Saturday, October 23, 2010

THE POLITICS OF JESUS, lecture 2

Lecture 2: The Beatitudes

In last week’s meditation, I argued that Jesus’ preaching of the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” was not simply a private spiritual teaching, but a collective vision for a new society. This society or “commonwealth” (the Latin synonym for commonwealth is “republic”) is portrayed as a fertile field to be sown with a new idea, the seed of God’s word. This word, while it may be rejected by some for various reasons, will be gladly accepted by others who will multiply it and spread it.

Citizens of the Kingdom

Ancient political thinkers like Aristotle spoke of various types of government or “regimes” as aiming to produce a certain kind of persons. A Kingdom, for instance, produces “subjects” who are obedient to the Sovereign. Aristocracies, or rule by the few, produce a class of elite “gentlemen” who earn the right to rule. Democracies, rule by the many, require general education to produce responsible citizens. In all cases, the “fruit” of a certain kind of government is seen in the people it produces.

I mentioned in the first meditation that the core of Jesus’ political teaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew features at the beginning of his Gospel. The Sermon on the Mount is a bit like a nation’s Constitution, laying out the general principles and rules of governance. In that case, the Beatitudes function as the Preamble to that Constitution. What is interesting is that this preamble features a description of the kind of citizen that the Kingdom of God will produce or educate.

Jesus commends the citizens of the Kingdom by calling them “blessed.” The word “blessed” connotes spiritual blessing, but it also has a more secular sense of prosperity or happiness. So one could translate them to say “Happy are those who live this way, and their way of life will prosper.” This thought is in keeping with the Psalmist who says: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the way of the wicked…, but his delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1). Being happy, according to Jesus, is not superficial, what some people today call “happy-clappy,” but a deep contentment of being in the will of God.

Classes of Citizens

The Beatitudes are a description of civic types, or maybe, more accurately, classes of citizens. These classes of citizens are not a matter of rank but of situation and disposition. Some people may not be able to rise above their situation; others may not find the will to do so. But Jesus does in a sense commend that every citizen seek the highest level, what he calls “perfection.”

I am going to group these classes in this way:

1. The Poor – those who are unable to help themselves
2. The Achievers – those who take action and make a difference
3. The Martyrs – those who are persecuted for the Kingdom

Let’s look at these classes one by one.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (verse 3)

This first group, called simply “the poor” in Luke’s Gospel, are those who are trodden down in life by their economic and social condition. In the ancient world, slaves would usually be in this category, as well as many women. Jesus does not guarantee that they will rise above this condition in this life; elsewhere he says “the poor will always be with you.” But he does promise them a place in his Kingdom, indeed in the world to come.

The second group are the “mourners”:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (verse 4)

Whereas the poor are in a state of long-term or permanent destitution, mourners are seriously debilitated for a time but they recover. Jesus notes that many people go through periods of mourning and I would include in this category other crises, like loss of a job or failure on examinations. These people will find comfort, not only in the world to come, but in this life.

These first two groups are folk who are included in the commonwealth but are not actively spreading it because of their condition. Their plight highlights another group of people, those who oppress the poor and those who mock the mournful. In Luke’s version, Jesus makes clear that they will have no place in His Kingdom.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. 25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24-25)

The great sin of these people is that they live by outward status rather than inner righteousness. Thus Jesus points out:

Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:26)

There is nothing intrinsically bad about being wealthy or well-fed, but there is something lethal about flaunting one’s wealth or status before others. Jesus’ kingdom is meant to be internalized in a set of attitudes. This kingdom has no room for arrogance and ostentation.

The first two classes – the poor and the mourners – are burdened down by life. The next two classes – the meek and the seekers – represent a transition to a more responsible life.

The third beatitude speaks of the “meek”:

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
(verses 5-6)

The meek or simple ones are those who live in contentment. They accept the good things of life as from the hand of God. They do not demand too much, nor are they overly downcast by life’s little disappointments. They may represent the majority of “ordinary people” who say their prayers as Jesus taught. They will inherit the earth in two senses. Because they do not demand too much, they are satisfied in the present. In addition, they can expect a final inheritance from God for their patience.

If the meek are contented with their lot, the seekers most definitely are not. Hunger and thirst are very strong passions that motivate people to do great and desperate feats. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is a matter of positive ambition. It is not wrong to strive for things when they are the things of God. Jesus identifies “righteousness” in particular as such a thing, and we shall find out as we go along just what that righteousness is. To achieve great things for God and the world, one must have a certain restlessness or disquiet with the status quo. Jesus sees this attitude as transitional to the higher civic virtues.

The next three beatitudes represent the kind of things that those who strive for righteousness can accomplish:

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
(verses 7-9)

Merciful people are those who reach out from their own sense of inner righteousness to forgive others. It is not natural to take initiative toward those who are under your feet, much less to those who have offended you. But that is exactly what the merciful do. The pure in heart are those who act with conscientious freedom. St. Paul often boasts that he has a good conscience before God. This is does not mean that one is sinless, but that acceptance by God leads one to an inner freedom – “seeing God” - that results in acts of love. Finally, peacemakers are those who can bring peace between individuals and within societies where naturally no peace can exist. Here is the remedy for tribalism: people acting mercifully and peaceably toward their neighbours because they know themselves above all a “son of God.”

Opposition

Jesus’ portrait of the new citizens may seem very appealing, even rosy, as if all will be well, or as if the end-time kingdom has dawned on earth. But this is not a full picture. Jesus knows the evil in the human heart, and he knows that the proud of this world will not simply surrender to the new regime. Indeed, many will not only resist the citizens but the founder himself. Hence he ends his beatitudes with two stern types of martyr.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
(verses 10-11)

The first martyrs we might call secular martyrs – people like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, who stand for righteous and pay a price for this stand. The second type is the Christian martyr, who dies explicitly for his faith in Jesus. Both have a place in the Kingdom. Just as the poor and the mourners are promised an end-time reversal of fortune, so also the martyrs are to be cheerful even amidst their persecutions, knowing that they are in a special company of God’s elect.

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (verse 12)

Salt and Light

Taken together the citizens of the kingdom of whatever class are to have an impact on the world around them. Jesus uses the vivid images of salt and light, both substances which are both pure and powerful. The citizens of the kingdom, in their different capacities will both preserve and spice the affairs of this life (salt) and will spread its influences as far as the sun shines its rays. They cannot lose their essential qualities; their kingdom cannot fail.

Traditionally, such a commonwealth has been identified with the Church as the forerunner of the end-time Kingdom. This is correct so far as it goes, but we must also note that the Church itself is to be an ever-lively, ever-expanding vehicle of God’s grace and word. And it is not enough for the church just to do “spiritual” tasks. It is to impact all of life “of the earth” and “in the world.”

We are called to be citizens of this commonwealth by manifesting the fruits and virtues which are our rights and duties.

23 January 2008

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