family and friends, proclaiming the “Gospel of the Kingdom,” but receive persecution for it, as Jesus would forecast again in Matthew chapter 10.

They were “fortunate” to be persecuted for “the sake of the justice” on Jesus’ account—on account of the Just One. They would also be persecuted for being more just than their enemies, and Jesus promised to reward their faithfulness with vindication. 

Since this is what Jesus promised to his first disciples, how much more does such a promise apply to his disciples in every generation thereafter?

1.  Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels (volume 1), John Henry Newman, trans. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012) p. 131
2.  Denis J. Kavanagh, trans., The Fathers of the Church: St. Augustine Commentary on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount with Seventeen Related Sermons (Catholic University Press: Washington, D.C., 2001 reprint) pp. 23
3.  Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels (volume 1), John Henry Newman, trans. (Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012) p. 132
4.  Ibid.
5.  Ibid. p. 133
6.  Ibid.

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