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When righteous people of God are killed

In the aftermath of the killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it’s appropriate to reflect on how Jesus spoke of righteousness.

Jesus said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness – δικαιοσύνην αυτού – and all these other things will be added to you.” He also said: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” Or, your righteous deeds – δικαιοσύνην again. In the very next sentence he says, “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you.” The Greek word is ἐλεημοσύνην – acts of mercy, compassion. Like God shows to us. Kyrie eleison! Righteousness cannot be separated from ἐλεημοσύνην. In the Lord’s Prayer we say “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s will in heaven is always the reflection of God’s righteousness. So when we show mercy ἐλεημοσύνην, we are reflecting and sharing in God’s righteousness in heaven. His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Yesterday an evil act was committed by an evil man against people gathered for prayer and worship on Shabbat. The crime has been labeled a hate crime, anti-semitic. And it was that. But there is a deeper story that perhaps you haven’t heard. This Jewish congregation, Tree of Life in Pittsburgh – a beautiful name for a congregation – this Jewish congregation is one of over 300 synagogues across the United States that are part of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was formed in 1881 to help Jews fleeing from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and later from Nazi Germany. It’s the oldest refugee agency in the world, and today they help non-Jewish refugees, even Muslims. Partner synagogues help refugees from various countries resettle in American communities. Just as Catholic Charities do and as our parish did in the late 80s and early 90s with refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Eastern Europe. 

The President and CEO of HIAS, Mark Hetfield was interviewed yesterday on CNN. I was struck by something he said: “We used to be an organisation that welcomed refugees because they were Jewish, and today we welcome refugees because we are Jewish.” Helping refugees is ingrained in their DNA because Jews themselves were refugee people!

In his social media posts, the shooter often attacked Jews and Muslims together and seems to have singled out HIAS in his last hateful messages, because they bring refugees into the country who, according to him, are killing us. I don’t know who he meant by that. His final social media post: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” The shooter was so filled with hatred that he could not tolerate Jews helping Muslims and other refugees. All his hatreds came together into one act of multiple murders.

Jews helping Muslim refugees. This, to me, is an extreme example of what Jesus meant by righteousness. The shooter is evil. Let’s not spend any more time talking about him. The real matter for us today is this question of righteousness. Jews who have been mistreated and persecuted for thousands of years are helping others who are fleeing persecution and war – because they have not forgotten who they are and what they have endured over the ages. Today Greeks celebrate OXI Day, commemorating the day in 1940, when early in the morning the Greek prime minister Metaxas rejected the ultimatum issued by Benito Mussolini. As day dawned on October 28th, Greeks all over the country took to the streets shouting Ohi, No!. Perhaps because of its own history Greece was more willing to assist refugees from the Middle East than most other European countries. 

This is the righteousness of the kingdom at work among human beings. Will any Christian say today that those Jews who were killed yesterday are not going to heaven because they don’t believe in Jesus? They might not believe in Jesus, but they do the righteousness that Jesus taught. They are his people, and we would do well to follow them in acts of righteousness. Kyrie eleison we sing hundreds of times in our services. But do we show ἐλεημοσύνην? Yes, it’s dangerous to show mercy, to be righteous. What do we sing in the Beatitudes? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – δικαιοσύνην. And, Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jew. And Christians would do well to learn some righteousness from our Jewish brothers and sisters. May their souls rest in the kingdom which Jesus promised to all who are persecuted for the sake and cause of righteousness.


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Blessed are the hungry and thirsty

 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness, for they shall be filled/satisfied.”

μακάριοι οἱ πεινῶντες καὶ διψῶντες τὴν δικαιοσύνην, ὅτι αὐτοὶ χορτασθήσονται.

(No attempt to expand my notes into something more readable. The audio file is much better.)

Επι Του Όρους Ομιλία

What do you desire? What do you long for? Wealth? Recognition? A happy marriage? Successful children? These are all good, and rightly do you desire these things. But today’s Beatitude calls blessed those who desire something that is not solely for their own benefit. The beatitude asks us to look beyond our own desires and hunger and thirst for something that goes beyond us. This something is δικαιοσύνη, justice/righteousness. Both translations are good. But righteousness does strike a more personal note; whereas justice seems to be a more universal concern.

What is justice? St. Gregory of Nyssa asks when he comes to this part of the Beatitudes. He decides to explain it, “for only when its beauty has been shown can the desire for this lovely thing be roused in us.” Gregory starts with the everyday meaning of fairness in human dealings, law and government, but then spends several pages dancing around the question that he himself posed and actually spends most of his effort talking about hunger and thirst. And this is right, because Jesus uses language we can relate to. When you’re hungry and thirsty….

Finally Gregory comes to what he really wants to say:

If we would venture on a bolder interpretation, it seems to me that through the ideas of virtue and justice the Lord proposes himself to the desire of his hearers. For he became for us wisdom from God, justification, sanctification and redemption (quoting 1 Cor 1:30, ὃς ἐγενήθη σοφία ἡμῖν ἀπὸ θεοῦ, δικαιοσύνη τε καὶ ἁγιασμὸς καὶ ἀπολύτρωσις), but also bread descending from heaven and living water.

He quotes psalms of David in their Greek versions: “My soul has thirsted for the living God. When shall I come and appear before the face of God?” and “I will appear before your sight in justice. I shall be satisfied when your glory shall appear.” This glory, Gregory says, is God the Word himself!

I like the way he finishes. It’s always a blessed thing to contemplate the centrality of Christ in our thoughts and desires. Indeed, we do hunger and thirst for him who is our justice, our righteousness. But with Jesus we look beyond our own interests and needs. With Jesus as our justice and righteousness we see others as we see ourselves.

I begin to notice something interesting in the beatitudes:

Couplets, and this is how Gregory of Nyssa paired the first four!

poor in spirit … meek

mourn … hunger/thirst

Though Gregory does not see a rhetorical device, I do. Poor in spirit. Then those who mourn. Then meek to reassert the poor in spirit. Then the hunger and thirst to reassert the mourning.

Then, two more couplets that express the working out of the first four beatitudes:

merciful … pure in heart

peacemakers … persecuted!

Those who are poor in spirit and meek will be merciful and pure in heart.

Those who mourn will be peacemakers.

Those who hunger and thirst for justice will be persecuted because of justice!

And to drive message home, Jesus puts himself as the reason for persecution. If you’re going to be attacked or hated, be for the sake of Christ. No better reason!