Psalm 103:1-22; Matthew 5:1-12
3rd Sunday of Epiphany
Rev Tulo Raistrick
There has been a lot of talk in the news this week, as indeed there is most weeks, about rights. The right to gender self-identification and what has been expressed as an opposing right of women to feel safe in public spaces. Alongside that, the right of a devolved authority such as the Scottish Parliament to make decisions over the right of the UK Parliament to intervene in certain situations. We are hearing the competing rights of those who say they have a right to strike when they feel all other avenues have been exhausted against the rights the government says the public has to a minimum provision of public services, whether in health or transport. The Church of England is by no means immune either – this week the debate about the rights of those who want to have same-sex marriages conducted in church and the rights of those who say that such an action infringes on their own rights to hold distinctive religious beliefs. Wherever we turn, the language of “rights” pervades public discourse and rightly so. The way we treat people, with fairness and with equal respect and dignity, has never been more important
So what do our two beatitudes, our next two statements on living a joyful, contented life – blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled – say to us about how we live in such a context.
The starting point is ourselves – our attitude to our own rights.
Do you ever hear that cry “It’s not fair!” Maybe from a young child who is not allowed to watch another episode of Paw Patrol before bedtime; or a secondary school student handed yet another piece of homework; or a colleague at work being given the job everyone else has avoided doing; or the Premier League football manager bemoaning a poor refereeing decision.
A problem sometimes with discussion over rights is that the rights we feel most passionately about, the rights that when infringed leave us with the most sense of grievance, or of injustice, are the ones that impact us personally, when it is my rights that are being rode rough shod over, when it is me that is not being treated equally. Jesus’ words “Blessed are the meek” challenges the temptation within all of us to become focused on our rights to the detriment of others.
The word “meek” has had a bad press in modern times, being seen as the same as “timid, easily intimidated, weak, a human doormat that people can walk all over”.
But that was not how the word would have been seen in Jesus’ day. The word then would have had two important qualities. The first was the “strength to be humble”. The strength not to feel that every wrong done against oneself, every slight, every injustice, had to be righted. Instead, it is about being gentle and humble about our own rights, holding lightly to them. We can be confident and secure in knowing that we are incredibly loved by God. As a result, we don’t need to demand special treatment from others or to put our energies into being treated as equally as everyone else.
The Psalm we heard this morning captures something of the amazing blessings we have in God. The psalmist urges his soul not to forget all the benefits of God’s love – his forgiveness, his healing, his salvation, his mercy. Our own rights take on a different perspective when we recognise the abundant blessings we receive in God, that we need to cling to those rights less tightly, less possessively.
And our example, as with all the beatitudes is Christ. As Paul, in his letter to the Philippians puts it:
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death –even death on a cross!”
The second way in which meekness was understood in the time of Jesus was as being the happy medium between being overly angry and not angry at all. There are times when the violation of the rights of others should prompt anger within us, should prompt us to take action on behalf of others and not sit idly by. I remember a time in a previous employment when a colleague and me were hauled into the CEO’s office and accused quite unjustly of numerous things. I was torn between angrily defending myself and just absorbing it in the hope that the angry tirade would blow over. But I then realised that my colleague was in a far more vulnerable position, his job on the line. In that situation, I realised that my role was not to defend myself, but to defend him, and so risking full-blown censure, I stood up for him. To the CEO’s credit, he listened and later apologised and my colleague stayed in his job. To be honest, reflecting on that incident, I wish I was braver more often on behalf of others. It was a rare exception. I need God’s Spirit.
That links us to our next beatitude – blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Jesus was speaking to a people who knew what it meant to hunger and thirst – where hunger was just a poor harvest away; where journeys often involved travelling through parched and arid lands.
Do you remember the heat wave in August last summer? It seems a distant memory now. As a family we were climbing Scafell Pike in the Lake District in temperatures in the high 30s. We carried litres of water with us, but it still wasn’t enough to stop us feeling parched and dehydrated by the end of the walk. When we got back to the Youth Hostel where we were staying I just drank pint-glass after pint-glass of water. It felt like I could never drink enough. I didn’t want to talk or sit – I just wanted to drink.
Well that is only moderately what Jesus means here to thirst or to hunger. It is to be absolutely desperate, for it to fill our whole focus.
And that is how we are to be about righteousness, right relationships, justice. We are to long for this with our whole beings.
Once again, we see such an attitude in Jesus. When he arrived at the Temple in Jerusalem and found it a “place of thieves, a den of robbers”, he overturned the money tables, he set the sacrificial animals loose. Jesus knew that he would make lots of enemies by clearing out the Temple, he knew it was dangerous, but he is driven by a passion for justice, for right relationships – for God’s Temple to be treated properly, for people to be in right relationship with God, and for the poor not to be exploited by the rich – and so he acts. He is passionate for justice.
I wonder where we can help to build right relationships, to stand up for justice? Maybe at work if people are being treated unfairly, or the company is acting badly towards others. Or in the community. Are there situations taking place in Earlsdon or Coventry which are not right? Or nationally or internationally? Or within the institutions of the Church?
When we hunger and thirst for righteousness we will be filled, we will discover that there is one who is always just, always fair, one who is longing to establish right relationships in his world, and that one day his kingdom, his rule will come.
These are real challenges for us all. I am reminded of the beatitudes from last week. As we stand up against injustice, as we stand up for the rights of others, it is right that we should mourn, grieve, for their suffering – blessed are those who mourn. And blessed are the poor in spirit. Standing up for what is right is more than often beyond my strengths and abilities and courage at times, and if I’m honest, beyond my wisdom too, to discern what is a true right, to discern where the cause of justice or righteousness lies. I know that I get that call wrong too frequently. And so I find myself going back to our first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. We need humility to know our need of God and to come to rely on him. It is only when we draw strength and inspiration from the presence, love and example of God that we can live out our calling.
Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.