”For yours is the kingdom of God.”
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear a series of blessings that have come to be called the beatitudes, from the Latin word beatus meaning blessed or happy. Today’s version comes from the Gospel of Luke. A similar version can be found in the Gospel of Matthew and virtually all of the beatitudes in these gospels can be found in verses of the Gospel of Thomas.
One of the few things that biblical scholars agree upon is that of all the sayings attributed to Jesus, the heart of the beatitudes reflect the authentic Jesus speaking to us across time. We know that the Gospels contain a number of passages placed in the mouth of Jesus that readily reveal themselves to be the products of the first and second century Jesus communities and reflect their communal concerns. Indeed, we hear a good example of that in Luke’s fourth beatitude today – Blessed are you when people hate you. The early Jesus communities knew first-hand what it meant to be hated by those who were expelling them from their synagogues.
But if you are looking for the authentic Jesus, the beatitudes are the place to start.
Entering Into Their Suffering
To get a good sense of the context of Luke’s beatitudes, it’s important to consider the verses just before today’s reading. Jesus has just called his 12 disciples and spent the previous night praying on the mountain alone. As he descends the mountain, crowds are building. People are seeking to encounter this remarkable man about whom the stories of his teachings and healing power have already begun to spread across the Galilee.
Unlike Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount where Jesus sits above the crowd on the mountainside making pronouncements down to the people below, Luke’s Jesus wades right into the middle of the crowd on a level place. He meets them at eye level, allowing both his body as well as his heart to be touched. He engages them in all of their suffering. And it is in this setting he will give his first sermon.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Several aspects leap off the page when we read these words. First, Jesus’ immediate audience is clear– the poor, the hungry, the grieving. This is the crowd that Luke tells us had come to hear Jesus and to be healed. They pressed around him, seeking even to touch his clothing because they recognized the power that this charismatic figure embodied. And Jesus speaks directly to them: “Blessed are you…”
It’s also striking how Jesus responds to them. He does not shy away from them. Instead he enters into their suffering at a very visceral level. It would be easy to picture Jesus as pitying his audience as we often do the beggars with cardboard signs weaving in and out of traffic at red lights. But his response is much deeper than mere pity. Jesus is moved by compassion, a Latin word that means a willingness to suffer with the other.
His reference to the kingdom of G-d here needs to be taken very seriously. The kingdom Jesus envisions stands in stark distinction to the kingdom of Caesar which dominates the lives of all the participants in this story. Caesar’s kingdom has generated the poverty, hunger and sorrow that afflicts the people Jesus is encountering.
Compassion is not a value in Caesar’s kingdom and there is no consciousness of the suffering that kingdom engenders. The only imperial imperatives are to guard the exclusive right to exercise power and to maintain the extractive economy which serves the insatiable demands of the empire even as it decimates the Judean people.
Conversely, in the kingdom of G_d that Jesus articulates, the poor are the blessed, the hungry are fed and the sorrowful are given reasons to laugh. This is a complete reversal of their roles in Caesar’s kingdom. And in all truthfulness, it would be a complete reversal of the roles of many in our world today.
Jesus is Missing
One of the more interesting figures from our popular culture today is a cartoon from a British illustrator which poses the question, “Where’s Waldo?” That question references a young man in a red and white striped shirt, bobble hat and glasses. The reader is challenged to find Waldo amidst a crowd of other images in each cartoon cell as well as to figure out where in the world Waldo is appearing.
As I read today’s Gospel, a similar question arose for me: “Where is Jesus?” It seems to me that there are a lot of concerns which claim the legacy of Jesus but upon closer examination the values of Jesus are simply absent. Indeed, in many of them, Jesus is completely missing even as any number of destructive behaviors are legitimated in his name, a pattern that historically has included crusades and pogroms.
As a recovering lawyer I have always been puzzled by those who, under the banner of Christianity, insist that the 10 Commandments be placed in public spaces. In all honesty, the 10 Commandments bear more resemblance to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi or the Justinian Code of the Roman Empire than anything Jesus said.
But, imagine what might happen if the Beatitudes – the actual words of Jesus - were posted in courtrooms and lawmaking chambers across this country. What might our laws and court decisions look like if consciousness of the suffering of the poor, the hungry, the grieving and the hated and compassion toward their suffering informed official decision making?
So where is Jesus in this concern?
In the past few years, a moral panic over immigration - fed by social and broadcast media and, sadly, pitched from many pulpits as well - has swept our culture. It has prompted many to demonize immigrants to this country, all in the name of Christianity. Rather than compassion for those who came fleeing gangs, drug cartels and starvation, this moral panic led to barbaric behaviors on our borders by our immigration officials separating children of all ages from parents and placing them in warehouses under subhuman conditions. Some of them eventually died.
The irony in all of this is that Jesus himself was a refugee, fleeing into Egypt with his family to avoid the deadly wrath of an insecure King Herod. Had Jesus lived in our own time and place, coming to our borders seeking asylum, would he have survived to teach and heal? Would we have ever known his name?
So where is Jesus in all of this?
Amidst the mob that attacked our nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021, the symbol of the Christian cross could be seen everywhere. Some slogans combined the name of Jesus together with that of the outgoing resident of the White House in ways that cast the latter in messianic terms.
Perhaps the most disturbing image coming out of that very dark day was the adaptation of Warner Sallman’s familiar depiction of Jesus as the fair haired, blue eyed Aryan Jesus so many of us grew up seeing now sporting a MAGA baseball cap.
All of this occurred at an event where four people would die and many more injured before that destructive assault was over. In this deadly rampage, participants spoke of killing the vice president and members of Congress even as they brandished the symbols of Christianity.
There is absolutely no hint here of the Jesus who healed the ear of the Temple guard that Peter had cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane, telling Peter “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”
Whatever else the events of January 6 might have been about, Jesus simply was not among them.
To Know Thee More Clearly
From the moment Jesus took his last breath on the cross at Golgotha, he was no longer around to speak for himself or to defend against the uses of his name. Telling his story became the duty of those he left behind to follow his Way. As a result, it has always been easy to appropriate the name of Jesus and use the symbols of the Christian tradition to fit whatever agenda one might be serving. But in the process, the Jesus whom the crowd of impoverished, hungry and sorrowful people so longed to encounter, is often lost in the shuffle.
For some of us, this has meant it has become increasingly difficult to continue identifying ourselves as Christians given all the current associations with that term. That is particularly true given a media determined to identify an entire tradition with its lowest hanging fruit. More and more I find myself describing my own faith journey as being a follower of the Way of Jesus, as best I can know it. And I must confess that it comforts me to know that our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has come to describe the Episcopal Church as the Jesus Movement. But given that, it becomes even more important to know who Jesus was and what he was about, as best we can, for those of us who would seek to follow his Way.
The question of “Where is Jesus in my life?” is one every follower of Jesus should ask themselves regularly. Where am I willing to be conscious of the suffering of others and, to enter into that suffering with compassion? Where have I helped the hungry be fed? Where has my presence in the lives of those in sorrow comforted them, helping them to endure the suffering they face and find reason to once again laugh?
Clearly, in a time of pandemic and the compassion fatigue so many of us have experienced, this is asking a great deal. We have all been through a lot. We have lost loved ones and endured watching our friends and family become ill, felt the fear and trembling over the prospect of becoming ill ourselves. Some of us have endured the physical ailments of this very ugly disease.
Little wonder that two years into this, many of us feel no small amount of exhaustion. If we ever doubted it, we have come to know first-hand that we can never do this alone. It is precisely in such moments that the answers to our Baptismal Covenant become very salient: “I will with God’s help.”
Our patron saint, Richard of Chichester, regularly asked himself the question “Where is Jesus?” It shaped one of the most famous prayers of the western Christian tradition which I believe all of us should take very seriously. I close with it.
O [Jesus, our] friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.
Sermon preached Epiphany VI, February 13, 2022, St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL
Harry Scott Coverston Orlando,
Florida If the
unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it
religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do
not come in sound bites. Those who
believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma
Gandhi For what does
G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly
with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures Do not be
daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are
you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom
of the Jewish Sages (1993) © Harry
Coverston, 2022 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2022