After looking at the Wisdom writings in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, it happens that at church we've started a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount. Last Sunday was the Beatitudes. For once I'm not going to have a whinge, because it tied in very nicely with what I'd been thinking about the Wisdom books.
As I mentioned, the Wisdom writers faced a problem. Why do those who do wrong seem to prosper while those who do right suffer? They had two answers. The writer of Ecclesiastes advocated humble submission - we don't know what God is doing or thinking, all we can do is carry out the tasks he has given us and enjoy our life as we can. The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon was more confident - the righteous may appear to die unrewarded, but God will reward them in the life to come.
Jesus develops this theme further in the poem that begins the Sermon on the Mount, the eight lines we call the Beatitudes from the Latin term which means "blessed", "happy" or "fortunate", the word that begins each line.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Here we see an eloquent restatement of the kind of reversal of fortune we find in the Wisdom of Solomon - the righteous may be suffering now, but they will not suffer for ever. This reversal is amplified in Jesus' many teachings on the Kingdom of God, in which social outcasts are gathered into the Kingdom while the rich and powerful are locked out.
Jesus, and those who follow him, face the same problem as the Wisdom writers. In our experience here in this world, these statements are more often untrue than true. Those who mourn do so without hope. The meek are trodden into the ground. The merciful are taken for a ride. The peacemakers are arrested and tried for sedition. Is Jesus wrong? Is it best to give up the whole thing as a bad joke and fight by the rules of the rich and powerful?
One option is to follow pseudo-Solomon and see the promised rewards as coming in the next life. This certainly provides comfort for those who mourn. Jesus leaves this option open. He is not specific about the time. However, he takes our thoughts in a completely different direction. We are not simply called to wait patiently for this reversal, we are called to begin living it here and now.
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Why does the world not operate by God's rules? This is the wrong question. Are we, God's people, the citizens of his Kingdom, living this way? If so, we become the salt which preserves the meat, the light which guides the way at night, the beacon on the hill for which weary travellers aim.
If we live this way, there is hope, we can begin the task of making his kingdom real. Those who long for mercy, who seek comfort, who long for peace, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, will receive the strength to keep going. The Kingdom will grow here among us, like the yeast making the bread rise, like the mustard plants self-seeding on every available patch of dirt. If we don't start, no-one else will.