January 29, 2023

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with one of the lesser known Old Testament prophets, Zephania. He commands the people to obey, to seek justice and humility. “In your midst I will leave a humble and lowly people.” That remnant will do the right thing and not lie. Matthew’s Gospel gives us what we now know as the Beatitudes. Jesus blesses the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, etc. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

When we read passages that sound familiar I often encourage readers and listeners to try to look at them with “new eyes” as if this was our first encounter with the readings. This is not difficult with the first reading as I suspect most Christians have barely heard about Zephania. But our Gospel is part of the Sermon on the Mount, often seen as Jesus’ inaugural address in no small part because it’s the first long speech in Matthew’s Gospel.

These readings may sound familiar but they are pretty radical. When we are told to obey God’s commands we often revert back to our childhood understanding of obedience, that is, we do what we are told. But if that’s all we’re called to do there’s no point in having the rest of the reading. If we treat each other only according to the law we can probably coexist.

But we can’t love each other. That requires much, much more of us and that is what Zephania and Jesus are calling us to.

Like it or not, conflict has always existed for us. We have the story of Cain murdering Abel in the 4th chapter of Genesis, but in the previous chapter we see Adam blaming Eve for eating the forbidden fruit and Eve blaming the serpent. Interestingly, blaming another didn’t seem to help. So how do we resolve conflict? If all God wants for us is simple obedience to the law, we are called only to enforce that law on each other. If somebody does wrong, he shall be punished and threatened against doing it again.

And, sad to say, that’s often what we do. We hear law enforcement or politicians promise to “bring justice” to situations; a politician who is said to be “soft on crime” will likely never get elected. Even in our earliest law codes we attempted only measured revenge: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:23). But, as we all know, this will lead only to further blindness.

So how do we do justice that is meek and humble? How do we seek justice and humility? How do we resolve conflict out of love and not revenge? Well, there is value in recognizing that we can’t fully do this ourselves. We are a people of love but we’re also a people of fear, jealousy and resentment. I’m writing as we’re learning of mass shootings in two places in California that coincide with the Lunar New Year. Without going too far down that path, it’s almost as if we’ve weaponized grudges.

In the end we are called to a justice that we cannot achieve on our own. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I have a strong memory for a quotation I can’t find, though I thought it was from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Forgiveness lies in our willingness to give up our right to revenge.” If I read this correctly there is indeed a human right to revenge when someone wounds us. But if we believe what we say we believe about Jesus, if we believe that forgiveness, healing and reconciliation lie at the heart of his teaching, we need to be willing to go beyond what is our simple right. Because if we allow for revenge, even measured revenge, we participate in a downward spiral that takes us farther and father from today’s Gospel. If we allow for revenge we see the meek as fools and idiots. The merciful don’t understand why “never win.” If we allow persecution we just don’t get it.

Today’s readings show us the way of love. The way of love begins with an understanding that those who wound us are often dealing badly with their own woundedness. The bully who is himself bullied at home. The gunman who is taught to shoot by someone who teaches that the world is stacked against him. The citizen who fears immigrants will steal all he has worked for and couches it in the rhetoric of “my ancestors came here legally and so should they,” ignoring the fact that our ancestors arrived at a time when there were no restrictions on immigration.

The way of love isn’t about fair divisions. If two children fight over the same orange and we cut it in half we never learn that one child wanted the orange zest to bake into a cake while the other wanted to make homemade orange juice. Had we listened we could have ensured that both were completely satisfied.

The way of love means giving space and opportunity for someone to give better than they were given. Nostalgia about the rarity of divorce in the 1950s ignores the acceptable levels of misogyny and addiction that trapped spouses in loveless and sometimes dangerous marriages. The way of love allows children of those marriages to seek and find healing and forgiveness that allows them to be more loving and responsible spouses and parents.

For justice to truly take hold and not enjoy a temporary advantage calls us to actions that spiral up. Despite the fears of segregationists (then and now) the civil rights advances of the 1960s were not meant to replace people of color as the dominant race. Those advances allowed us to look each other in the eyes and see those colors instead of skin color.

True justice, divine justice, is Godly. And in God’s greatest gift to us we are permitted to become Godly ourselves.