Sunday, 15 July 2018

Whose Is The Kingdom Of Heaven?

Beatitudes: long pause, life happens, church happens, let's see if I can get back on track ...
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"
So, to answer the question in the title: it's the poor in spirit. Umm. One of the most important things in studying the Bible is to keep asking questions, because the easy answers will often be like this one and - at least in themselves - not really answer anything. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit: it's good news for them but ... who are they?

Let's start with Jesus: who was spiritually destitute in his society and to whom did he offer God's kingdom? And let's follow Jesus' example by starting from a story, the story of Simon the Pharisee:
A Pharisee invited Jesus to have dinner with him. So Jesus went to the Pharisee’s home and got ready to eat.
When a sinful woman in that town found out that Jesus was there, she bought an expensive bottle of perfume. Then she came and stood behind Jesus. She cried and started washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. The woman kissed his feet and poured the perfume on them.
The Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw this and said to himself, “If this man really were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him! He would know that she is a sinner.”
Jesus said to the Pharisee, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher, what is it?” Simon replied.
Jesus told him, “Two people were in debt to a moneylender. One of them owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other owed him fifty. 42 Since neither of them could pay him back, the moneylender said that they didn’t have to pay him anything. Which one of them will like him more?”
Simon answered, “I suppose it would be the one who had owed more and didn’t have to pay it back.”
“You are right,” Jesus said.
He turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Have you noticed this woman? When I came into your home, you didn’t give me any water so I could wash my feet. But she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You didn’t even pour olive oil on my head, but she has poured expensive perfume on my feet. So I tell you that all her sins are forgiven, and that is why she has shown great love. But anyone who has been forgiven for only a little will show only a little love.”
Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
In that story, who is spiritually lost and who is spiritually wealthy? Who does Jesus invite into the Kingdom (by forgiving her sins - all that kept her apart from God)?

To be a Jew in Jesus’ day was to belong within the People of God. It was to have an identity as part of the tight-knit community, and it was to have the hope and assurance of a place in God’s Kingdom. Unless you were a ‘sinner’.

Then, despised and rejected, especially by religious leaders, you knew that the community did not want you and that God did not want you. You were lost. People like the unnamed woman on the fringes of Simon’s party, forever looking in from outside; people like Matthew the religiously unclean tax collector. Spiritually destitute, living lives without hope and without meaning.

The ancient prophet Isaiah wrote of one to be sent from God who would be despised and rejected himself, who would suffer to redeem the lost. Jesus identified with the spiritually destitute and he brought them good news. The good news that even though their community - especially its spiritually privileged elites - rejected them, God does not. They are a part of God’s Kingdom: in him is their hope, their meaning and their future. They belong. Jesus came to save the lost, the poor in spirit, not because they deserve it but because that is who Jesus is.

It is not hard to find people around our communities today who feel excluded and unwanted by at least some churches in the area, for example:-

  • Wheelchair users;
  • Remarried divorcees;
  • Parents with noisy or hyperactive children;
  • Same-sex couples;
  • Those with mental health issues (in many different ways);
  • People who just don’t find that sitting in rows being talked at and singing songs from an alien culture in any way helps them relate to God.

Sometimes Jesus met with people who came to him; sometimes he took the good news to them. There is a need for those who follow Jesus today to welcome strangers who come to us. Also to go out and announce his message that God’s Kingdom already belongs to spiritually marginalised people … remembering, in due humility, that where we churchgoers might fit in is not stated.

Leonard Cohen, in his song Anthem, includes the chorus:
"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."
It's a great track to listen to whilst considering the strangeness of a God who chooses to show his power through his followers’ weakness.


Friday, 13 April 2018

Secure In God


SECURE IN GOD

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up to a raised place where he sat, his disciples gathered around him, and addressed them, teaching:

“Spiritual rejects are secure in God because the kingdom of the heavens is already theirs.
Those devastated by loss are secure in God because they will receive comfort.
The oppressed landless poor are secure in God because they will inherit the land.
Those starved of justice are secure in God because they will be fully satisfied.
Those who compassionately forgive are secure in God because they will be compassionately forgiven.
The clean of heart are secure in God because he is the one they will see.
Those who restore shalom are secure in God because they will be called his children.
Those persecuted for following God’s way are secure in him because the kingdom of the heavens is already theirs.”

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Blessed English Translations

The Beatitudes are so called because each one starts with a Greek word, Makarios, which was rendered Beati in Latin and, most commonly, Blessed in English. That being the case you might expect that the underlying word used by Matthew would have something to do with blessings, or with being blessed. Nope. Makarios, the word Matthew uses, is unrelated to the Greek words for either.

A lot of commentaries on the Beatitudes tie themselves in knots attempting to explain why people who are clearly have not been blessed are described by Jesus as being so. They are missing the point. Others treat Jesus' words as if they are a list of things we have to do or be in order to be blessed by God: legalistic nonsense! You'd think there were enough rules and regulations in the Old Testament for anyone (613 is, I believe, the traditional count) without adding more (and Jesus is explicit, later in the sermon, that the Law stands as it is: no adding or taking away from it).

A few English translations render makarios as 'happy' instead of 'blessed'. That too is another word entirely. So what does makarios mean?

Originally makarios simply meant 'free from daily cares or worries' - which has an obvious link with later on in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? ... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
But words in all languages are living things, with multiple meanings and implications, and makarios found itself being used in a conventional formula:-
  • "Makarios is the family man with his children" - because they were both his security for old age and the security of his line for future generations.
  • "Makarios is the rich man with his wealth" - because that protects against hard times when they come.
  • "Makarios are the pious on their inward well-being" - because that allows them to face future vicissitudes with equanimity.
  • "Makarios are the religious on their experience of God" - who will presumably ensure their future.
The link to the original meaning is reasonably clear for these, but then the meaning developed a bit further to become something more like 'congratulations' - for a new child, for a profitable business deal, for progress on piety or religion, and so on.

The other link in the chain to the Beatitudes comes with the adaptation of that formula to the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) where it is used (especially in the Psalms) about the peace and security which comes from doing things God's way:
  • Makarios is the nation whose God is the Lord; the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance (Psalm 33:12).
  • Makarios is the man whose hope is in the name of the Lord (Psalm 40:4).
  • Makarios is the man who thinks on the poor and needy: the Lord shall deliver him in an evil day (Psalm 41:1).
  • O Lord of hosts, Makarios is the man that trusts in you (Psalm 84:12).
  • Makarios are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times (Psalm 106:3).
  • Makarios are all they that fear the Lord; who walk in his ways. You shall eat the labours of your hands: makarios are you, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be as a fruitful vine on the sides of your house: your children as young olive-plants round about your table. (Psalm 128:1-3).
That final one is a bit longer but gives a nice parallel to the earlier Greek example of the family man and his children.

So the meaning of makarios is somewhere in the range from 'free from care and worry', through 'secure for the future' and 'secure in God' to 'congratulations' (on securing your future).

There is at least one English translation which uses 'congratulations' for the Beatitudes; personally I feel uncomfortable congratulating people on their devastating loss or crushing oppression, however secure their future in God might be.

There is clearly no simple single English word which reflects exactly the resonances of makarios in Matthew's original - never mind Jesus' probable underlying Hebrew word ‘eshrê. So, pre-empting some future posts discussing other parts of the Beatitudes, I am currently inclined to go with 'secure in God', along the lines of:-
  • Secure in God are the spiritually poor, because they are already part of God's kingdom.
  • Secure in God are those who have suffered devastating loss, because they will be comforted. 
  • Secure in God are the crushed and oppressed, especially the landless poor, because they will inherit the land.
and so on.

In the end the Beatitudes are about bringing hope to the apparently hopeless and a future in God to those who feel they have no future.

A final thought: it's the Feast of St Brigit in a couple of days; if you click on the picture above, or on this link, it will take you to a poem called Brigit's Feast, which seems appropriate in a discussion on the Sermon on the Mount.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Beatitudes

It shouldn't be a surprise that spiritually important people like bishops would struggle with a passage from Jesus which begins by saying that it is the spiritually poor to whom God's kingdom belongs. Nonetheless, I do find the Bishop of Oxford's booklet, Exploring The Beatitudes, which is promoting his 'Contemplative, Compassionate and Courageous' vision for Oxford Diocese, to be disappointingly detached from what Jesus said.

Even in the 21st century people forget that the 'Sermon on the Mount' - which the Beatitudes are the introduction to - was a Jewish preacher speaking to a mostly-Jewish audience about the Jewish scriptures (which we know as the Old Testament), as recorded by Matthew in a strongly Hebrew-influenced dialect of 1st century Greek.

Instead we look at Bible translations which emphasise the smooth elegance of Tyndale's 16th century English. The unfortunate way these very English versions  bury Jesus' radical announcements of God's concern for those who are at the bottom of the heap is presumably considered a price worth paying by those near the tops of their various heaps.

Here in Caversham we are in the third year of our Partnership for Missional Church initiative; one key focus of PMC is on seeing what God is already doing in the community around us and where we can join in. The Beatitudes give us a picture of which people and groups of people God is particularly focused on, which should help to guide us.

I plan to look at the Beatitudes individually over the coming weeks, so I won't jump into them here, but there are a number of things to notice about the Beatitudes as a whole:
  • They are the introduction to a longer 'sermon', not a standalone passage. As such they are intended to catch people's attention, introduce later themes and topics, and to help listeners to see, personally and collectively, where they themselves fit in with Jesus' message.
  • They are an announcement of hope, justice and affirmation for those who have been crushed and marginalised by the 'business as usual' of an unjust world, as well as for those who want to do something about it.
  • They are succinct, even spikily terse, with every word carefully chosen to deeply and powerfully resonate with Jesus' listeners.
  • They are deeply rooted in Old Testament Scripture.
  • They are individually and collectively cohesive. In particular, each beatitude comes in two linked parts - "blessed are ... because ...". The inevitable multiple possible meanings which come from translating ancient languages can be narrowed down both by investigating their Old Testament roots and by seeing which potential meanings resonate with one another most powerfully. Collectively there is a clear pattern to the way they are organised and an obvious link-back from the last beatitude to the first.
As an example of the difference the above can make, consider the third beatitude, rendered by most English translations as "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth". Obvious questions are: what exactly does 'meek' mean here, how on earth does being meek relate to inheriting anything, and is Jesus telling us we ought to become meek or is he announcing something good to those who already are?

More detail on this in a later post, but for now I'll just say that 'meek' refers to those who are oppressed and crushed, with a specific application to the landless poor. Also the word Tyndale translated 'earth' really applies to 'earth' in the soil sense, rather than the whole world, and from there it extends to arable land and hence to useful land in general. In the Old Testament a family's land was their inheritance and could not be taken away for more than fifty years - not that rich landowners had ever taken any notice.

So that third beatitude can be rendered in English as: "Blessed are the landless poor, because they will inherit the land". Which surely makes more sense - although commentators today would need to fill in background which Jesus' original hearers would have known only too well.

This post is quite long enough, I reckon. So do have a happy and blessed 2018. (Blessed'? What does that mean?).

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The Last Word?

I once knew a middle-aged lady whose marriage fell apart after the kids left home. A while after her husband moved in with someone else she found a lump on her breast ... which she carefully ignored ... and ignored ... until at last she could ignore it no longer.

She underwent treatment for the breast cancer and came through. During her phased return to work they found a secondary in her brain, which killed her. At her funeral a neighbour said:
"It's hard to believe in God when something like this happens."
I knew another middle-aged lady who had a very difficult childhood. In her twenties and early thirties she fought back and thrived, making something special of her life. Then the demons caught up with her, gradually tearing much of what she had achieved apart and eventually killing her:
It's hard to believe in God when the demons win.
I can see the point, but for me it is far harder to not believe in God when such things happen. To not believe in God is to say that disease and demons have the last word.  To me, God is about meaning and purpose even in the midst of destruction and despair, about Resurrection when evil seems to have won.

For those of us who do make it through middle-age there is another 'd' waiting - decay. The longer we live the more we fall apart. In God I can even see meaning in that; but without God there is little to learn, or at least not much future in learning it.

I believe God has the last word: after disease and demons and decay and despair have done their worst, God still has something to say. And God's final word is about hope and love and life and purpose and a new future in a world of justice and peace and meaning.

But sometimes I do feel very, very tired.