In the prophet Micah, it finally all comes down to three things – justice, kindness and humble companionship with God. And in Matthew’s rendition of the teaching of Jesus, we learn how deeply God is committed to those three things. To hunger and thirst for righteousness, to practice mercy, and to foster a personal habit of meekness is so profoundly at the heart of God’s desire for us that Jesus proclaims that such actions are “blessed”. Already blessed. It isn’t that they will be blessed – “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” Nope. Pie now, pie here for the meek, the merciful and those who hunger for God’s righteousness, for those who “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”
Justice, kindness and humble companionship are, however, demanding practices. The demand of justice requires of us that we not see ourselves as more entitled to the abundance of the earth than the other, even the Other whom we find different or frightening, or whose customs and habits we find difficult to understand or affirm. In his song, “Justice”, Bruce Cockburn sings, “Everybody wants to see justice done …on somebody else.” But in Scripture, justice is not something “done on somebody else”, but something done, first of all within oneself, and then on behalf of the Other. Justice is not for sentimentalists. Its demands can be abrasive. To be sure, the abrasion is not the abrasion of concrete sidewalks and fragile skin. It is, rather, of steel wool or sandpaper restoring the beauty of our life together by removing the stains of injustice that conceal or distort what is beautiful and good in our companionship with one another. Still, for all that, it is abrasion, and it can rough us up before it smooths us out.
Kindness calls for something like the same kind of imagination, of seeing another in her or his own terms, and not as a prop or extra in my own story. A series of deaths and funerals in the past week or so has made it plainer to me that when we have some idea about the struggles and losses in the life of one another, our capacity for kindness grows. A recent conversation with a friend recovering from cancer suggests to me that kindness can be nourished by our own self-awareness as well. She told me that when someone is rude or aggressive at the checkout, she thinks, “Well, you didn’t learn this year that you have cancer.” I think what she meant is that brushing up against your own vulnerability puts things in perspective, and inclines a person to be careful about the vulnerability of another.
Humility calls for another kind of imagination – the capacity to let the world exist apart from my story, and to consent to God’s sovereignty in telling the world’s story from beginning to end. Walking humbly with God means giving up my desire to usurp God’s sovereignty and turn the whole world into a story about me. There was a world before I turned up, and there will be a world after I exit, and as I walk across the stage, I will perhaps discover a worthwhile errand to engage me in caring for the world. But it sure isn’t all about me.
To live by the ethic of justice, kindness and humility is indeed to inhabit a blessing. It is a blessing because this is the ethic of God’s kingdom. It might not “pay off”. As a matter of fact, we will probably incur some cost in living by this ethic. As we clamber from one rung on the ladder up to the next the next, carelessness, indifference and entitlement may seem a useful ethic for getting to the top. But it’s lonely at the top, and the blessings are all at the bottom.