Summer School

Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount- Discourse 2 - A Devotional Paraphrase

Sermon 22 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley
By: Michael Roberts

Matthew 5:5-7

Blessed are the meek! There are some misconceptions around this word. The meek are not the ignorant, or those blessed with not knowing what is happening. The meek are not the innocent, those who are sheltered from the shocks of life and are thus naïve. The meek are not the docile or passive, perhaps too scared to act for good in the world. Ignorance, innocence, and apathy are as far from meekness as from true humanity.

With that said, there is a type of resignation within the term. Meekness, as Jesus speaks of it, is a calm acquiescence to God’s will for us, even if it is unpleasing to our nature. The meek are able to say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Meekness does not imply being without zeal for God, but this zeal is always tempered with love, which is always patient, kind, and gentle, never insisting on its own way, or trying to force others into it. Meekness and this kind of love go hand in hand.

Meekness not only restrains outward acts of harm, even when well intended, but inward dispositions as well. As Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not kill,’ but I say that whoever is angry with another without cause, is in danger of the same judgment.” (Matthew 5:21f, after the beatitudes). Here our Lord ranks under the heading of murder even that anger which goes no farther than the heart and is not manifested outwardly even by a harsh word.

In God’s eyes, any “unkindness in the heart” shall be in danger of judgment. And what is this judgment? In this passage, Jesus uses capital punishment as the illustration (Matt 5:21f). To God, the judgment upon us can be compared to going before the “council” and liable to its most severe sentence, “liable to the hell of fire.” This is a cultural reference that needs explaining. At the time, lower courts might sentence a condemned person to strangling or to be stoned, but the worst offenders who made it to the highest courts could be sentenced to be thrown into the continuously burning trash pit outside of the city known as GeHennon. We get the image of “hell” from this word. And for what? For just calling someone a name, like “Fool.” The word here (“Raca”) signifies being “empty, vain, or foolish.” This was common at the time, and mostly a non-offensive expression. The original hearers would have had a tough time making the connection between using this word and being burned alive.

So, what is going on? Jesus is using this extreme and hyperbolic example to make a point. God looks upon the heart. All harmful thoughts in the heart are offensive to God and harmful to all spiritual reality. Such thoughts are no different from the sins of those who act outwardly in the most harmful ways. (Wesley used the word “obnoxious” to describe this, a word that literally means, “to cause harm,” but has come to mean for us little more than someone who is annoying or unpleasant). This makes all of us liable to the most severe judgment of God, and thus to the grace that can forgive and transform. Those who get this are then able to live into the blessings of being meek, and inherit all the blessings of God’s creation. Blessed joy from God comes to those who are humble, submissive, gentle, and patient, or in a word, “meek.” These are the virtues that open up the ways of eternity to us, even now, and even as the world calls such ways “foolish.”

The next beatitude is this: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Hunger and thirst are the strongest of all appetites. If these cravings are not fulfilled, nothing can take their place in our minds, and nothing can satisfy them but food and drink. Without them we die.

This image of hunger and thirst is used to point to the deepest longing of our souls. We want and need “righteousness.” This word holds every holy temperament into one, all springing from the love of God. Righteousness is the sum of true religion, and is the only thing that will satisfy the soul that is hungry for God. What the world accounts for religion will not do it. The religion of the world implies three things. 1. Doing no harm. 2. Doing good. 3. Attending to the means of grace, at least going to church. Following these “rules” may make one “religious,” but they will not satisfy one who hungers for God or for righteousness. Deep within, we long for a religion much deeper and higher than these outward “forms of religion.” We long for the knowledge of God in Christ Jesus. We long for that love, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, by which righteousness is defined. We long to walk in the light of God and to live in a personal and intimate relationship with God through Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the religion for which our souls truly thirst.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And then the promise is given – “they shall be filled.” God feeds us with the bread of heaven, with the manna of his love. We are given “living water welling up to eternal life.” We leave this table “full” and blessed. The more we are filled with the life of God, the more tender hearted we become to those who are still, in our estimation, without God in the world.

So, next Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful but they shall obtain mercy.” This word “mercy” implies compassion for those who do not hunger after God. It illuminates what it means to love our neighbor as a part of ourselves. Mercy is among the great words of faith. It is so much more than leniency, and so much more than letting up on a display of power. That’s the way we often use the word, as if it is a weakness. For us, mercy is active love. In fact, it is very much like the love described by the Apostle Paul in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians. This mercy is patient and kind, never insisting on its own way, always wanting what is good for the other. We may have all doctrines in order, and have faith to move mountains, but without this mercy we have nothing. This mercy is “long-suffering.” It responds with compassion and inclusion for all deemed weak, ignorant, or infirmed, or lacking in faith. It even suffers the malice and wickedness of the world, and not only for a time but to the end. In mercy, we still feed our enemy when there is hunger and still give that “cup of cold water” that might be able to melt the heart. This mercy inspires “the most fervent and tender affection.” It is never rash or hasty in judgment. In mercy, it is possible to say, “I am so far from lightly believing what one person says against another, that I will not easily believe what one says against themselves. I will always allow second thoughts, and many times counsel, too.”

And the promise is given. The merciful will receive mercy. You may ask “when?” You may look out and say facetiously, “See how these Christians love one another!” with tears in your eyes. These Christians who are “tearing out each other’s bowels, party against party, faction against faction, torn asunder with envy, jealousy, anger, and domestic strife” ... these Christians (how can we hide it, either from Jews, Muslims, Pagans, or all unchurched), who bear the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace, and wage continual war with each other! These Christians who are “drunk with the blood of the saints,” who desire only power in their hands. “What wrath, what contention, what malice, what bitterness is everywhere found among them, even where they agree in essentials, and only differ in opinions or in the circumstantials of religion! O God, how long must we wait?” Where is this promised mercy?

The word comes back, “Fear not.” God’s kingdom will come. Our high and holy calling is to be part of the first fruits. May the Lord God fill your heart with such a love for every soul, that you may be ready to lay down your life for the sake of another. May your soul continually overflow with love, swallowing up every unkind and unholy temperament, until he calls you into the full reign of love forever and ever. By the power of the Holy Spirit working within you, be meek and merciful, always hungering and thirst for righteousness. This is the way of true life. Amen.