Monday 10 December 2018

Like Jesus

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Just because you are accepted by God doesn’t mean you will be acceptable to the world.

Just because you do things in line with God’s will doesn’t mean the powers of the world will treat you well.

Just because you are becoming like Jesus that doesn’t mean religious and secular authorities will deal with you any differently to the way they treated Jesus … and Stephen, and Paul, and many, many more followers since.

So why is it that here in Caversham (maybe where you live too?) the authorities just leave us to get on our churchgoing? What is it about our expression of faith that the authorities see as safe and unthreatening to their status and power?

This final beatitude both circles back to the first and looks forward to the next section of Jesus’ teaching in his 'sermon on the mount'.

It circles back by showing that as Jesus’ followers are persecuted, excluded and marginalised by religious authorities, so they are among the ‘poor in spirit’ whose place in God’s kingdom is already given. The world attempts to destroy our hope but Jesus guarantees it.

Those who are persecuted for seeking God’s justice align themselves with the poor and so share in their oppression, but they also share in their reward.

At the time Matthew wrote this Jesus’ followers had suffered a generation or more of persecution from religious leaders of the day and their inappropriately zealous followers. The idea that those who they considered unworthy – “Gentiles and sinners” - might be acceptable to God was just too much for them to accept.

Today, if we want to live like Jesus then we need to be open-eyed and pure-hearted about whose side he was on: the victim and never the bully, the outsider and never the excluder, the poor and never the oppressor.

This beatitude also looks forward in defiance: the world may persecute you for being like Jesus but you remain salt and light, so live as such and don’t pretend or disguise your Christ-likeness. Live in Grace but excel in Godliness, so that all may see Jesus in your faith and in your persecution.

Finally, we are called to love those who persecute us – who but a madman or a Christian would do such a thing?

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Peace Positive Peace

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

It's a hundred years since an armistice marked the end of fighting in the First World War, and the beginning of the peace negotiations in Paris which led up to the Treaty of Versailles. The British staff officer Archibald Wavell said despondently of that Paris Peace Conference, "After the 'war to end war', they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making the 'Peace to end Peace'." Sadly, he was right. There is more to peace than a pause in fighting.

Peacemaking is where the Beatitudes all come together. ‘Peace’ in the Bible is a very positive concept: not so much about absence of conflict, much more about positive peace, security and, especially, restoration of relationships. Relationships with God, relationships with one another, even restoration of our relationship with the natural world: restoration of our given role as responsible stewards of creation. Peace is about balancing justice and mercy so that they become two sides of the same coin. And peace is about seeing God’s will in the situations around us and being transparent enough to allow Jesus to work through us to carry out that will.

But how can someone ‘make’ peace if they have not first received peace? This beatitude follows on from the previous one because it is through seeing God and spending time with him that one receives his peace. As Paul puts it:
The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
A bit later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extends his ideas of peacemaking in ways which highlight just how and why that Paris Peace Conference failed so badly:
You know that you have been taught, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. ... You have heard people say, “Love your neighbours and hate your enemies.” But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong. If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends. If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that? But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Given God’s peace and security within us, Jesus’ words about loving enemies and praying for those who persecute us become less abnormal and more like a natural response to what we have received and want to share. It is as we treat all alike, with love, that we develop our relationship with them, as well as with God. It is also how we gain people’s trust, which is an essential prerequisite to building peace with and between them.

Jesus’ call, at the end of the quote above, to be perfect, just like God, sounds like an impossible demand. Looked at another way though - remembering the previous beatitude's emphasis on seeing things with purity of heart - it is an amazing promise! In part it is a promise for after the resurrection, when we are to be renewed in a renewed heaven and earth; but it is also a promise for here and now. Not that we ourselves are now perfect, but that Jesus, who is perfect, can work in and through us, here and now.

This parish, following on from the Oxford Diocese, has a vision statement about 'becoming Christ-like'. But this beatitude is where that vision – if taken simplistically – rather breaks down. It is not enough that we be like Jesus – we need to bring Jesus himself to the people and situations around us daily. In purity of heart we not only see God but also let his love shine through. We are not just called to be Christ-like; we are called to be Christ’s body - his heart and hands, feet and voice in Caversham and beyond, today and in the days and weeks to come.

Sunday 16 September 2018

When We Judge Others We Condemn Ourselves

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

There are a number of places in the Gospels which tell of Jesus healing someone in desperate need, only for those in positions of religious authority to condemn him for it. One example is told by Matthew:
Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw.  And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?”  But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”
Jesus responds that "the mouth speaks what the heart is full of." People whose hearts are full of evil will see evil, even in what is good.

Which brings us to our next Beatitude: blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. It is only as our hearts are purified from the filth which enshrouds them that we begin to see the pure wholesome light of God.

Jesus tells us not to judge others; doing so is a sign that our hearts are not pure. There is a passage in St Paul's letter to the church in Rome which begins by talking about people who are far from God whose lifestyles end up in a mess. That bit is often quoted by religious types, but they somehow forget about the punchline:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
Those self-appointed judges struggle with this: how can they be accused of "degrading passions" and a "debased mind"? The truth is that in passing judgement on others they show themselves to have impure and degraded hearts, fully deserving of all the rigours of God's judgement.

If they had pure hearts they would see God present and at work wherever they looked, for God is everywhere. They would see children of God, who he loves and longs to save, and would do everything they could to show these children God's loving grace, not heartless judgement.

If only we had pure hearts, what difference could we make with Jesus?

But how can our hearts be purified? By us praying lots and reading the Bible? Well, it can't hurt ... but remember that the Pharisees did a lot of that. By asking God to change our hearts through his Holy Spirit within us? Probably better, and it does fit in with the words of the ancient prophet Ezekiel:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
But we are called to more than that. God will do the bulk of the work, of course, but we must do our part as well: we need to actively look for Jesus in the people and situations around us, and join in with whatever he is doing. We must freely share God's grace and God's love.

We must let people know the good news that God wants to include everyone in his family, however unlikely that may seem in human terms. It is as we see Jesus in those who our neighbours scorn, especially those despised by our religious neighbours, that we know we are making progress.

Everybody has a choice, of course, and can turn away from God as easily as they can turn to him. May your choices in the coming weeks always turn you toward the light of God  and may you and yours know the blessings of his wonderful grace.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

Justice & Mercy: Back To Back

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Justice and mercy, for Jesus, are like two sides of a single coin. Those who hunger and thirst after justice want the rules to be followed, especially those that protect the poor. Those who are merciful want them relaxed, particularly as they apply to those in desperate need.

If you view Jesus’ words as about rules rather than people this beatitude seems to be a contradiction of the previous one. But if you understand Jesus as speaking hope to people whose hope is lost, it becomes clear that these beatitudes are to be seen as standing back-to-back supporting one another, together revealing good news for the poor.

Like many of the terms used in these beatitudes, ‘mercy’ is a complex concept. It is about compassion and it is about letting people off who have broken an agreement and it is about not demanding that someone repays a debt if they cannot afford it and it is about forgiving someone who has wronged you.

Most fundamentally, mercy it is about giving someone a break with whom you are in some sort of relationship. It is about not holding things against people who matter to us, but instead showing the sort of love Paul speaks about in his letter to the Corinthian church:
Love is patient, love is kind;
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
It is not irritable or resentful;
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
That’s the basic idea of ‘mercy’, but Luke's Gospel tells us that Jesus ramps this up to also apply to enemies: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." Consider also the ‘Who is my neighbour?’ question answered in the Parable of the Good Samaritan as “The one who shows mercy”. For mercy triumphs over judgement, as James puts it!

Mercy is about attitude, especially our attitude toward people who are different. If someone is in need, it should be irrelevant what their colour, creed, or culture is like: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We are to be merciful as our Father is merciful; helping according to need not according to status, enmity, ingratitude or inability to repay.

As James, a leader of the early church, puts it in his letter, this really matters: “For judgement will be shown without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy.” We have been warned.

But remember that "mercy triumphs over judgement". May you know and show God's mercy this week.

Monday 10 September 2018

Justice, Righteousness & Law

A small diversion into the problems which can arise when trying to understand Biblical language in a very different culture.

The fourth beatitude says (in the usual English translation) "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ...", so why does my previous post talk about justice?

On a simplistic level it is because the underlying Greek word used by Matthew, dikaiosynēn, literally means 'impartial justice'. 

The problem is that 'justice' in Biblical context is not the same as in the western-European (and ex-colonies) context we tend to assume. Indeed, this is true of legal language in general, which is why many traditional approaches to St Paul's letter to the Romans often miss its point.

We tend to think of law and justice in the sense of criminal law and criminal justice: some sort of abstract and unchanging right and wrong. In the Bible things are much more concrete: law and justice are about contract law - keeping or breaking a solemn and binding agreement. A lot of Biblical language, not least 'Testament' and 'Covenant', reflects this.

In the Old Testament the central contract is that made between God and the Israelites on Mt Sinai: the Torah, or Jewish Law, a contract with ten key clauses and several hundred sub-clauses and applications. 

So ‘righteousness’, in Jesus' context, means justice, but a particular idea of justice which is about conformity to God’s Law – more precisely, conformity to the terms and conditions of the covenant which God and the Israelites entered into on Mt Sinai. God is righteous because he keeps his side of that contract; the Israelites, again and again, are unrighteous because they persistently and deliberately fail to keep theirs.

In the third beatitude, those of the poor who lost their land were supposed to have had it returned at the following Jubilee. This hasn’t happened – there is a great injustice – but justice will come, “rolling on like river,” as Amos puts it (Amos 5:24), and “righteousness like a never-failing stream.

One difference between law as a contract and law as an abstract idea is that a contract can be bought out - redeemed for a price agreed by both sides. Which still leaves the problems that the original Sinai contract was made to address, so you need a new contract: foreshadowed in the prophet Ezekiel's "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."

Which leads us into the great mysteries of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the role of the Holy Spirit in changing us so that we might become "perfect as our heavenly father is perfect."

Grace and peace to you and to all who love you.

Wednesday 5 September 2018

Give Us Hope (Joanna)!

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Sl o o o o wly continuing a series on The Beatitudes, we reach a change of perspective: from the early beatitudes' hope and comfort to those in desperate straits (rejected, devastated, oppressed) to hope and encouragement for those who want to make a difference, to make the world a better place.

If you have been following along this year's Beatitudes posts, and have heard about the people to whom Jesus’ early beatitudes are meant to bring hope and security, how have you felt? How do you feel about religious authorities who try to exclude people from the hope of God’s kingdom; about those who have suffered devastating loss and need comfort; about the desperately poor, oppressed and crushed by injustice?

Do you look at those first three beatitudes and ache, feeling the pain of a world where these things happen? Do you share the frustration of the ancient prophet Habakkuk?
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you "Violence!"

Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.

So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
Is the injustice filling the world, two thousand years after Jesus spoke out about these things, all too much for you? Then this fourth beatitude is for you.

It contains the hope and the promise that, in Caversham, Britain and throughout the world, God really is at work: that his Kingdom will come and his will be done in Caversham as in heaven. The challenge, especially for any church interesting in “Becoming a Christlike community”, is whether we can see God at work and come together as Jesus’ followers to join in. Whether we care enough to speak out against injustice and work with those who suffer, to challenge the powerful vested interests and to make ‘the system’ work for people instead of against them.

In Jesus we have a covenant of Grace, but it is no less a promise of Justice. There will be an accounting, there will be restoration of all that is stolen, and there will be truth. Then there will be renewal and new life, providing there is mercy – see the forthcoming post on the next beatitude (hopefully a bit sooner than I've been achieving so far).

In the meantime, a poem from the First World War, written by Robert Palmer, who died in 1916, aged just 27:
How Long, O Lord? 
How long, O Lord, how long, before the flood
Of crimson-welling carnage shall abate?
From sodden plains in West and East, the blood
Of kindly men steams up in mists of hate,
Polluting Thy clean air; and nations great
In reputation of the arts that bind
The world with hopes of heaven, sink to the state
Of brute barbarians, whose ferocious mind
Gloats o'er the bloody havoc of their kind,
Not knowing love or mercy. Lord, how long
Shall Satan in high places lead the blind
To battle for the passions of the strong?
Oh, touch Thy children's hearts, that they may know
Hate their most hateful, pride their deadliest foe.
A final note about the great Eddy Grant's protest song referenced in this post's title. Grant was singing about a great injustice of his time: apartheid in South Africa. He released the song in 1988; by 1991 apartheid was formally over, and in 1994 there was the first democratic election, leading to Nelson Mandela becoming president. To date, whilst a painful and damaging legacy of apartheid remains in South Africa, there has been no bloodbath and no economic collapse.

There remains hope, Jo'anna, so let us all do our parts in promoting justice wherever we are.

May Grace, peace and the hope of real change fill your week ahead.

Sunday 5 August 2018

When Will There Be Justice For The Landless Poor?

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth"

Something like that, anyway. Jesus told a story about workers in a vineyard: casual labourers who worked for a daily rate which was just, and only just, enough to live on. So if you were only hired for part of the day then normally your family went hungry.

Land was important in Biblical times: if you had your own piece of land you hand a chance to grow food for your family. Otherwise, if you were part of the 'landless poor' - a group most English translations unhelpfully render as 'the meek' - then you were destitute, dependent on rich landowners offering work, at the lowest pay possible, or on begging. Even if you had land and were poor, the rich landowners would try to unjustly pressure you until you were forced to sell the land. That's the way the world seems to work; but it wasn't meant to be the way God's people do things.

The idea that everyone had their own little piece of land was fundamental to the way that Jewish society worked – it was their living and their security. That is why the Jewish Law specified that no family could lose their land permanently – every fifty years there was to be a Jubilee when the land was returned.

Of course, this was never followed: throughout Israel’s history the rich acquired the land of the poor and exploited those who were now landless. In Jesus’ day land injustice was a major social issue, as it is today in much of the world (see the picture above for just one example).

Psalm 37 counsels patient trust in God:
Be still before the Lord
   and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
    when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
    do not fret — it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
    but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity.
Both the opening beatitude and Psalm 37 tell us that those who are currently oppressed and landless are to wait patiently, trusting that the Lord will provide the inheritance of the land which they need. Their security lies in their faith as they wait for God’s Kingdom to come down to earth and for God’s will to be done here as in heaven.

“The landless poor are secure in God because they shall inherit the land,” is one translation of today's beatitude. But, more generally, it is about those whose relationship with their neighbours, with their society, and with the world around them has been broken by injustice and oppression.

Like the first two beatitudes this is about people who are desperate and without hope in the world being given good news by Jesus: that God keeps his promises and that he will have the last word.

The trouble is that Jesus said this two thousand years ago. Two thousand years! Where is the hope of justice from a God who leaves injustice to thrive for two thousand years after the price has been paid to end it? One theory is that Jesus wants to work through his church, but it has spent much of the time refusing to cooperate – something to ponder, perhaps, as we seek to genuinely follow Jesus today.

Singer/songwriter Harvey Andrews wrote a song some years back, called Requiem, about the loss of hope that comes with growing older. It included the lyric (about Jesus): “For two thousand years he’s brought nothing but tears, and the crosses to plant on the graves.”

If you have the song (or can play it from Spotify), try playing Requiem, and as you listen consider the lost hopes of your neighbours, whether in Caversham or elsewhere, and how we can restore people’s hope in God.

"Faith, hope and love remain, and the greatest of these is love". May your life be filled with all three in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Comfort In Times Of Loss

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted"

Comforted by whom? The ancient prophet Jeremiah spoke of God himself comforting those who suffered devastating loss, but Jesus' second beatitude just says they will be comforted. Is that because God works through people? People like you and I? But how?

How can a ten-year-old girl deal with the death of her father; or a middle-aged couple come to terms with the suicide of their son; or an elderly man who has already buried both his children find peace when his wife follows? You don’t have to travel far in Caversham and Reading - or doubtless wherever you live - before you come across stories like these. What can we say? What can any church – as a community of those seeking to follow Jesus – have to offer in the face of such loss? And where does Jesus come into the story?

Maybe you can turn to the Bible – Jesus often did that.

There are three approaches (at least) in the Bible to comfort in the face of devastating loss. There is the 'God will make it up to you' approach, for example Joel 2:25a: “I will repay you for the years the swarming locust has eaten,” and Job 42:10: “The Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.”

Then there is the 'God will bring them back,' approach of resurrection, for example John 11:23b: “Your brother will rise again” and 1 Thess. 4:14: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”

And finally there is the 'God is with us in the midst of suffering' approach, for example Isaiah 13a: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” and 43:2a: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” along with Matthew 28:20b: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” as well as the evocative “Jesus wept,” in the middle of the story of his friend Lazarus, who had died:.
"When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept."
You might want to consider when it is best to talk to people about such things. Is it useful to say them to someone who is already devastated? Or are they most useful to know in advance, before the devastation comes, so someone can cling to them in the storm?

And maybe, when the storm does come, the best comfort we can provide to someone is to stand with them in the heart of the storm and weep, then to provide practical support and help as long as it is needed – often longer than you might expect. Maybe share some Psalms of lament. And tell them stories of Jesus, who stood with his friend’s sisters and wept.

The Two Become One Flesh

"'A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

A proud father moment!

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 their 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


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


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?).