This series of blogs is devoted to exploring the blessings of Jesus set out in Matthew chapter 5 which I translated three blogs ago. Today I am looking at the fourth blessing:
Happiness for those who hunger and thirst for justice:
they will be satisfied.
Most of these blessings sound paradoxical; indeed in this case it seems perfectly obvious that justice- seekers are rarely satisfied, and that the more comprehensive the justice sought, the less likely it is to be found. Often people who have sought and obtained a limited justice go on to tackle greater and greater injustices, as for example Ghandi, who from his beginnings as an opponent of racism in South Africa tackled the greater problems of colonial rule in India, and was still working for social justice when he was killed. Was he satisfied? It seems that if we say he was satisfied we deny the continuing, burning commitment to radical justice which makes him important.
If we can ask the question about Ghandi then we can also ask it about Jesus, who proclaimed the arrival of God’s justice in his own ministry yet died on a Roman execution stake, as the victim of a Jewish kangaroo court. Was Jesus satisfied? Some Gospels mitigate the savage irony of Jesus’ death with pious utterances, which do not ring as true as the cry of anger accusing God of desertion that we read in Mark and Matthew. Even if we doubt all versions of Jesus’ last words, we can admit that John’s “It is finished” is probably meant to tease the reader into some recognition of Jesus’ satisfaction.
In this context I always think of something I once read in a newspaper and half-remember:
A TV company had sent a reporter, cameraman and driver into an African famine zone to get firsthand reports. The truck they used smacked into a huge boulder, wrecking the stearing and spilling the team out into the sand. At first, because of the heat they were glad to see the sun going going down, but afterwards, in intense cold, getting no phone signal, stood and shouted for help, although they could see nobody. Thinking they might freeze to death, they huddled together and waited. Out of complete darkness some men approached them, signalling them to follow. After an hour’s walk they found themselves in a small tribal settlement, where women attended to their wounds and bruises, before leading them to a warm shelter, where at last, they could sleep.
In the morning the headman of the village told them that they had very little food, because of the famine. Some of their number had already died of malnutrition. He apologised that they could not feed their guests as they would have wished, but invited them to share what they had. The tribe gathered in a circle, perhaps some thirty people including children. In the middle was a large wooden board, on to which families placed what food they had: a few tubers, some animal bones, one bit of something like bread. The headman blessed the food, broke it up, and passed it round. Each person had a morsel of tuber, a lick of marrow,a crumb of bread, except the children and nursing mothers who had double.
The journalist wrote that he had never experienced such absolute justice, nor had he ever felt so completely satisfied.
This incident is the best commentary I know on the so-called feeding of the 5000 by Jesus, where a body of people shares the little it has, yet all are satisfied. The explanation of the mystery is that every step towards justice is just, just as every step towards peace is peaceful. And every step is also a foretaste of the final justice promised by God, so that in addition to the present instance of justice, there is the prospect of something complete. The faithful person can be happy in the present instance of justice confident that more is to come. Martin Luther King the day before his assassination spoke of his happiness that he had climbed the mountain and seen the promised land: mine eyes, he said, have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Yeah, maybe that makes sense for the great activists and saints, but what about the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the despised and rejected of our world, who may not have any chance to do more than long for justice, for whom there is only the longing without any instance of justice? For them the happiness is knowing that in God’s time they will receive recompense for all their grief, while their persecutors will get justice for their evil.
Surely I’m not meaning heaven and hell? Yes, better believe it, I sure am. But does God not forgive all sinners? No, God offers forgivness to all, but only those who are sorry for their evil can receive it; the rest remain in the darkness they have chosen. Some modern theologians dismiss this view of justice as primitive and in any case, beyond our knowledge, but I insist that unless I can trust in the justice of God for the oppressed of the earth, I cannot believe or worship.
There is every evidence in the Gospels that Jesus knew the present happiness of small justice achieved, while risking his life for the greater justice to come. His blessing issues from experience.