Mazeltov! You are suffering! – All Saints

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“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. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I suppose it is somehow significant that since my sublime school days I have seemed a sucker for alliteration.
What is it in the way those similar sounding consonants cascade that makes them most memorable?
It also seems an easy way to get people to remember things. I will often be asked, “What was the third “P” in your sermon last Sunday?”

So forgive me if in my digging over of the text of the gospel for All Saints, I was intrigued by the alliteration in the Greek text of the Beatitudes.
According to the classic Matthew five text, Jesus says to the disciples who come to him when he has sat down on some raised ground, “Blessed are the…

Ptochoi (poor), Penthountes (grieving), Praeis (meek/humble), Peinontes (hungry)

More modern translators suggest Makarioi not be translated “Blessed” but rather that “Congratulations!” would be more in order. Who knows perhaps in the spoken moment it might have been “Mazeltov” that came from the Rabbi’s mouth?
Also quite recently (a decade ago), the Jesus 2000 Seminar decided that the most authentic core of this teaching is probably “Congratulations, you poor!… Congratulations, you hungry!… Congratulations, you who weep now!…”
Congratulations? Blessedness? You must be joking!
These are the very conditions that evoke commiserations. To congratulate poor, hungry, grieving people is surely only to mock them? It is an affront to all that is decent and polite.
Yet that seems to be what Jesus says. What could he possibly know that we can’t see, which makes him say something so counter intuitive?
Is it possible that Jesus knows what Buddhists have also observed? That acknowledging sufering can lead to a place where suffering can end. In the life of the Gautama Buddha he experienced old age, sickness and death as what he later named, “the heavenly messengers“. Those confrontations with the less than perfect events of life which, if skilfully understood and held, may in fact lead to a perfection far greater than the false perfection that we focus on so obsessively in trying to avoid suffering at all costs.
Congratulations! Mazeltov! You who are experiencing the anguish of humanity stand at the doorway of God’s domain.
Step inside your frailty and you will find a greater freedom and perfection than any avoidance behaviour can promise.

  • Ptochoi
  • Penthountes
  • Praeis
  • Peinontes

Why, that might just be perfectly liberating!
All the Saints I have ever known or read about knew this secret.

Now you do too.

Blessed? Don’t you mean cursed?

(Click Here to listen to this article as it was preached on Sunday Jan 31 2011)

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“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. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Gospel of Jesus – according to the Jesus Seminar suggests that the core of the Beatitudes probably refers to the poor the hungry and the weeping.  The scholars translate the word makarios “Blessed” as “Congratulations.

“Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations you hungry! You will have a feast.  Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh.” Gospel of Jesus 2:3-5

If ever there was a saying that is counter intuitive, then this must be it.

Don Cupitt in “Theology’s strange return” points out that “In post modernity Christianity is being progressively deconstructed, as text and subtext come apart and we we begin to recognize that the religion was first created by a very large-scale act of repression.   The original Jesus was far too radical a figure.  He had to be very heavily veiled, and became the Christ of faith, the incarnate word of God and the ever obedient Son of his heavenly Father.  Thus weirdly disguised, Jesus could be presented by apostles an priests as the central figure in a great myth of redemption which promises the believer a permanently deferred union with God that does not dethrone God.  The object of the complicated manoeuvres here was to preserve just a little bit of what Jesus had been about while yet retaining in full the divine transcendence, the supernatural world, the system of religious mediation and, above all, priestly and disciplinary power. But in postmodernity it is all coming apart.  We begin to see that historical ecclesiastical Christianity was from the first constituted by a great repression of something bigger and better that lies behind it, something that is now at last coming into view.” (Introduction xv)

This radical Jesus, and that piercing scalpel that dissects hypocrisy wherever it has taken form, is nowhere more visible than in these teachings from the Beatitudes.  It matters little whether you take the canonical account of Matthew or the Jesus Seminar version above, the effect is the same.  Jesus is turning the conventional wisdom of the spiritual country club on its head.

All the conditions of human suffering that we pray to avoid and for whose victims we pray in our Sunday and weekday intercessions are congratulated and declared as blessed and happy for it would seem that in Jesus view they have access to the imperial reign (Kingdom) of God.

Having just passed through the consumer orgy of Christmas, and living in Africa where the poor cannot be sanitarily avoided, the words of Jesus seem to amplify the bloated material hangover whose toxins seem to linger long into the new year.

Could it be that peace, joy and hope are not consumer goods, but are rather purveyed in the depth of trust that is born of human struggle and suffering?  We do ourselves and the gospel a great disservice when we spiritualize the Beatitudes and assume they refer only to mind or soul states. The poor are really poor, the weeping are crying real tears.

Moreover, the weeping hungry poor, do not need platitudes and deferred promises of redemption.

They want what they cannot have, and miraculously discover that God is closer in the wanting than in the having.  We who have whatever we want never seem to even get close to hearing Christ’s congratulations.

This is confusing.  It traps my ego and my comfort culture.  I suppose it must be from Jesus.

Lord help me to stop praying for the blessings that I want.  I am coming to see that my desired “blessings” might end up being curses that take me further from you.”

When faith falters – Advent 3a

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Last week we celebrated the mercurial ministry of John the Baptiser, this week the rising star has become a plummeting comet.

John the Baptizer, popular prophet and wild man of God, had been imprisoned at the fortress of Herod Antipas 24 kilometres southeast of the mouth of the Jordan on the eastern side of the Dead Sea.

Jesus on the other hand was heading north into the Decapolis, the ten cities in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee on the opposite side of the country.  Scholars suggest that the imprisonment of John the Baptist was a motivation for Jesus to get out of Judea and out of harm’s way.  It is easy to understand how John the Baptiser who had been fulminating about axes laid at the roots of trees, and who himself had been challenging nepotism of Herod, who had divorced his own wife and married his brother’s wife for the sake of political power; could believe that Jesus getting out of Judea was at worst an act of cowardice.  In danger of his own life and thinking his cousin has gone soft, John sends this message with some of his disciples. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The question bristles with sarcasm, but also gives significant insight into the frame of mind of the Baptiser.

Jesus response is firm and two pronged.  He challenges John to reconsider his expectations and the challenges the crowd to re-evaluate their motivations.  In the response of Jesus I believe we see a map for our own times of doubt and questioning.

In his answer to John, Jesus says, ““Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” This is the challenge to John who seems to have been fuelled by the conventional expectations of who Messiah would be.

It is difficult for us to understand, standing this side of the resurrection and with over two thousand years of church history behind us, that in the time of Jesus people who suffered were believed to have deserved it, (or they were working off the debts of their parents).  Blind people deserved to be blind, the lame had offended God, lepers were unclean and punished by God and the dead were off in a shadow world where the best they could hope for was that someone would still remember them. As for the poor, the ptochoi well you can watch the spittle as you say the word.  Spit and contempt, not good news, were the just deserts of the poor.

There is, in the question of John, a barbed insinuation that what he had heard of Jesus’ ministry was irrelevant to the cause and is what caused him to question if Jesus was the real deal.  In his response Jesus adds a final challenge,  “And (by the way ) blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  “Blessed is” … could this be the ninth Beatitude, building on the eight from Matthew 5:1-10? “Blessed are those who don’t get offended when I turn out to be not who they expected me to be?”

Despite how difficult and embarrassing this all looks for John the Baptiser, I have to say that I can completely identify with his doubts and his questioning of Jesus.  Just like John I have often proclaimed Jesus publicly in terms that I realise with hindsight have been my projections onto Jesus rather than who Jesus really is in himself. That is problematic enough, but what is plain humiliating is when I have proclaimed the Jesus of my projected expectations, and he then goes off north and doesn’t do what I told people he would!

For example, I really do want to have Jesus as my friend and master throughout my life.  I want Jesus to comfort, heal and console me in my dark nights of fear and anxiety.  I also want Jesus to deal with the evil of the world.  To remove the corruption, crime and chaos that so describes life in the twenty first century.  What I don’t like though is how Jesus always brings his rag tag friends with him into my life.  I don’t like how he makes me question my lifestyle, my use and abuse of resources, and I especially don’t like how he is always pointing me to the people I really don’t want to see.  The blind, the lame, the lepers and those ubiquitous ptochoi (spit it out )poor!  And just when I am about to whine to Jesus that this isn’t really what I signed up for, nor why I wanted him in my life, he adds, “ And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  That’s just not fair!  That’s just what John was doing! He had been offended that Jesus wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing… according to John.

The lesson that John the Baptiser had to learn that day, and that I have had to learn almost every day that I follow Jesus, it this, “Jesus is always going to be where the pain is, not where the power or pleasure is”  Human suffering is like a pheromone to Jesus, it draws his heart inexorably.

To illustrate this Jesus now turns to address the crowd that remains after John’s disciples have left.  Jesus has heard the challenge of his imprisoned cousin, he has answered forthrightly, but he has also heard the pain of John’s disillusionment.  He senses the same disillusionment in the crowd.  Interesting word “dis-ILLUSION-ment”, so Jesus asks them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

These is are difficult metaphors to access from so far away in 2010.  It is interesting that when Jesus speaks of “looking at” the “reed” or “writing pen”, oscillating in the wind he uses a word for looking at that implies contemplating or gazing at.  What do we want from the wild men of God?  We watch them, we are bemused by them, even entertained by them but truth be told, are we not more comfortable when they are locked up on the other side of the country?  Their challenge is too bright and their intensity too pure.  We fear we will be scorched. “What did you go out to contemplate?”, asks Jesus.  “Was it mere entertainment or did you expect real change?

Naturally those of us who know Isaiah’s writings recognise in Jesus’ question about reeds, Isaiah’s chapter 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

It is speculative at best to try and connect these teachings, but what is significant is how Jesus corrects and challenges John yet at the same time never loses his compassion for his cousin. He truly doesn’t snap the bruised and quivering reed.  John, he knows, is a broken man.  Jesus in a few years will be a broken man too.  But despite the breaking of John and Jesus, there will be no retaliation no breaking in revenge.  Jesus will weep over Jerusalem and say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Luke 13:34 But Jesus, will not to the disappointment of John, Judas, and others will not call down fire from heaven nor wield the axe at the root of the tree.

John had been sent to prepare the way and he had.  It was however not the freeway for an avenging army, it was the rocky road for a suffering servant.  Those who prepare the way, don’t get to determine who rides on it, or how.

And as I leave this poignant cameo of a very human Jesus, speaking with such love of his broken and doubting cousin who is languishing in Herod’s prison on the other side of the country, I sense the power of this image to heal and encourage hope in the broken and doubting people of our planet.

This human Jesus, the Son of Man, who always goes to where the pain is and not where the power or pleasure is, will be with me too in the moments of my disillusionment when he feels so far away he might as well be on the other side of the country or the other side of the universe! .

When all I have expected, dreamt and even demanded from being faithful to God’s call in my life has not played out according to my scripted plans.  When illusions are exposed in disillusion. When I find myself imprisoned and losing my head, and mind; how wonderful to know that Jesus will still be compassionate whilst challenging.

There are many moments when I too wonder if I shouldn’t look for another, and then I pray for the blessing of not taking offence when he does things his way and not mine. It is then that I experience the eighth beatitude, I am blessed by not being offended, and the bruised and quivering reed is able to stand for at least another day.