If you ask people what a blessed life looks like, you would get a perspective of life that is going well. A person will say they are blessed because they enjoy good health. Another will cite family and speak of them being a blessing. Still another could describe living in a good neighborhood where they feel safe is a blessing. So blessings in a way are about the parts of life that work well and bring us joy. We direct our thankfulness toward God as the giver of such blessings. So as we read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we get a different perspective on blessings. What Jesus calls a blessing, leaves us scratching our heads because they don’t fit on our list.
Jesus taught that the blessed are: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the merciful, those hungering and persecuted for righteousness, etc. How can this be? Well, we can try to rationalize his words and make them fit our world. We might say that their suffering will change and become a blessing when they get their act together but Jesus didn’t say this. Or that God sent this suffering as a way of testing and that blessing will come in the future. Jesus didn’t say this. We might pass this off as a future event, as being blessed someday in heaven but Jesus didn’t say this. He said, “Blessed are…” meaning the blessings are now in the present. So how do we reconcile Jesus’ view of blessings and our own? We don’t.
The verses just before this tell of Jesus gathering disciples and preaching the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” His call is for life to be turned around and taken in a different direction. A new way of understanding the world from God’s perspective has been brought near in Jesus. So how does this work? Well, the kingdom of heaven doesn’t belong to those parading the power of faith for all to see. Instead, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those willing to admit the poverty of their faith. Those that struggle for peace when ‘might is right’ seems to be the dominate belief, are the ones blessed to be called children of God. Those insulted and persecuted for speaking truth in the face of power toward the pursuit of justice, walk in the same path as Jesus and the prophets of old. The kingdom of heaven is also theirs.
So what does it mean to be blessed? One perspective is to have life go well. Jesus’ teaching of blessing is to conform our lives to God’s perspective which he lived out for us to see. The two don’t always mix together well. So how do we transform our understanding of blessing? The prophet Micah gives us a start in the companion reading (Micah 6:1-8). “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?”
I have heard it said that preaching should bring comfort to the burdened while at the same time make those living at ease uncomfortable. John the Baptist checked both off the list from the reading in Matthew. God is not impressed with human power by whatever means it is gained. God announces what is about to happen not through human power but in human weakness. The birth of Jesus was announced first to shepherds (the witness of a shepherd wasn’t accepted back then). The news of Jesus’ resurrection was first announced by women (their words were considered nonsense according to Luke). The great prophets of old weren’t the ones echoing the words of the king. They were the false prophets. The great prophets were apparent nobodies who called the king to accountability. John the Baptist was out in the wilderness and he spoke a word to be heard by the burdened and the ones at ease alike.
The people from the surrounding region came to hear John’s message to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Repentance means to turn around. The coming reign of God is to be embraced with lives that reject the current power structures in order to embrace God’s rule of justice and peace. The poor and enslaved gladly received the news of God’s judgment on their behalf. They were baptized as a way of preparing for the coming of God in their midst.
Religious leaders of the time, Pharisees and Sadducees, also came to hear John and to be baptized. He called them a bunch of snakes. They weren’t to put their confidence before God based on heritage, position or DNA. Instead, they were to show lives of repentance by seeking God’s justice and not power.
John was in the wilderness announcing the coming of one who will establish the rule of God. John baptized with water but this one of God will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This one will bring judgment where what is done for the kingdom is kept; what is useless is discarded and burned. This one whom John the Baptist announced is Jesus.
John the Baptist’s words are still double edged for our day. Jesus establishing the coming rule of God is good news for those enslaved and under oppression. Jesus establishing the coming rule of God is judgment for those in power who show no compassion or justice for the enslaved and oppressed. As the days draw closer to Christmas and welcoming of the Christ child, let us heed the words of John and show lives of repentance. Let the news of Christmas be good news for all people.
Prayer and the religious life go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. Vitality of one increases the other. We have our own prayer times and routines. We pray for others and ourselves. We pray for health. We pray for wisdom. We say prayers that reflect our thankfulness. We pray for the well being of creation. Again, we pray for these things in the lives of others as well as ourselves. So for Jesus to talk about prayer shouldn’t surprise us. Also for Jesus to connect prayer and faith shouldn’t be that surprising either.
As we look at the headlines of the world, what do we so often see? We see images of refugees fleeing brutal regimes, poverty and war. We see the powerful doing just about what ever they want without being held accountable for their actions. We see the weak so often being used with few coming to their defense. What does a life of prayer have to offer in a world like this?
Jesus is telling of a widow seeking justice from an unresponsive judge. This judge has no respect for anyone, not even God. Concern for the widow has strong support in Scripture and so the judge’s behavior is even all the more shocking. However, the widow will not be denied justice. While the reading describes the judge giving into the widow because of her pestering or bothering him, the meaning is far closer to her giving the judge, ‘a black eye.’ The widow was not passive in seeking justice. She would not be stopped even in the face of an unjust world. The life of prayer isn’t passive either.
The world may be slow to bring justice or even seek it. The message from the reading is that God is very different from this world. God will listen and respond quickly to his chosen ones who cry out day and night. This Jesus connects to his finding faith when he returns. Faith is fully believing that God and his kingdom have a strongly contrasting understanding of justice to the injustice we know full well. Prayer is not a passive but aggressive pursuing of God’s justice to come. Even, if it means giving the injustice of the world ‘a black eye.’ As Jesus taught us all to pray, “…thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”
The life of prayer is a privilege to know that God listens and responds. It is a privilege to be given the opportunity to bare the soul to God and know that we’ll find grace and justice. So take advantage of the life of prayer. When it comes to praying for God’s justice to be known, be like the widow and be unrelenting even to the point of giving the world’s injustice ‘a black eye.’