Monday, January 30, 2017


Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction TV series ever. The title is a question: Doctor who? After 53 years, we still don't know the hero's name. He simply calls himself “the Doctor.” But in the new version of the show we at least learn why he chose that title. He is “the man who makes people better.” And indeed from the beginning of the show in 1963 the Doctor has not only been fighting evil, he has been inspiring ordinary people to do so. Because of his presence, they become better versions of themselves.

We all want the world to be better and we often put our trust in systems and gimmicks and technology to make that happen. And, yes, we have defeated diseases, lengthened life, made crops grow where they previously couldn't and reduced poverty. The problem is that the same technology that allows us to understand diseases can be used to create more terrible ones. The same systems that make factories more efficient can be used to manufacture more and deadlier weapons. The same social media that can disseminate information can be used to spread disinformation. Because while technology changes, human nature does not. If we are going to make the world better, we need to make humans better.

That idea did not originate with Doctor Who. It began with Jesus, on whom recent writers of the TV series seem to have consciously remodeled their fictional hero. Jesus is the historical person who makes people better.

But what does “better” mean in this context? Jesus will not make us physically stronger, or faster, or even smarter. That's the job of technology. How will Jesus make us better?

I was going to simply go back through the list of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And that is a good list of Christian qualities. But in today's gospel passage (Matthew 5:1-12) Jesus offers another list, the beatitudes. These are conditions that sound awful but which Jesus paradoxically calls “blessed” or “fortunate.” They certainly don't sound lucky. But God's values often look topsy-turvy compared to our values. Let's look at each of these 8 qualities.

Blessed are the poor in spirit...” I have read a lot of biographies of famous people who grew up during the Great Depression, who said that while they now realize they were poor, back then they didn't. Everyone they knew was in the same boat and you don't miss what you never had. But the Greek word Jesus uses is closer to “destitute.” It has the sense of “crouching” or ”cringing” and is related to the Greek word for “beggar.” Jesus is speaking of those who are so spirituality impoverished that they fully realize how bad things are.

Why is that good? People only seem to go to the doctor when their pain or condition is so bad they can't ignore it and must get medical help. Jesus is saying the spiritually destitute have no illusions of being the person God wants them to be and so they will seek God's help. So Jesus is saying “How fortunate are they who realize how bad off they are spiritually...”

Each beatitude has a promise. In the case of the spiritually destitute, the promise is “...for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Again we need to look at the Greek behind this. Kingdom” doesn't mean a geographical or political place but a royal reign. “Heaven” in this case is a euphemism for God. You only find “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew. Because of this and other aspects of this gospel, we think Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians who exercised the same caution about saying the divine name that you find among Orthodox Jews today. So “kingdom of heaven” is another way of saying the “royal reign of God.” As Jesus says elsewhere, “Seek and you will find.” If you seek out God, you will find yourself under his reign and care. The spiritually impoverished will find themselves restored and spiritually enriched by the great King of heaven. That's better than thinking you are just fine and only discovering you are spiritually bankrupt when it is too late.

Blessed are they who mourn...” Jesus doesn't say what they are mourning. Perhaps it is their spiritual state as in the first beatitude. Maybe they are mourning the loss of their innocence. Perhaps it is the state of the world they mourn. Or maybe they have lost someone. Whatever they have lost, their grief is severe. The Greek word can be translated “wail.”

Why is this good? Because it means you value innocence or the way things should be or people. There is a lot of nonsense out there about never having regrets. To not have regrets means to not learn from your mistakes. Or to not care. Psychopaths have no regrets. A normal person regrets bad decisions. A normal person mourns the loss of people. Grief should eventually diminish but you should never get to the point where, when looking back at the good people or qualities you've lost, you don't feel at least a twinge of sorrow.

The promise Jesus makes? “...for they will be comforted.” The Greek word can translated “encouraged.” In this life we can lose things and never see them again. But not with God. Just as a parent will do whatever they can to restore to their child whatever they are missing, God will restore to us life, health, even those we have lost. And it is encouraging to realize that the things that matter to us the most, matter to our loving heavenly Father as well.

Blessed are the meek...” The Greek here means basically “the gentle” and by implication, “the humble.” In this life we see that the aggressive and the arrogant seem to get everything. They elbow their way in ahead of others. They bully others and bogart whatever they want. The extremely wealthy and very powerful are rarely the shy and retiring type.

So if the world favors the aggressive and arrogant, why is it good to be meek and gentle? Don't they get steamrolled in this world? Often they do. But Jesus promises “...for they will inherit the earth.” How can that be? Jesus is not talking about the world as it presently is. This world is messed up, remember? Jesus is talking about the new creation. God not only intends to restore us to what he intended us to be all along but the earth as well.

And this brings up a problem people often have with Jesus. His ethics seem naive. His way looks foolish, as Paul writes in today's epistle. (1 Corinthians 1:18-31) It is a recipe for getting run over by the aggressive, the arrogant, the evil. In this life, that is. Or as God sees it, in the short term. Jesus is taking the long view, seeing beyond this brief life and this fragile and fragmented world to the values and methods that endure. The dog-eat-dog methods that dominate this world are not sustainable. Eventually all dogs but one are eaten and that remaining dog will starve. When all wealth is owned by the few, the rest of the world will have no way to buy the goods and services the few sell to make their wealth. Henry Ford made sure he paid his workers enough that they would be able to buy the cars they made. In the long run the best leaders are those who are gentle and humble. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:12, “If we endure, we will also reign with him.” Jesus is recruiting for the new creation; the proud and aggressive need not apply.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...” Again the Greek is more intense. A better translation is “Fortunate are those who are starving and thirsting for righteousness.” That last word is another stumbling block to understanding what Jesus meant. We think of righteousness as personal moral rectitude. But in the Bible it means being in the right relationship with both God and with everything in the whole created order of things. So Jesus is talking about those who are famished and parched because things are not the way God created them to be.

Why is this a good thing? Because we all get used to the way things are, which is to say, messed up. And if we are too apathetic about the injustice and dysfunctional relationships in this world, we won't work very hard to put things right. But those who simply cannot stand the state of affairs are those who do things about it. Jesus wants us to work for justice and peace in this world. Those who tolerate the destructive and self-destructive ways of the world will do nothing to change them.

And Jesus' promise to those who are starving for the restoration of wholesome relationships with God and others? “...for they shall be filled.” The Greek can mean “gorged” or “satisfied.” God will not fob off hors d'oeuvres of righteousness on those who crave it but will stuff them full of what they live for. God does not ration us but gives in abundance.

Blessed are the merciful...” Compassion is a hallmark of Jesus as a person and that should be true of his followers. Again in this world we see the ruthless rise to positions of power. In the Philippines their president brags about killing drug dealers and in the last 6 months 6000 people have been killed, 2000 in police operations and 4000 by vigilantes. None of these people were tried in court to establish evidence of their guilt. Which means mistakes were probably made in a number of cases. There are numerous news reports of bystanders being killed as well as murders committed under the cover of the drug war. The Biblical standard of justice is that you need at least two or three witnesses to convict someone. How do you think God feels about such collateral damage done to beings created in his image?

Why is mercy good? Because it usually comes from the recognition that all of us are flawed and can make bad decisions. Merciless people often are loathe to admit that they can and have made mistakes. Mercy is a quality that psychopaths lack because they have no empathy. Unfortunately, our society has become extremely unforgiving lately. In this day of 24/7 news hungry for things to cover and discuss endlessly, one bad decision can ruin one's life. Especially when it gets to the internet, which makes idiocy immortal.

Jesus' promise is “...for they will receive mercy.” The kindness you show others will be shown to you. Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or in modern language, “forgive us our sins to the same extent that we forgive those who sin against us.” Life is hard. We all mess up from time to time. If we don't learn to forgive and be merciful and kind and compassionate to each other, life will get even worse.

Blessed are the pure in heart...” The Greek word is more properly translated “clean” or “clear.” We are none of us naturally pure or clean. To get clean we must confess our sins to God to receive his forgiveness. The pure in heart are not superhuman “saints” but simply people who admit their sins, go to God and receive his forgiveness and grace.

Why is this good? Consider this analogy. Perhaps one of the biggest advances in hygiene was the recognition that we should wash our hands. Believe it or not, it was quite a struggle to get doctors to do so between patients when the idea was introduced more than 100 years ago. But when they did, the incidence of patient deaths dropped. To be spiritually healthy we need to realize that we need to get clean before God as often as necessary.

And Jesus' promise is “...for they will see God.” You can't see anything if your glasses are covered in mud. You can't see God clearly if you are harboring certain pet sins. It will distort how you perceive God. People who are angry tend to see God as angry. People who don't care about their sins see God as indifferent to them as well. People who think rules are more important than people see a God that thinks the same. We see what we expect to see. If we aren't on the same wavelength as God we will either not see him at all or see a malformed God created in our image. Only those who regularly have God clean up their hearts will see God as he is: loving and just and yet forgiving.

Blessed are the peacemakers...” Jesus is of course talking about those who make peace with and between others. This involves forgiving sins against you as well as getting people to forgive one another. But the word “peace” in the Bible means total well-being. So a peacemaker can also be someone who works to make things better for others. After all, making sure people get the food and shelter and justice they need will give them a considerable measure of peace and well-being.

It's obvious why this is a good thing. And Jesus' promise is “...for they will be called children of God.” What does that mean? When a child displays a trait associated with a parent we say “they take after their father” or “they remind me of their mother.” To be a child of God means to manifest the qualities seen in God. And God is the source of all well-being, who in the person of Jesus made peace with sinful, wayward humanity.

Finally, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake...” The Greek word translated “persecuted” literally mean “pursued.” So Jesus is saying you are fortunate if you are hounded for trying to make things right. But why would anyone oppose putting things right? This world is not messed up simply because people cannot be bothered to do things right; there are those who benefit from the misery of others. Payday loan companies take advantage of those who are desperate for money now, usually the poor. Businesses hire illegal immigrants because they can pay them peanuts and even cheat them without fear that they will go to the authorities. Medical drugs cost more here in the US because big Pharma paid congressmen to make laws that prohibit us buying the same drugs cheaper from, say, Canada where they regulate the prices and laws that stop Medicare from negotiating drug prices the way the Pentagon does for our servicemen. So we may say we stand for truth and justice but if anybody really makes progress towards either of those, they will get hammered.

Why is this good? Because most people will do the right thing so long as it doesn't cost them. The minute they start getting crap for trying to right a wrong, they walk away. Jesus wants people who are made of sterner stuff, who will keep going when the going gets tough. Would the Civil Rights Act have been passed if Martin Luther King Jr. had given up the minute he first was put in jail? Would the Reformation have started if Martin Luther had folded when the Church threatened to excommunicate him and worse? Would the gospel have survived if Jesus shut up when the religious establishment of his day opposed him? People are not good if they are only good when it's convenient. Good people are willing to do what's right even when it seems like everyone is against them.

The promise? “...for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Again those who stay the course in the face of persecution and slander are those who find themselves in the realm of God's love. Their reward in the long run, Jesus says, is great.

So when we talk of Jesus making people better, what does that mean? It means people who realize just how much they need God's help, who value other people and justice enough to mourn their loss, who are humble and gentle, who live to see things put right, who are merciful and compassionate, who go to God to have their hearts cleansed, who work for peace and who do the right thing even when it costs them dearly. It means a world where things are in the right relationships with God and the rest of creation and where when they aren't, people put them right and forgive others and ask forgiveness from them. And of course such people will notice that by letting God's Spirit work in them they will produce more than enough love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Jesus is the great physician who makes people better. You'd think people would be pounding on the door of this place to learn more about him and experience that healing of the spirit we all need. Why don't they?

We'll look at that next week. 

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