From the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany in 2011 in the ForeWords archives:
Stray thoughts occasionally wander into my brain. Just the other day this weird question popped up: What if Jesus had a bucket list?
Now, it wouldn’t be a normal bucket list, the hundred things you want to do or places you want to go before you die. For Jesus, I’m not thinking big, dramatic, crazy kinds of things–parachuting from an airplane, hitchhiking on the space shuttle, rappelling down a mountain in Yosemite, or climbing up the side of a skyscraper like Spiderman. Because apparently Jesus had a chance to jump off the top of the Jerusalem Temple just so he could see how many angels would show up to catch him–and he took a pass on that, along with a couple other temptations.
No, for Jesus it would have to be a really different kind of list. Let’s say, a list of all the people he thought best exemplified the peaceable kingdom. Or maybe a list of ways to turn the world as it was (and is) upside down.
So that instead of good things happening to “bad” people, good things happen to everybody else (let’s face it, life’s not fair: greedy, cruel, annoying, pushy, egotistical, and self-righteous folk all too often end up crushing everybody else underfoot). And, okay, even the bad people still get a chance at redemption if they’re sincere.
Reading Matthew’s narrative (and the parallel account in Luke 6) I can easily imagine Jesus looking out on that hillside and seeing people who were oppressed and beaten down and feeling hopeless. What could he say to let them know they are included in God’s kingdom, which someday will exist in fullness on earth as it does in heaven. And so he listed the ways that God was reaching out in love to them. Eugene Peterson rewrites the Beatitudes this way in The Message:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
One of those Hebrew prophets who spoke truth “too close for comfort” was Micah. He had a pretty short list of what he thought God was looking for in people:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:6-8 NRSV
Between those two lists in Matthew and Micah we can find a great deal of hope, responsibility, and challenge. The world is filled with people who feel anything but blessed, who are often at their wit’s end, ready to give in or give up. Maybe you’re in that group, as well. Clearly, the voice of Jesus speaks across the centuries to us from that hillside, as does the prophet Micah from his own day.
As I so often do, I turned also to the writings of Apostle Paul, who has something meaningful to say on this topic. I think it goes along quite nicely with what Jesus and Micah say:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
–1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NRSV
Do we have ears to hear? eyes to see? mouths to speak? hands to hold?
My book, What Was Paul Thinking? (Isaac’s Press, 2010) is available at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.