Blessed ---O Lord, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12
Some of you may remember the Paul Simon song, “Blessed.” It begins, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit.” The verse ends with the question, “O Lord, why have you forsaken me?”
It is an interesting juxtaposition. “Blessed” – and –“Forsaken.” One would think that being blessed would mean knowing that you are not forsaken. Yet, in our world, when we speak of the “meek of the earth”, do we not think of those whom the world has chosen to forget or ignore or disparage? The meek are those forsaken by the world.
One pastor wrote of visiting parishioners and seeing these Beatitudes adorning their houses. They are poetic. But what do they mean? If we really listen to them, they are disturbing. Who wants to be meek in our world? It sounds like a command to be the world’s doormat – to let others walk all over you! The other attributes are a little more palatable, but they don’t sound like the path to a happy life! Yet, happy is one translation of the Greek word generally translated as “blessed.”
Ronald Allen pointed out that neither translation helps if we do not consider the context. Karoline Lewis wrote that each gospel paints the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in a unique way – a way that points to what matters to the gospel writer. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus began with an exorcism, telling us that he would be a boundary crosser. In Luke’s gospel Jesus began his ministry at home, in Nazareth, by speaking in the synagogue. His message so disturbed his hearers that they tried to kill him by pushing him off a cliff. Luke tells us that Jesus’ ministry would always reach out to those that insiders thought were beyond God’s concern. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry began with turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. He demonstrated God’s abundance.
Here, in Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry with teaching his disciples. Lewis says, “They have to know who they are in order to be able to hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about what he needs them to be." And, disciples are those who learn. (It is a reminder that growing in the faith is a life-long endeavor. Children may learn the basics, but adults have to re-encounter, re-consider, and re-learn the gospel for the world in which we live, with all its challenges!) Allen adds that Matthew’s gospel focuses on the “coming realm when all things will take place according to God’s purposes of love and justice.” Being blessed, being happy, therefore, means knowing that you are “included in that coming realm.”
I quoted Paul Simon’s song. It takes one of the attributes listed in this familiar passage. But, we can’t hear the word meek by itself. All these attributes are inter-related. Charles James Cook says they “build on one another. Those who are meek, meaning humble, are more likely to to hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they remain open to continued knowledge of God. If we approach the Beatitudes in this way, we see they invite us into a way of being in the world that leads to particular practices.”
Bruce Epperly’s blog says, “The Biblical tradition is always counter-cultural in spirit. It agitates the comfortable, whether conservative or progressive, by challenging our lifestyles and assumptions. And, conversely, as the saying goes, it also comforts the agitated, those at the margins of life, those with their backs against the way, or struggling with debilitating issues.”
Counter-cultural. That's a hard message to hear. We’re so accustomed, in this country, to having a Christian faith that is all entangled with our culture. I think there is a “brand” of Christianity that is uniquely American. It is called the “prosperity gospel.” It tells us that those who are good get rewarded with wealth, health and success. Where are the meek? Where are the poor in spirit? What is the understanding of righteousness?
Epperly reflected on this powerful passage from the prophet Micah that asked, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” And the prophet answered his own question, “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.”
Epperly noted that even generosity can be problematic and spiritually destructive “if it is grounded in widening the gap between rich and poor, violent economic and societal structures and a sense of entitlement.” I had just read that when I heard an episode of “Fresh Air” on NPR. Terry Gross had a New York Times journalist, Evan Osnos, as a guest. He had written an article titled, “Survival of the Richest.” The article looked a a growing trend of the Silicon Valley elite who are fearful of the future. They are worried about the political climate, economy, the environment, the possibility of all-out nuclear war, pandemics or civil unrest. In response they are stockpiling weapons and food. Someone has turned an empty underground nuclear silo into luxury apartments that sell for three million dollars. Others are buying property on remote islands. One has had his eyesight surgically corrected because he’s afraid that contact lenses and glasses won’t be readily available – and that those who can’t see well will be victimized. They’re afraid of class warfare as artificial intelligence takes jobs away from people.
Max Levchin, a co-founder of Pay Pal, has criticized this growing trend among his peers. He asks those who are seeking their own safety and security, “How much have you donated to the local homeless shelter? How much have you tried to address the underlying causes of these problems? Are you investing in the American project? Epperly says, "Humility (meekness) is a requirement of an interdependent universe."
“Humility is a requirement of an interdependent universe.” Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn (for the world God intends). Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those who are merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
The best of the United States project is based on this interdependence, upon a recognition that our lives are bound up together – and when we work for the well-being of the least of our neighbors, we work for the well-being of all. It is a worthy endeavor, one that can claim our hearts and minds.
Yet, even the religious Israelites had to acknowledge that their national life often fell short of who God created and called them to be. And so it is with us. As God’s beloved, blessed, called disciples, we are to seek the fullness of God’s realm which transcends all political and national boundaries in this world. We are to seek the life that flows from dependence on God, not from things or wealth or even national power. We are to seek the life that connects us, as well, with others – with all others.
And living with that broader vision is not easy. I heard a political commentator note that in our own country people are living in bubbles that prevent them from hearing those with whom we disagree. He said, “We are going to have to look beyond our own spheres and begin to hear the concerns of those with whom we disagree.” Blessed are the ones who know their dependence – on God, and on the well-being of the whole of human society and the earth itself. These beatitudes reflect interdependence and reliance on God.
Theologian Marcia Riggs said that the political agenda Jesus gave us is “organized around the pursuit of righteousness by those who are able – at potential risk to their own lives—for the sake of a world in which the un-valued (including they themselves when they are persecuted) are at last fully valued as human beings.” She brings me back to the Paul Simon song. “Why have you forsaken me,” he asked. These beatitudes, and Jesus’ life, tell us that living God’s way is not easy. Even for Jesus it led to death. He cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet, it was not God who had forsaken him. The world forsook him. It rejected the message that he brought. It rejected God’s realm and the values it embodies and proclaims. The world turned and turns its back on God’s invitation to the blessed life – the blessed life of dependence and interdependence, the blessed life of humility and compassion that sees not just the self, but those who are vulnerable and hurting.
The resurrection tells us that God had not forsaken Jesus. Therefore, we may trust that living dependent on God and interdependent with others and the creation itself is possible. Where the world sees weakness, we find God’s never-forsaking presence.