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?).

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