The Virtuous Victim

In Exodus 19 things had just started to get messy. God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through the blood of the lamb and the parting of the Red Sea. But now, mere months later they’re wandering in the wilderness, losing heart, and getting into disputes. 

Moses was doing his best to decide between disputing parties and running up and down the mountain, appealing to God for patience, but it just wasn’t doing the trick. 

Finally, they reached Mount Sinai and God called Moses up the mountain once again. When he came down he called the people together and they sat down there at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses began to teach them. Moses spoke to them the Word of the Lord. 

“Behold, the Word of the Lord which I give to you as it was given to me. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make or worship any idols, you shall not take my name in vain, you shall not murder, or commit adultery, or steal. If you keep my commandments, you shall be my treasured possession, a priestly kingdom, a holy nation, my bless-ed ones.” 

“Giving of the Ten Commandments” painting by Lette Valeska, 1948

The idea was that by keeping these commandments, the people will remain in covenant with God and actually come to resemble and demonstrate God in the world. By not committing murder, they’ll resemble the God of life. By not committing adultery, they’ll resemble a God who is faithful. By not stealing, they’ll demonstrate that God who provides for every need. 

So they got up from the mountain. They had their plan. By keeping this covenant, they will be God’s bless-ed representatives in the world, a priestly kingdom, a holy people as their father in heaven is holy.  

Well, that didn’t quite work out. In fact, immediately after the law was given, the people broke the 1st commandment and within a matter of weeks, they’d managed to break commandments 2 through 10. 

Years later, by the time Moses is about to die, things haven’t improved much. They haven’t quite gotten the hang of this priestly kingdom and holy nation bit. 

In fact, just before the people cross over into the promised land, it’s because of Moses’ own sin that he’s not going to get to go with them to inherit the earth; but he is permitted to make a farewell address. That’s what the whole book of Deuteronomy is, it’s basically Moses’ retirement speech. And what was the last thing he did before retirement, before they entered the Land without him? He called the people together, and they sat down at the foot of a mountain. And once again, Moses began to teach them. Moses spoke to them the Word of the Lord.

Moses speaks to his people in the land of the Moab, in the f Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Etching by C. Mosley, 1747, after A. Cheron. 1747 By: A. Chéronafter: Charles MosleyPublished: 1747 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

He said “Behold, the Word of the Lord… I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me…” He repeats the whole Law again with very little variation from the first time he said it except for this one part in Deuteronomy 18. 

Right there in the middle of his retirement speech he prophesizes (and yes that’s a word, I looked it up). He prophesizes. He declares to them this prophecy, “Behold, one day the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” The Lord said, “I will put my words in the mouth of this prophet. He shall speak to the people everything that I command…” 

Generations later, that day had come. Matthew 5 says when Jesus saw the crowds gathering, he went up the mountain. And the disciples and the people followed him. And so he gathered them, at the foot of the mountain, and he began to teach them. He spoke to them the Word of the Lord. Sound familiar? 

I’ve been saying the last few weeks that Matthew’s Jesus retraces the story of Israel. Here’s more evidence. Like Israel, he has journeyed out of Egypt, passing through water, and entering the wilderness. And then here, just like Israel, on a mountain like Moses at Sinai, Jesus sits down and teaches the people. It’s known as Jesus’ sermon on the Mount. 

Persian Jesus (Isa) miniature of Sermon on the Mount

But where Moses’ teaching began with the 10 commandments, Jesus’ sermon begins differently. Instead of 10 commandment, he begins with 9 beatitudes. “Bless-ed are the poor in spirit,” he says, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the persecuted, blessed are they who are reviled for the sake of the Gospel.” “Rejoice and be glad,” he says, “yours is the kingdom of God.” 

Now, if hearing these beatitudes from the mouth of the Lord leaves you trying to figure out if you’re among those he calls blessed. If, like the 10 commandments, you’re scanning this Beatitiudes list and your life to figure out if you’ve made the mark, if you’ve started wondering again if you’re among those Jesus calls bless-ed, that’s exactly what you should be wondering. The disciples probably were too. 

These beatitudes… They’re beautiful. They’re also strange. It’s an odd mix isn’t it? It’s a mix of blessings pronounced over the virtuous on the one hand (the meek and merciful, the peacemakers); and, on the other hand, it’s a blessing pronounced over victims (the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the persecuted, the reviled). 

The implication here is that when Christ sits down to teach, those that fall in these categories, the virtuous, and the victims, this moment here, this Person here is where they find their blessing. It is the beginning of their vindication. The kingdom of heaven is theirs and it is at hand. The kingdom is him. He is the new Moses sent for them raised up for the sake of the people. He is the sign of the salvation of the victimized and the vindication of the virtuous. 

So it’s natural to hear Jesus say “blessed are they” and then wonder if your name is on the list. Some of you may have found yourselves there, among the blessed. Others of us aren’t so sure. And for those of us that aren’t sure if we’ve made Jesus’ list, it’s about to get worse. 

James TissotThe Beatitudes Sermon, c. 1890, Brooklyn Museum

After the beatitudes, Jesus’s sermon continues to behave like a new Moses by laying down the Law of the Lord. In fact, he lays it on thick. He takes the law of Moses and dials the degree of difficulty up to eleven and beyond. He manages to make the Law of Israel, the guidelines for being a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, even more legalistic and difficult. 

He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder’; but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you are guilty of murder. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.” 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

Do you all know the penalty for breaking these commandments? It’s death. And Jesus comes along and says “you thought you were virtuous, you thought you might have made the list, but I’m here to tell you, I’m moving the bar. You have heard that it was ‘this.’ I say to you, the standard of God’s holiness is actually ‘this.’” 

He wraps it up with a kind of a catch all for anyone still feeling hopeful, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 

Who’s still feeling virtuous now? Who’s still on the list? Not me… If that’s the standard for fulfilling Israel’s role of a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation, if that’s Jesus’ standard for bless-ed-ness… it’s not looking good. 

These beatitudes, pronounced over victims and the virtuous, it’s such a puzzle. This sermon… I mean, is he serious? This command to be perfect, it’s so impossible. Can this really be what God demands? 

It isn’t until Good Friday when we get our answer. It’s Good Friday, Christ’s crucifixion that tests the Word of God he proclaimed to his disciples in his sermon on the mount. 

At this point Jesus has spent years with the disciples. Together they’ve been the source of healing for victims, and they’ve been his students of virtue in every way possible. So, on Good Friday, you would expect, after years with this New Moses, they’d be experts. You’d expect them to be ready to stand sholder-to-shoulder with Jesus as faithful sons of Israel, a priestly kingdom, a holy nation, meek yet mighty in faith and faithfulness to God’s way in the world. But instead… 

Instead… in the end… There’s only him. In the end, it’s only Jesus there on the cross. He has taken their journey from Egypt through the Jordan and from Sinai to Zion, but here at the end, it’s only Him. He’s the only one in all of Israel who is here in the end. 

That’s when it makes sense. That’s when it clicks. That’s when the beatitudes make sense. Jesus is Israel. God’s plan to raise up a faithful people Israel is Him. He and he alone is the priestly kingdom. He is a holy nation of one. 

On the cross, it is Christ and Christ alone who stands poor in Spirit yet thirsting only for righteousness, mourning yet remaining merciful, meekly making peace by the Blood of his cross. He is reviled, persecuted, evil is done to him, yet he remains pure in heart, he loves his enemies and prays for those who persecute him. He is the only bless-ed one who has managed to fulfilled the Law. He is the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are about Him. 

Tríptic de la Redempció, Vranke van der Stockt between 1455 and 1459

All that blessedness for the victimized and the virtuous is revealed here as he gives himself up as the Virtuous Victim. “Rejoice and be glad,” he had said, “for your reward is great in heaven.” And indeed, in his glorious resurrection, the Virtuous Victim is vindicated. Rewarded. His reward is great, just like his beatitudes said it would be. 

Moses didn’t get to go into the promised land. But Christ is named its king and he has chosen to leave the gate open for all victims and even the un-virtuous. Like us. 

We are still a people wandering in the wilderness. But we’ve been given a New Moses in Jesus Christ, the one in whom God fulfills God’s own demands in order to reconcile all creation.  

What’s cool for me as one of your pastors is that makes me like the New Moses’ New Moses. Janet and I both are. We’re  the ones called to speak the Word of Jesus, the New Moses, to you. That’s why when we speak we often climb up this little mountain, and we gather you at the foot of it. And then we begin to teach. We begin to proclaim the Word of the Lord. 

But it’s different now. Now we don’t start with the 10 commandments. We don’t lay out a list of what needs to be true of you to be holy or bless-ed or good enough or saved. No the list is gone. The list was fulfilled in his death, and then he was raised. 

What we get to do now is proclaim to you the faithfulness, the holiness of Christ. We get to point you to Jesus and his righteousness. We get together to care for victims within our walls and beyond. We get to be formed together in virtue because, as it turns out, Christ is to be found in the victim and in every act of virtue. 

But above all, what we get to do now is to tell you the good news that in him and him alone you are among the bless-ed. So in the tradition of Moses, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the New Moses, Hear the Word of the Lord: because you are in Christ Bless-ed are you. Period. Rejoice and be glad. Yours is the kingdom of God.” Thanks be to God.

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