To Know What Counts

Micah 6:1-8

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

To be wise is to know what counts in life. On the surface, this means knowing what to value, and what values should guide life. Deeper down, knowing what counts includes knowing the way the world works, what the deep patterns of causation are, how to tell the roots from the branches, what to expect when you pursue your values and your neighbors pursue theirs, and what the prices are for commitment to what really counts.

Bach’s music is wise. Our texts this morning address three dimensions of wisdom.

The first, from Micah, is the rock bottom and is presupposed by the rest. “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Justice, kindness, humility. The Big Three. Justice is complicated, of course, and sometimes we have difficulty figuring out the just path. Micah’s point is not to simplify justice but rather to say, whatever justice is, and we do indeed know what it is in the vast majority of situations, do it. I often use the old Book of Common Prayer for morning or evening devotions, and the 1662 version begins with this sentence from Ezekiel (18:27): “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.” No excuses. No temporizing. No appeals to ambiguity or understandable weakness: just do it. That plain statement sometimes stops me with tears, until I can remember God’s mercy that helps me face what I cannot face by myself. Then I rush on to the part of the service about confession and absolution.

“Love kindness,” says Micah. The older translations often have “love mercy,” and I think a whole host of connotations are intended here that add up to what Christians have come to call love. “Love love,” is what this clause means. Do justice, but love love. To be sure, this means that we should be loving just as we should be just. In addition, however, Micah enjoins us to prize loving-kindness as the most important personal trait. One can do justice while still being hateful or indifferent. To be kind, merciful, and loving, however, is a special condition of the heart. Jesus did not invent the love ethic as something to supersede the Jewish justice ethic, as so many Christians have believed. For Micah the prophet, justice should define our behavior and loving-kindness should define our hearts.

The reason the Bible advocates justice and mercy as what count fundamentally for human life is that it takes those traits to characterize God. God is just and merciful, and demands justice and mercy from us. We might be a little wary about this anthropomorphic view of God as a just and merciful king—God is so much greater than that. Nevertheless, the God who creates a world in which standards of justice and loving-kindness measure who we are in the perspective of eternity can easily and inevitably be symbolized as just and mercifully loving. Not to do so, in fact, would be to fail to take justice and loving-kindness seriously enough to define what counts in life.

“To walk humbly with your God,” the third thing that counts, would not seem to be a divine trait to which human beings are called. Rather humility is taken to define our very relation to God. To put the point in modern terms, how are we to present ourselves in ultimate perspective? Humbly. How should we behave when ultimate matters are at hand? Not arrogantly. Not bragging about our skills or accomplishments. Not even beating our breasts and crying for forgiveness. We should simply be humble. Humility is the attitude of heart by which we should face God: otherwise we do not know what or whom we face.

Christians go so far as to say that humility, like justice and loving kindness, is indeed a trait of God. When we have failed at justice, love, and humility, God calls us back with the humility of Jesus who, as Paul put it in Philippians 2, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Jesus could break through to the unjust, unloving, and arrogant folks precisely because he was willing to be humble himself. Jesus showed us how to relate to God: with perfect humility. How can we keep God with us in our walk through life? By walking humbly with God.

Of course most of us are not very just, do not love kindness very far beyond the circle of our friends, and are not very humble, waffling as we do between arrogance and self-hate. Or rather, to put the point more humbly, we Christians are still only on the path to justice, love, and humility when our worst enemies are ourselves and the ways of life we have come to prize. Because we have the mind and example of Jesus Christ, and the witness of saints through the ages, there really is no excuse for us to fail at the effort of living wisely. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, it is not beyond our reach to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

Yet as Paul said in the lectionary text from 1 Corinthians that we did not read, this gospel that sets us free for justice, love, and humility is bafflingly counter-intuitive. The humility of Jesus to be crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews, Paul said, who expected the Messiah to come with shock and awe, and foolishness to the Gentiles who expected a philosopher. This is the second dimension of wisdom from our texts: our ability as Christians to be just, loving, and humble requires the special humility of faith in what God has chosen as means of grace. “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.” It is the problem of humility again. We are prone to boast instead. Yet what has God done for us? God taught us justice, love, and humility in the example of Jesus. Thank goodness, other religions than Christianity also acknowledge the wisdom of justice, loving kindness, and humility.

The third dimension of wisdom in our texts is Jesus’ own teaching of the Beatitudes. Jesus goes beyond Micah to say that the just, loving, and humble are happy. That is the basic meaning of “blessed:” happy. Happiness in this sense does not necessarily mean filled with enjoyment. Jesus means rather that people with these characters are happy in their relation with God: those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the seekers after justice, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

In worldly ways, the people whom Jesus calls blessed are probably not happy. Although people have debated for two thousand years just what Jesus had in mind by these traits, they all signal humility, a mournful sensitivity to the suffering of others, responsibility for others so that mercy might be called for, a thirst for righteousness we feel we do not have, the hard discipline of integrating and pruning one’s desires so as to have a pure heart, a willingness to sacrifice one’s interest in order to make peace, and the lonely courage to stand for righteousness in ways that draw down persecution.

During many periods of Christian history, those Jesus called blessed were regarded as wimps. Christians have not
always attended to Christian virtues. The opposite of those who are poor in spirit are those with overweening confidence in their religiosity. The opposite of those who mourn for suffering are those who dismiss suffering as collateral damage in the pursuit of their interests. The opposite of the merciful are those who believe their own righteousness excludes the righteousness of their opponents. The opposite of those who thirst for righteousness are those who declare they have it. The opposite of the pure in heart are those who deceive themselves and lie to others to accomplish confused and dark ends. The opposite of the peacemakers are those who believe their righteousness justifies unprovoked war. The opposite of those persecuted for righteousness’ sake are those who persecute for their righteousness’ sake. We have many people in our land who proudly hold opposite traits to the beatitudes, perhaps even a majority of those who call themselves Christians, all in the name of their own righteousness. Perhaps they are happy in worldly ways of aggressive pursuit of their cultural and economic interests while feeling good about themselves.

But they are not happy in the ways of presenting themselves to God as just, loving and humble. In the ultimate perspective of the great Creator of this vast unmeasured universe, whose main movements are blasts of stellar gasses, and whose islands of hospitality for life are surrounded by cold vacuum, the pomp of human arrogance and self-righteousness is a cosmic pratfall, a joke, an abomination. In ultimate perspective the only way to be happy is to walk humbly with the Creator, to do justice wherever we can, and to prize the loving-kindness that binds us together against the dark and links us to God before whom all other walks of life are foolish offense.

As we listen to Bach, I invite you to feel the lines of his music that seem to come to us from nature far beyond the human spheres and to extend forever beyond our performance, linking us in cosmic loving-kindness. I invite you to hear in his music the complexity that models the intertwining of life in which justice consists. I invite you to understand in his music the signal that the greatest of human achievements is to be humble before the face of God. This is what counts. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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