Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Poor in Spirit and Those Who Mourn

Jesus’ first recorded words, out in the Galilean hillside, were these: 
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 
The Sermon on the Mount,
 Albert Decaris, France, 1953
In the world of literary interpretation, there are few pieces of writing that have promoted more discussion, analysis, explication than the beatitudes. The first one alone: when Jesus spoke of the “the poor in spirit,” did he mean the actual poor? If material prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing (isn’t that what we’re told?), then surely “poor in spirit” must mean something other than physical poverty?

The word “poor” that Jesus used, the  Greek Word ptochos, describes a beggar, “desitute of wealth, influence, position, honour, . . . helpless, powerless to accomplish an end." (Studylight)

Most interpretations assume it’s not real poverty Jesus was speaking of, not genuine destitution, but an attitude of receptivity:  
"The kingdom of God can only be received by empty hands. Jesus warns against (a) worldly self-sufficiency: you trust yourself and your own resources and don't need God; (b) religious self-sufficiency: you trust your religious attitude and moral life and don't need Jesus." ( Michael H. Crosby, Spirituality of the Beatitudes: Matthew's Vision for the Church in an Unjust World) 
So – don’t trust your wealth. And don’t trust your self-sufficiency. We can manage that. Kind of.

And most interpretations assume this isn't an ongoing state, but a one time occasion: the prodigal son, turning toward home, convinced of his failure and unsure of his welcome. The thief on the cross, asking “Lord, remember me.” We acknowledge our poverty of spirit as a step toward salvation and eternal life. 

But what if Jesus meant something different? What if this “poverty of spirit,” this utter dependency, is the permanent state of those who claim to follow him?

N. T. Wright argues that the first beatitude, and those that follow, are an ongoing sign of God’s kingdom here on earth:
“‘Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours!’ doesn’t mean, ‘You will go to heaven when you die’. It means you will be one of those through whom God’s kingdom, heaven’s rule, begins to appear on earth as in heaven. The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom people. They are not simply about how to behave, so that God will do something nice to you. They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world. He wants to do it through this sort of people—people, actually, just like himself.” (Simply Jesus) 
Too often, Christians are known as the ones with the answers: judgmental, arrogant, quick to find fault. Insensitive. Unwilling to listen. Certain we’re right, and others, always, are wrong. 

We hear the part about God wanting to rule the world through us, but miss the reality of what that looks like: waiting in humility for God to work. Listening, with open hands, for a way better than our own.

I like Oswald Chamber’s description of this:  
“As long as we have a conceited, self-righteous idea that we can do the thing if God will help us, God has to allow us to go on until we break the neck of our ignorance over some obstacle, then we will be willing to come and receive from Him. The bed-rock of Jesus Christ’s Kingdom is poverty, not possession; not decisions for Jesus Christ, but a sense of absolute futility: “I cannot begin to do it.” Then, says Jesus, “Blessed are you.” That is the entrance, and it takes us a long while to believe we are poor. The knowledge of our own poverty brings us to the moral frontier where Jesus Christ works. (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount)
Blind Beggar, Richard Hedley, UK, 1897
This poverty of spirit is both entrance and arena: an expansive frontier where change becomes possible. In a culture that prizes resourcefulness, independence, “can-do” attitudes, confident certainty, we tend to run from that place Chambers points toward: the wilderness where our answers fall short, our neat logical categories shatter. I catch glimpses of it when I’m willing to walk beside people in pain and confusion, to listen with compassion to views not my own.

The more I try to understand what it is to be “poor in spirit,” the more I see it linked to the sentence that comes after: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

If “blessed” means “happy,” this makes no sense at all.

But if "blesssed" means, as I suggested last week, "rightly placed, set in right relationship with earth, other humans, and God as well," then mourning takes on new meaning.

This isn't the mourning of personal loss, grief for our own individual sorrows, although that can certainly be part of it. It's the grief of seeing how far we are from the kingdom God invites us to demonstrate, sorrow over the distance between the just, generous world we are called to model and the systems of injustice and destruction we accommodate in everything we do.

Gregory of Nyssa, (c. 335 – c. 395) wrote "It is impossible for one to live without tears who considers things exactly as they are."  Many centuries later, Bible scholar M. Eugene Boring expanded on this idea: 
"One of the characteristics of the true people of God is that they lament the present condition of God's people and God's program in the world…This is the community that does not resign itself to the present condition of the world as final, but laments the fact that God's kingdom has not yet come and that God's will is not yet done." (The People's New Testament Commentary)
I want to run from sorrow as much as I want to run from helplessness.  But the first step toward change is acknowledgement of where we are, and acknowledegement of our inability to fix it. Walter Brueggemann has written extensively about lament, and the force of lament in the face of denial. He describes laments as “refusals to settle for the way things are. They are acts of relentless hope that believes no situation falls outside of Yahweh's capacity for transformation.” And he speaks of grief as a subversive, transfomative act, an act of "tearful defiance thrown in the face of empire. The weepers in their weeping said, 'We will not be silent. We will not swallow our tears. We will tell the truth about loss.'"

Oswawldo Guayasamin, Ecuador
I've spent much of my life working hard to manage grief, trying hard to be resourceful and resilient. But maybe there’s a time to stop, look closely at the world, and speak out in tearful defiance, to say, with the prophets, "Like an empty-handed beggar I am helpless in the face of all that grieves me, but I won't be silent. And I won't pretend that all is well."

So I grieve.

Intractable mental illness in a culture impatient with human frailty.

Disordered family systems in a world where investment in children is rarely rewarded.

Twelve million children unsure of their next meal in a country that spends billions each year on nuclear weapons, billions more locking non-violent offenders away. 

I grieve industries dependent on child slavery for profits. 

Children lost to preventable disease, lack of clean water, war, young men with guns.

Communities lost to religious violence, rising flood waters, unmanned missiles, mudslides, fires.

I grieve the loss of real dialogue about the challenges that face us, the secret money that shapes policy,  shouts down dissent,and leads us in directions we should never go.    

A century ago, our grandparents talked about the war to end all wars.

They looked toward an end to disease.

Knowledge would save us.

Reason would pave the way toward peace.

Our knowledge has brought us new diseases, new weapons, sorrows unimagined a century ago.

And reason, reasonably applied, can only show how helpless we are in the face of our own failures.

Surely we should grieve? And wait – poor in spirit – for the comfort promised. For God to work. For his people to take their place as blessed: agents of the kingdom, humble recipients and bestowers of grace, in that wide open space where we leave our shoddy tools behind and listen for an answer. 

Recònditas Señales, Eduardo Kingman, Ecuador, 1969
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
. . . I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.                               
. . . In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not. 
                             (T S Eliot, East Coker, Four Quartets)
This is the third in a series on Lent and the Beatitudes:

    An  Alternative Narrative: February 10
    Seeking Blessing in a Fracture Land: Februaray 17

Lenten Reflections from 2012:

     Looking toward Lent
     Lenten Sorrow : Lament and Nacham
     Lenten Silence: Charash, Be Still
     Lenten Sweetness: Tasting Towb    
     Lenten Submission: Rethinking Hupotassō
     Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan