27 February 2010

Making Sense of the Beatitudes

We are in the midst of a series through the Beatitudes. Having not thought much about it beforehand, I imagined that teaching them would be straightforward. Then I began looking at commentaries and listening to others give their take. Here’s what I think.

The challenges. 
  1. The Beatitudes are probably the most abstract Jesus gets. They don’t have a story, parable or concrete example preceding or following them. When someone asks us to picture ‘mercy’ in our head, our mind randomly scans for a dictionary-style definition and tries to create something concrete from that abstract definition. On the other hand, when Jesus tells us about a man who accidentally found a valuable treasure in a field, a concrete, emotion-evoking image comes to mind. This is precisely why the artists, that we have creating art throughout the series, have had trouble coming up with concrete visual ideas.
  2. Teachers don’t seem to consider the context of the Beatitudes very relevant. Maybe because it’s the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and, as I mentioned above, the abstract nature of the Beatitudes makes it easy for us to universalize them. They become character traits that most every religion could accept. Not very edgy or counter-cultural, which is what we are often promised in the beginning.

The temptations. 
  1. To psycho-spiritualize them. Turn them into character traits like humility, sorrow over sin which leads to repentance, and gentleness, to name a few, that we should strive for.  
  2. To Paulinize them. To read Paul, or worse yet, Christian theology back into them. Hunger and thirst for righteousness becomes a desire to accept the righteous standing before God available to those who believe in Christ. Many people give into both temptations in interpreting the Beatitudes.

The perspectives necessary for interpretation. 
  1. Think context first, because it is relevant. Stick to Matthew – before and after. Chapter 3, John splashes onto the scene with a singular message, “Turn your lives around, because here comes the kingdom of the heavens!” Jesus identifies himself with John’s message, and, after John lands in prison, he takes it up as his own. Then he recruits co-workers. Their job description? Capture people. Large groups of people. (Net fishing, remember?) Then he takes it on the road, giving out free samples of the kingdom. In the context of teaching the ‘good news of the kingdom’ throughout Galilee, he ‘shows’ the kingdom through miracles, reversing wrongs, and, in the words of Wendell Berry, “practicing resurrection” – lots of little resurrections. Large groups of people show up -- needy, desperate people from all directions and backgrounds. Chapter five starts off mentioning that the Sermon on the Mount was delivered in response to when ‘Jesus saw the crowds’ and primarily as instruction to his co-workers. 
  2. Consider two groups of people while reading: Co-workers and Crowds. Compare 4:17-5:2 with 9:35-38 (4:23 and 9:35 are essential the same verse). At the end of chapter nine, Jesus sees the harassed and helpless crowds and has compassion on them. Then he urges his co-workers to ask God, who is passionate about these crowds of people, to multiple the number of co-workers.   Jesus’ action and teachings are often intended for or directed to co-workers [disciples] (or potential co-workers, or resistant potential co-workers [religious folks, including Pharisees, Sadducees, Experts in the Law) with the goal of broadening their understanding of how God feels about these harassed and helpless crowds of people. For example, the story of the two sons (Luke 15), the audience includes co-workers and the crowds, but is specifically directed to resistant potential co-workers who were questioning Jesus’ ‘showing’ of how God felt about the crowds by feasting with them. Jesus never explains the ‘justice’ of God eagerly opening up the kingdom to these crowds with questionable qualifications. From the Sincere Questioner to the Angry Keeper of Keys, Jesus’ response is the same, “That’s how God is. If you care about God at all, catch his heart for the crowds. Quit keeping score. Join him as a co-worker. Celebrate every turn-around; all heaven does.”
  3. Reconsider who WE are in the stories. We are not the helpless and harassed crowds. In summary, at the time of Jesus:
    1. There was a very large disparity between rich and poor (Largest percentage of the crowds). 
    2. The upper class was made up of the temple priests and priestly aristocracy (including the Sadducees – a Jewish sect) 
    3. The small (compared to the USA) middle class was comprised of traders and merchants, artisans (stonecutters, masons, sculptors) and craftsman (metal, wood, cloth dye). The Pharisees (another Jewish sect), sages, scribes, and teachers were also a part of the middle class.
    4. The lower class was made of laborers (weavers, stone carriers, slaves (non-Jewish person taken into slavery because of debt), and the unemployable (lepers, blind, insane, crippled, etc.) 
    5. For thousands of years, the Jewish people were primarily subject to foreign rule (Egyptian, Syrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, etc.), with only brief periods of independence. In the first century, Romans ruled the Mediterranean area known as Palestine (modern day Israel), where Jesus was born and lived his life. In the hierarchy of power, the Jewish self-government reported to the authority of the local Roman government (King Herod), which reported to Rome (Emperor Caesar). Again, we are not the poor the good news of the kingdom is preached to. We can be summarized by three of the above labels: 1) rich, 2) religious, most similar to the Pharisees (sincere lay-people), and 3) Roman, or in other words, citizens of the powerful, ruling empire of the day. If we misunderstand who we would be, we will likely misinterpret the text. When Jesus is speaking, often in very mixed company, he is directing his message to the crowds, co-workers, potential co-workers or resistant potential co-workers. I think that the most direct application to us comes from his teachings directed at any one of the three co-worker groups. He is trying to open up our understanding of God and his ways. God is in motion! As co-workers or potential co-workers, he is encouraging us to get moving in God’s direction. And time’s a wasting, because there are a lot of harassed and helpless people out there.  

Love to hear what you think.