Each one of us is known by different people in slightly different ways. We are perceived differently by our parents, our spouses, our children, our friends and our co-workers. People who live in the harsh glare of public life often have a private side which might surprise the general public, whether for good or bad. Even people with the most consistent personalities interact a little differently with specific people.
It is the same for the gospel writers, the four people who narrated the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Although all four consider Jesus to be the long awaited messiah, the one who came to not just proclaim but to incarnate God’s message of compassion, mercy and justice for all, they also have slightly different perceptions of him. This turns out not to be a contradiction, but rather a blessing because we can learn from each of their portrayals of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Together the four gospels give us a more complete picture than we would get from each one of them alone.
For Mark, Jesus is the one who breaks all boundaries between God and humankind. For Luke, Jesus is primarily the savior of the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized. In John, Jesus is the incarnation of God’s abundant grace. This is the year of Matthew’s gospel, for who Jesus is primarily a teacher. Although he teaches and preaches to the crowds, the focus is often on the disciples. Matthew challenges us to understand that discipleship is not only an ongoing commitment to follow Jesus, but also to commit to being his students, to engage in a life-long learning process. When I first came to Saint John, I proposed doing Bible study with the senior group that was active at that time, but the president of the group told me “we aren’t interested in Bible study. We were all confirmed and learned the Bible years ago.” Turns out she was only speaking for herself, but it was an amazing statement, not only because I have studied scripture all of my life and always find new things to learn, but because the gospel writers themselves, particularly Matthew, stress that learning from Jesus’ teaching is a life-long process.
In Matthew, after Jesus calls four disciples to leave their lives as fishermen to follow him, his first public action is to preach a sermon. It is a famous sermon, which we have given the name of the Beatitudes. It is so important that we will read portions of it for the next four weeks. A sermon is not just words, content, but should also create an experience. So in the Beatitudes, Jesus was trying to create a specific experience for his disciples. He wants to affirm an identity for all those who will follow him. He is not just reminding us that we are blessed, but he wants us to feel that we are blessed. We are to move from hearing, to believing and experiencing that blessedness, which will then inspire us to sharing it with others.
For Jesus, having a specific identity is the crucial first step as he teaches us to be his followers. We have to know who we are in order to hear and understand the many things he is going to teach us. We have to know who he needs us to be in order to accept the challenge that he issues to us to carry out the Great Commission. Jesus clearly takes his identity from the words of the prophet Micah: “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” In order for us to share that identity, Jesus begins with the powerful reminder that we are blessed.
What a comfort it is to know that when we are broken in spirit or in mourning, God’s healing power will be there for us. It is encouraging to be told that when we are merciful, when we have pure motives and when we work for peace we will be recognized by God. But some blessings are more challenging, particularly the one that is central to discipleship. Jesus is reminding us to ask ourselves if we hunger and thirst after righteousness, or if we look the other way, or expect someone else to do it. Perhaps we choose indifference so we don’t have to choose sides, so we can play it safe. Or we keep silent so that we don’t offend anyone, or fail to meet expectations.
Jesus tells us that we need to hunger and thirst after righteousness because so often the world works against it. Far too often the powerful are protected at the expense of the victims. The Beatitudes are not just a reminder how blessed we are to follow Jesus, but they are also a call to action. We don’t just exult in receiving God’s grace, we are called to share that grace with our words and actions. Our task is to make Jesus and his teachings present and visible in a world that would like to silence or ignore the message of truth that he brought. The Beatitudes are a call to action for the sake of creating the world that God imagines for us. The very early church was good at that, but over the centuries the church often became more interested in protecting itself and its structures rather than focusing on, and being willing to sacrifice for, the message. We pray that the church today, in the spirit of Pope Francis, is once again focused on bringing righteousness to the world.
We are blessed to be the people of God, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness and are willing to stand up for the message of God, the message of compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness for all. Together we strive to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. Amen.