Matthew 5:1-12 – From Rules to Relationship

Our Old Testament reading for this morning makes it sound pretty simple.  What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?  Three rules should be simple enough for us to follow, right?  Only there weren’t three.  There were ten – commandments, actually.  Ten rules should be simple enough for us to follow, right?  Only there weren’t ten there were six-hundred and thirteen.  That’s how many laws and rules the Pharisees insisted on following, all of which are taken from scripture.  Six-hundred and thirteen should be simple enough for us to follow.  Right?

Or maybe instead of being so rules-driven, we are called to be something else.  In our house, when rules are broken there are consequences.  Sometimes from the purgatory known as “time-out” or the tear-streamed confines of early bedtime, we hear a voice cry out.  “Daddy, do you still love me?”  My answer every single time has been, and always will be, “Of course, son, I still love you.”  But the question still comes whenever rules are broken.  Like most parents, I want to do something that shows my sons that I still love them even when they disobey, even when they do something wrong, even when they intentionally break the rules.  I think that’s something that not just every child, but every human being needs to hear.  “Yes, I still love you.”

We are all rule-oriented people.  We know what’s right and what’s wrong.  We like it when the rules are made clear and simple.  We like it when we’re given instructions, and for us Christians it’s probably not surprising that the parts of the Bible we usually know the best are the parts that clearly say, “do this” or “don’t do this”.  The Bible has often been called an “instruction book” or an “owner’s manual” for life, evidenced by countless bumper stickers and t-shirts emblazoned with a picture of a Bible along with the slogan, “When all else fails, read the instructions.”

There comes a point for each of us, however, when simple instructions won’t cut it.  Eddie Vedder has a great line in one of his songs that says, “I knew all the rules, but the rules did not know me.”  On a deeper, more personal level we all want to be known and loved and accepted, and rules aren’t much good for that.  There comes a time in our lives of faith when, like children, we need something more than rules, something more than mere instruction, and if we’re used to just seeing God’s word to us in holy scripture as an owner’s manual, we may be thrown into crisis mode when circumstances around us force us to ask the more difficult questions.  As good as rules and instructions can be, they don’t have an answer for the deeper questions, questions like, “Do you still love me?”  In his book called Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell wrote:

“Let’s make a group decision to drop once and for all the Bible-as-owner’s-manual metaphor.  It’s terrible.  It really is.  When was the last time you read the owner’s manual for your toaster?  Do you find it remotely inspiring or meaningful? You only refer to it when something’s wrong with your toaster.  You use it to fix the problem, and then you put it away. We have to embrace the Bible as the wild, uncensored, passionate account it is of people experiencing the living God.” 

I have to admit that I kind of like that.  Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something wrong with turning to the Bible for instruction.  There isn’t, and it’s actually part of being a faithful person.  However, if we’re just looking for instructions and missing that encounter with the living God that Bell speaks of, then our Bibles may serve us no better than the manuals for our toasters.

Our scripture reading for this morning is another good example of a text that sounds like more rules but is in reality all about relationships.  For a long period of time in the Middle Ages there were monastic orders who insisted on following the beatitudes to the letter, as if they were a list of rules for life.  “Blessed are the poor”, and “Blessed are the hungry,” and “Blessed are those who mourn” were understood as a call to action, and so they strived to be poor, and hungry, and mournful.  They withdrew from the cities into wilderness monasteries where they could live in poverty and reflect on the regrettable state of sinfulness in which all of humanity lived.  As the centuries passed, mainstream Christianity came to regard those monks in their monasteries as a bit misguided, so we don’t do that anymore.  However, there are plenty of people even in our day and age who will read the beatitudes and come away convinced that the sure and certain path to God’s blessing is to be poor, or poor in spirit, or meek, or hungry for righteousness, or pure in heart.  We still have a tendency to read the beatitudes as rules, and think that their purpose is to tell us what we have to do in order to be blessed by God.

But that isn’t the only way to read the beatitudes, just as it isn’t the only way to read the Bible.  We must also consider that the teachings of Jesus may not be meant to provide rules, but to reveal who God is and how God relates to us.  What if Jesus isn’t telling us what we have to do to be blessed, but instead simply how God blesses out of mercy, and love, and grace?  What if “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means that God pays particular attention to those who suffer from spiritual deficiency?  What if “Blessed are those who mourn” means that God comforts and uplifts those who live in a crisis of despair over affairs in their own lives or affairs of the world?  What if “Blessed are meek” doesn’t mean “if you are meek, then God will bless you,” but rather that God bestows special favor upon those who are powerless?  What if “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” means that God especially blesses those who aren’t righteous but long to know the redeeming power of God?  What if God blessed the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, not because of who they are but because of who God is?  Maybe it is in God’s nature to bless those who are the truly deficient ones, the ones who need to be blessed, and forgiven, and loved the most.  And maybe that’s really what Jesus wants to teach us: not what we have to do or have to be in order to be blessed by God, but that we already are?         

I have a pastor friend who once said that every Sunday when he looks out over the church parking lot, he doesn’t see cars.  He doesn’t see trucks, or minivans, or SUVs either.  He told me that he sees a parking lot full of ambulances.  The truth is that people come to church because they need to.  You come here when you’re broken and you’re looking for wholeness.  You come here when you’ve fallen short and you need to know that you’re forgiven.  You come here when you feel worthless, and you need to hear that in God’s eyes you’re worth more than you know.  You come here when you’re poor in spirit.  You come here when you’re mourning.  You come here when you’re meek and powerless.  And you come here not because you’re just following the manual, or because you think this is what you have to do to earn God’s blessing.  No, you come here because you have the promise that God will do as God will do, based not on who we are but on who God is.  And it is in God’s good pleasure to bless those who need blessing the most.  It is to anyone in spiritual crisis, to anyone who is desperate for righteousness, to anyone whom the world calls a failure that Jesus says, “I am with you, taking your part, and the kingdom that I bring is especially for you.

But it’s also important to note that the blessing doesn’t stop with us.  Jesus didn’t simply say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, and those who mourn; blessed are the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness.”  Jesus went on to say that we are blessed when we ourselves show mercy, when we ourselves are pure in heart, and when we ourselves make peace.  There is a call to action in Jesus’ teaching, and it’s a call for us to relate to others as God relates to us.  We are to be on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice-seekers, the peace-makers, and those persecuted for their beliefs because that’s whose side God is on.  It isn’t just our church parking lot that’s full of ambulances; it’s this whole community, and it’s the whole world.  If the church isn’t a part of God’s blessing in the lives of those who need it the most, then the church has no real reason to exist.  Blessing others is why God has placed us here, and the minute we discard others because they aren’t as dedicated, or as disciplined, or as faithful as we are, we have discarded the beatitudes altogether.

The good news of the beatitudes is that they aren’t some laundry list of things we must do in order to be blessed by God.  Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “The gospel is something more than the law of love.  The gospel deals with the fact that people violate the law of love.  The gospel presents Christ as the pledge and revelation of God’s mercy which finds us in our rebellion and overcomes our sin.”[1]  What he’s saying there is that in addition to being rule-oriented, we are also a rule-breaking people.  It’s in our natures.  But it’s in God’s nature to forgive, and love, and bless.  It’s when we are most in need of God’s blessing that God gives it.  It’s when we’ve broken the rules, and find ourselves asking the deeper questions: “God, do you still love me?” that God’s blessing comes to us.  It’s when we are poor in spirit, or mournful, or meek and powerless, or hungry for righteousness.  This is God’s promise to us from Holy Scripture, which reads much less like an instruction manual than we might think.  What it is is a living witness to what God has done, and is doing, and will always do through Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ God says to us, “Of course I love you.”  And it is in that promise that we are truly blessed.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] The Essential Reinhold Neibuhr, R. McAfee Brown, p. 111.

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