The Beatitudes: Alternative Blessings

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
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 children of God.
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.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5)

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
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.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6)

There’s been quite a bit of talk this week about “alternative facts,” an unfortunate choice of words coined by Kellyanne Conway to describe President Trump’s understanding of the size of the crowd attending his inauguration. As I understand it, “alternative facts” are based on a perception of reality that differs from observable evidence to the contrary. “Alternative facts” are not objectively true, but reflect the point of view and/or political purpose of the person promoting them. The whole brouhaha reminded me of Pilate’s question to Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?”  Is there such a thing as objective truth, or is truth malleable, and like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

The whole Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes in particular, seem to run counter not only to observable realities of life, but to theological understandings which equate God’s blessings with material well-being and comfort. Luke’s retelling of Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Plain is even stronger than Matthew’s version.  It describes not only blessings for things people wouldn’t normally think of as blessings, but woes for those things that people normally do think of as blessings. And of course the Beatitudes are only the beginning: Jesus goes on to say that “the last shall be first and the first last”, “the greatest among you will be your servant” and “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but he that loses his life will find it.” Clearly the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus does not follow the same rules as the kingdoms of the world as understood by Pilate. The Beatitudes are a window into an alternate universe with different rules and different expectations.

In much of the Old Testament, material prosperity was seen as God’s blessing for the righteous. If someone was poor or sick, it was because they had done something to deserve their misfortune. There are plenty of Bible verses that support this view, with the book of Job being a notable exception. The Pharisees of Jesus’s day certainly seemed to understand the world in this way, for when the man born blind was brought to Jesus, they asked “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responded, “Neither one” and proceeded to heal the man. What the Pharisees saw as a result of God’s curse, Jesus saw as an opportunity to offer God’s blessing. Whose perspective is the correct one?

“What is truth?” asked Pilate. As John later writes in his gospel, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth isn’t malleable, but is personified by Jesus. So I’m inclined to believe Jesus’s description of what it means to be blessed, not that of the proponents of the prosperity gospel. If Jesus is the truth, we can safely assume that his perspective is the correct one, and we’d better pay attention to what he says. Following Jesus is the doorway into the alternate universe we call the Kingdom of God, an upside-down kingdom  that is the opposite of the survival-of-the-fittest world in which we live. There the weak are made strong, the poor are made rich, the wounded are made whole, and the hungry are filled with good things.

Jesus opened the doorway to the Kingdom of God, which is not pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by-when-we-die. It is here now, among us, like an alternate universe visible to those with eyes to see reality from Jesus’s perspective. It’s up to us to follow him in, and to hold the door open for others, until at last the wall of separation dissolves, and earth and heaven are one. Who’s with me?

Habakkuk: Hey God, Explain This!

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

Habakkuk’s  three short chapters present a dialogue between the prophet and God. Its setting seems to have been during the zenith of Babylon’s power, when the occupiers ruled over the land of the people of God with an iron hand. Unlike many of the other prophetic books, Habakkuk doesn’t attribute Israel’s captivity and exile to punishment for their many sins against God and neighbor.  Instead, he describes how bad life under the thumb of Babylon is, and he clearly can’t understand why God isn’t doing something about it. As he sees it, the  Babylonians behave in much worse ways than the Israelites ever thought about doing. Life is not fair, and this does not make sense to someone who believes God is primarily a god of justice. In a bit of an existential crisis, he asks God to explain himself: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”

God’s response to Habakkuk is not to give him a reason, but to advise patience.  God assumes responsibility for the rise of the Babylonian empire; he is quite aware of all the bad things they are doing, and he will see that the evil that they do comes back on their own heads, but it will be on his own timetable. “The revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.”

The book ends with a psalm recalling God’s past acts of power on behalf of his people, and urging him to intervene once again. In language reminiscent of Job’s, Habakkuk vows to remain faithful to God even if the world falls apart around him. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”  

Habakkuk is yet another example of a Biblical character who had doubts about the nature of God. His observations about what is happening to him and around him do not square with his understanding of God. Rather than engage in theological contortions to explain away any discrepancy, he expresses his doubts and concerns honestly to God. Like Jacob, he wrestles with God, and will not let go until he is blessed with understanding. Like Job, he is unafraid of making his case directly to God. And like Jacob and Job and so many others before and after him, he is rewarded. His understanding of God takes a quantum leap to that place beyond logic we call faith.

God isn’t angry with us when we have doubts about his goodness, justice, or even existence. Such doubts are often the way to God, rather than away from them. And that’s good news to me.

 

Nahum: The Wrath of God Revealed

The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
8 but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

The short book of Nahum describes what Jonah was hoping would happen to Nineveh: No mention or chance of repentance is given: an angry God is completely fed up and completely destroys them. God’s wrathful vengeance obliterates them, and is described in detail worthy of an imaginative Hollywood thriller movie.

It’s interesting to read Jonah and Nahum side by side, for they present quite different understandings of God. In Jonah, love wins. God won’t give up until he has brought his most recalcitrant and fallen creatures into his kingdom. In Nahum, justice wins. The bad guys get what is justly coming to them, and everybody should be happy because they got what they deserved. So which view is correct?

My understanding is that perhaps both views are true, in kind of a Schrödinger’s cat paradox. I’m not sure that from our limited perspective, we can understand the mind of God. How can God be completely just and completely loving at the same time? Don’t these qualities contradict each other? Job certainly understood that dilemma, and found it to be a question that could not be answered by reason, but which could be understood only through relationship.

The best understanding I’ve read (and I wish I could remember where I read it so I could credit the author) is that God’s wrath is really God’s love, seen from a different point of view. Seen from the side of the oppressor, God is acting in punitive anger. Seen from the side of the oppressed, God is acting in liberating love. What the Egyptian slavemasters saw as an expression of God’s wrath, the liberated Hebrews saw as an expression of God’s mercy. This motif is repeated again and again in the Bible, and I think it has continued throughout history for those with eyes to see it.

When the Bible seems to speak with many voices, I don’t see them as contradictions, but as different perspectives. Just because we have difficulty holding two different attributes in our mind at the same time doesn’t mean they aren’t both true. God is both great and good. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

 

Job: No Easy Answers

 

“If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God” – Archibald MacLeish

“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.”- Job

If taken literally, Job is a very difficult book and in fact quite likely to lead someone away from rather than toward faith. Here’s a quick summary of the story:

Satan goads God into making a bet over what paragon-of-virtue Job might do if his wonderful life takes a turn for the worse. God takes the bet, and quite literally all hell breaks loose in Job’s life. All his children are killed; he loses all his worldly possessions; he contracts an excruciatingly painful and disfiguring disease; his wife abandons him emotionally if not literally, and his prayers for understanding go unanswered. Then his friends show up and try to offer sympathy by suggesting answers for Job’s plight. Since God is all-powerful and all-just, Job must have done something really wrong to deserve his fate. Job insists on his innocence, and says that if it were possible, he’d take God to court to prove it. After many long chapters of speeches by Job and his friends arguing for their differing positions, God shows up and berates both Job and his friends. He berates Job’s friends for assuming Job must be guilty, and he berates Job for demanding answers. God “blesses the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part” by giving him twice as much in the way of sheep, cattle, oxen, and donkeys, and by giving him additional children to replace the ones who died at the beginning of the story. Those relatives and friends who had abandoned him return, bearing monetary gifts, and everyone lives happily ever after.

If taken literally, I have several problems with Job’s story  First of all, I don’t think God is in the business of making wagers with Satan, especially when said wagers would involve torture.  Secondly, the fact that Job had seven more sons and three more daughters does not replace the ones that died. Anyone who has ever lost a child will attest to that. And what of Job’s wife, who I assume was post-menopausal by this time? What of the ten dead children? Were they just collateral damage? Finally, Job never gets the answers he desperately seeks as God never tells him about his behind-the-scenes bet with Satan. It’s as if God answer to Job’s “Why?” is a resounding “Because I said so.” If I were reading this story for the first time, thought it was literally true, and expected insight into the nature of God and suffering, I think I’d be more impressed with Job’s behavior than with God’s.

Fortunately for my faith journey, I think the story of Job doesn’t need to be taken literally. I think it’s a story, not a “historical document”, and stories can be true without being factual. They are  free to tackle serious issues in ways that essays and lectures can’t. I think that’s why Jesus told so many of the stories we call parables. It isn’t necessary to believe that the story of the Prodigal Son literally happened in order to understand the point Jesus was trying to make about the nature of God.

So what is the point of Job? I think the point is that there are many things in life for which there are no easy answers. Job’s friends have a rigid understanding of God that does not allow for bad things to happen to good people. Job’s experience tells him that is not always true, and he will not accept platitudes or pat answers. Instead, he argues with his friends and dares to question God openly, directly and honestly. Rather than squashing Job like a bug for heresy, God rewards him with an epiphany. Job has a quantum leap in his understanding of and connection to God that does not erase his pain, but transforms it.

There are no easy answers for many of the problems we will face in life. Bad things will happen, and along with death and taxes, suffering is inevitable. But God is with us, even when we think he is absent or silent, and he seems to have a preference for honest doubters over those who think they have all the answers. And for me, that’s good news.