Night One March 6, 2017
BLESSED ARE THE POOR
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Luke 16, 19-31
It is helpful to remember that the Beatitudes are not statements, they are exclamations which is why some translations will say, “Happy” But that English word is not so good because Happy gives away its own case. It contains the root “hap” which means “chance”. Human happiness is something which is dependent on chances which come and go. Life gives and also takes. It’s all by “chance”. Not so with the meaning of these exclamations. This is about Blessedness and Joy which nothing in life can take away. So, these are not pious hopes of what shall be. These are congratulations on what is. This Blessedness exists here and now. It is not something into which the Christian will enter. The very form of the Beatitudes is a statement of the thrill and radiant gladness of the Christian life. Their greatness is that they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty; they are not even golden promises of some distant glory; they are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away.
When Matthew set about collecting these sayings of Jesus and putting them together in Greek, he used very strong and intense words for every one of them. Φτωχός is the word he chose for this Beatitude. “Poor” is an unfortunate choice of English words to carry the full power of what is being proposed. “Poor” is the woman observed putting in her offering at the Temple. She has a little to give, but by her gift she becomes Φτωχός which means destitute. Φτωχός is also the word Luke uses to describe Lazarus in this parable. It describes absolute and complete destitution. NOTHING is what this is about: complete and total dependency. It is this radical idea that leads the apostles to react so desperately when Jesus talks about how it is easier to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The suggestion that wealth and prosperity were not the blessing and favor many at the time believed them to be was a startling suggestion. Proposing the reverse was unthinkable.
We might recall that the giving of the Law with Moses was accompanied by promises of blessing, and that wealth and prosperity were taken as signs of God’s pleasure. It was a long-lasting belief. As Israel came from the desert into Canaan and grew prosperous, it became evident to the prophets that wealth brought a great temptation to break the covenant. It was not simply wealth, of course, but the attitude of self-satisfaction that so often accompanied the acquisition of wealth that often turned the rich away from God. Seized by the passion for possession, for security, for power, those rich were willing to do anything in order to build their homes of ivory and their summer palaces. Prophets confronted this, they turned more to the poor of the land as the only hope for maintaining the covenant with God. The poor had nothing to cling to but God, and so the prophets proclaimed that the future restoration would be built upon the remnant represented by the poor. The kingdom would belong to them and not to the rich. It was not because God did not care for the rich and powerful, but because the rich and powerful had a way of regarding themselves as self-sufficient and without need of God. Into this steps the Rabbi Jesus with this Beatitude. There is only one thing we need, and those who have it are in Blessed!
There is an old Jewish proverb that says, “You cannot eat at both tables.” It springs from this thinking about those who have a lot things being blessed and favored by God. The unspoken other side of that thinking is that those who have nothing are out of favor with God, or that God has abandoned them. The book of Job challenges this thinking so contrary to the reality of life. Bad things do happen to good people. Every day this reality is confirmed. Job is as good as a person could be, yet he is struck down by one catastrophe after another. His friends insist that he must have sinned which is the only way they can understand what has happened to him. Job insists that he has not sinned, and the author’s purpose is that we believe Job. By the end of his story, Job is restored to prosperity, but not before his concept of God is shattered and replaced by a far more profound idea of God.
This is the heart of the matter. Before we can enter into Beatitude Life, our concept of God must be purified or fine-tuned. If there is any trace of that old thinking that prosperity is a sign of God’s favor, you are not ready. The concept has to be re-envisioned. That’s what happened to Job. He came to a much more profound idea of God, and a much more mature and healthy relationship as a consequence.
What the Prophets were looking for then was a spiritual attitude, a disposition of soul which could be called to poverty: a self-dispossession which made room for the Word of God. The meaning of this poverty is seen in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. The characters of Mary and Elizabeth, of Zachary and Simeon, all conform to the image of these “Anawim” – these faithful poor waiting patiently for the Lord. Think of Mary, who in the Magnificat praises God for looking upon the lowliness (the poverty) of his handmaid. She was poor in spirit; she was of the kingdom. She did not cling to anything, not even her own understanding of what her virginity should mean. Yet, no one is poorer than Jesus himself. He is the full realization of poverty, and of course, in as much as he is the revelation of what God is, we can say that God is poor. The obedience of Jesus Christ is a manifestation of that poverty. Jesus gave up everything including his own will surrendering to the Will of the Father.
As this doctrine developed there was a growing belief that there was a sharp distinction between the present age and the age to come which was God’s age and an age of reward. This is what provided that image of two tables. You cannot eat at both. If you have your reward in this world, there is no reason to expect another reward in the next world. All kinds of parables and sayings of Jesus point to this truth. What good is it to store up riches? Think of that parable about the rich man and Lazarus and what happens to them in the age to come. Remember how the Lord observes those who make a great parade of their piety in order to impress the world around them. They can expect nothing in the time to come. “They have their reward” says Jesus. Jesus insists that it is useless to store up anything. Even if we can and even if we do preserve them, we cannot preserve our lives, so what’s the point of all this preservation? “To whom will it go? Asks Jesus.
Our efforts to hold onto things is really useless in this world. People spend all kinds of money these days on security systems and arm them while they go out to dinner and then die in a car wreck on the way home. There is a great song from “Show Boat” that describes the reality of life. “It just keeps rolling, it keeps on rolling along.” Heraclitus, often called the “weeping philosopher” once said you can’t step into the same river twice. By the time you have stepped into it the second time it is not the same river, and you are not the same person. So, the effort to hang onto things gets called into question. “That’s mine.” “I’ve got it.” This is the thinking of someone in for a rude surprise. Once you set a goal and achieve it, you have had your reward. The challenge ever before us is to get deeper into the poverty Jesus speaks of in the Sermon. To do so it helps to go back to the beginning; to “Genesis.”
The serpent says that if you eat fruit from the tree of knowledge “your eyes will be opened and you will be as God, knowing good and evil.” The subtlety of this comes from the other version that states that God made man, male and female, “in his own image and likeness.” That is to say, it is not simply a temptation to wish to be like God. We were created, intended, and meant to be like God by reason of the way God has already acted. There is nothing wrong with that temptation to “be like God.” The problem is the idea that we, or Adam and Eve, could make ourselves be “like God.” God does that, not us. What the serpent offers is a distortion of possessing something that is already there. The serpent is seeking to propose a new concept of ownership.
Likeness to God was something that God had already given. Originally there was nothing that man and woman had to do on their own. Think about it. When all creation had been given to them, what could they do to possess something that was already given to them by God? How could man and woman secure ownership of something that is always a gift from God? Satan suggests that they should do something to become like God, that they should take their likeness to God into their own hands. The gesture of taking the fruit and eating the fruit is a symbol of man taking something into his own hand and storing it away safely inside himself! It is a symbol of that security of possession which has become such an obsessive concern for fallen human people.
Possession is the issue. Possessiveness is destructive of relationships by hanging on too tightly. Something like friendship can only be possessed in so far as it is constantly received as a gift which is ever new. I can’t count the number of relationships I have seen fall apart because someone in the relationship was too possessive. Fallen human beings like things they can hang onto or think they can. It is really the poor in spirit who can actually have anything because they are the ones who know how to receive gifts since everything for them is a gift. Consider the parable of the master who goes away leaving his property to 3 different people – the one who buries the money is afraid of risk. He is afraid of losing, and because of this fear he does lose. The master wants the servants to take risks just like the master takes a risk in leaving portions of his property with them. That loser wants to hang on to what he got, so he buries it. Not a good Gospel plan. Think about those apostles who had five loaves and two fish. It was all theirs, but Jesus asked them to give it up. He asked them to become poor like the people around them. When they did, remember what happened to that food?
The reason why it is so important for us to unlearn the kind of possessing that Satan proposes is that ultimately the only thing worth possessing is completely beyond possessing. When we possess nothing, then everything is available equally shared by all. If everyone possessed nothing and did not hang on to anything, everything that is, everything God has created, would be available and equally shared by everyone. That would be an experience of “Blessedness.” As soon as we begin to take and hold as our own, there is that much less for everyone else. Some would call this thinking “Socialism” and others might call it “Communism.” I call it “Gospelism” or authentic Christianity.
Perhaps the first and most essential characteristic of this Φτωχός is the profound awareness of who we are as creatures before God. We exist moment by moment only because of the creative love and fidelity of the Father. We have and we are nothing apart from God. We are totally unnecessary. Yet much of our lives is spent avoiding this realization. It is not by chance that the first of the Beatitudes confronts the First of all Sins: Pride. The first characteristic of the poor is embracing this truth. Everything we have is a gift received.
The characteristic of this Φτωχός is the ability to listen. One rich in this world lives with a cluttered mind and heart, many voices, many longings and desires fill those lives. The rich do not and cannot listen to the other, for too much energy is spent in listening to the conflicting shouts of passion. In a song by Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee, there is a line, “Freedom’s just another name for nothin’ left to lose.” I love that description of poverty. The poor person is able to leave the land of father and mother and journey to a far place on a promise; the poor person is able to let another go in freedom; the poor person can hand over the body in crucifixion for others. The poor person is of the kingdom because the kingdom consists in those who hear the Word of God and keep it. And only the truly poor can hear.
As I said at the beginning, God is very poor because God clings to nothing. Blessedness is a measure of how much we resemble God in whose image we are made. The hymn of Philippians that is sing at Vespers so often says it all. He did no grasping, but poured out everything. A frightening thing about this is that to become poor we have to surrender even our grip on ourselves which very well might mean being exposed and experiencing times of mental, emotional and spiritual deprivations. We call this: “Dark Nights.” We have all been there, but I dare say, we probably failed to understand what it means and even what it offers as a blessing.
Think of Mother Theresa when a few years ago her letters to her spiritual director revealed that she spent the largest part of her life in that kind of darkness. She probably did not at the time understand that this very painful experience was her most real experience of poverty and her most intimate connection with the poor she served. I believe that this darkness is exactly what stripped her of everything she might have wanted to hold onto leaving her with nothing. In that poverty, she was able to realize the image of God in herself and become the angel of mercy, compassion, and self-giving by which we remember her. She became poor so that her identity with the poor lifted them up
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who have allowed themselves to be stripped of acquisitiveness and “security”, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, because they no longer seek to possess, but to be possessed. If we ask the question, ‘What does it mean for the Kingdom of God to be ours? We begin to realize that it means our lives are centered upon God and imitating the very way God lives and acts. This is the ultimate depth of a Beatitude, “Poverty of Spirit.”
BLESSED ARE THE MEEK
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
Numbers 12, 1-8
The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is always cast in the shadow of or in the image of Moses, so here is Moses “by far the meekest man on the face of the earth.” It is a new Moses then who proposes that real Blessedness, real Beatitude is found in Meekness. Πράος is the Greek work here. Again, this is a very strong word. The Greeks used that word to describe the domesticating of a powerful animal. It means, great strength under control. These animals, horses or oxen had to be “meeked.” Important to realize is that meekness is not weakness. It is quite the opposite: strength used in control, with discipline.
Inherit is the word here that makes a big difference from the Beatitude before it. Meekness goes along with poverty of spirit so opposed to grasping and manipulating and perverting, and so this inherit word opens us to receiving. An inheritance is not seized, it is received. This is a way of seeing all things as gifts from God’s hands, our own lives first of all. It is a reverence which recognizes that where God is at work, as in creation, there is the Holy. It is a response, therefore, which lets things be what they are and uses them appropriately.
Meekness inherited recognizes that the kingdom of God is itself a gift that cannot be seized at our own initiative. We do not possess it. We are gifted with it; moment by moment with the result that every moment of our lives should be characterized by thanksgiving.
The meek are those who wait knowing that what they wait for has already been given and will be given again – the gift of God’s own life. The meek like the poor are radically dispossessed, because they desire nothing but that which comes to them as a gift from God. Those are the ones who truly are able to rejoice in, celebrate, and make use of the earth as children of God. Those who seek to grasp never really possess. The paradox of the beatitudes like the paradox of the kingdom, is that those who lose their lives will gain them. Those who are poor enough, meek enough, that is to say, free enough to desire nothing but what is given are the ones able to rejoice in all things. Blessed are the meek who are not in too big a hurry to get things done and know how to wait, helpless, nailed to a cross. Against all the odds it is they who will in inherit the earth.
It is the teaching of this world that the earth belongs to those who seize it, that power is meant for domination, oppression and exploitation, and that the only limits to my freedom are the limits imposed by my appetites, that arrogance and lack of care are signs of strength. This attitude, and the understanding of humanity which it expresses, has dominated much of our history in the western world for the past four hundred years. It is an idea of man based upon the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods that humans might have light and warmth. That theft was regarded as the heroic appropriation of an item to which man was entitled by virtue of his mere presence on earth. So, this “entitlement” has justified the thoughtless domination of technology in our world today. It has enabled us to throw railroads and ribbons of concrete across the land, to erect great mountains of steel and mortar, to seal our lives in plastic wrapping. With this view of humanity, we have created a “world of man” that is destroying creation. We have forgotten that the earth belongs to another. What we are only now beginning to discover is that by seizing the earth, we have destroyed it. And in the process, we are seeing this “world of man” turning into a demonic world, filled not with the light and hope and the optimism of science, but seething with the forces of violence and decay. With the blowing a fuse our shining cities become chaotic nightmares of luting and murder. An old folk song asked us once, “Where have all the flowers gone?” We might ask more appropriately, where has the image of humanity gone? Now that the world has been shaped to the image of Promethean man, is it possible to recognize ourselves?
Now Psalm 37 gives us a focus for this Beatitude, and I believe that Matthew intended it so. The psalmist is looking around the world. He sees all the wrong people prospering. The people who ought to be doing well, the righteous followers of God’s law seem to be helpless before the successes of the wicked. It does not make sense. So, the psalmist, trying to find comfort if not understand, meditates on the state of the world in the light of the mystery of God’s plan.
The message is clear. There is no future for the wicked. Consequently, there is no need to interfere any more than necessary to make the grass shrivel up in the sun. Indignation is inappropriate, and it is a long way from meekness. The meek simply laugh. The psalmist suggests that it is silly to take the unrighteous seriously. Reaction and outrage give them more substance than is their due, and it will accomplish nothing but harm. In other words, Evil has only as much reality as we give it.
Now that is not to suggest something simplistic. Evil is a part of our world as we know it, and a powerful part. So, we should notice that there is a shift in verb tenses between the first and the second Beatitude. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Julian of Norwich summed up meekness best of all: “All will be well.” Our temptation is, and always has been, to try to achieve God’s purposes by using the methods of the world. But every attempt to do so is shut off by the cross of Christ. Matthew 5:39 says: “Do not resist the evil.” If the previous Beatitude suggests that something has gone wrong with our normal ideas about possession; this Beatitude suggests that there is something wrong with our normal ideas about our attempts to get things done. In fact, this raises some question about the whole idea of trying to achieve something.
This whole business of “trying” is suspicious to me. Trying to do something always involves a division: it means doing one thing with an eye on another. Someone may play scales because they are trying to play the piano. Some may exercise because they are trying to stay healthy. It always seems to me that this can lead to two mistakes. First, we get into the way of thinking that everything that we do needs some kind of extrinsic justification. So, we become suspicious of people just doing things because they want to. The consequence is that we resort to all kinds of pseudo-justifications, like going for walks “for exercise” or worse we declare that walking is really important. We end up decorating harmless occupations with high-sounding meanings. Then the second thing kicks in. We forget that no amount of trying ever automatically produced the desired results. We can practice our scales, but some will never become pianists. I had a very close friend who went running every day, and one day while showering after his run, he fell dead in the shower. Fifty-seven years old! I’m not going to run. Between the trying and the doing, there is always some disconnect. My point is that our concern with trying to do things can often get us out of tune with God, because God does not try to do anything. Eckhart whose insights always leave me dumbfounded said that God acts without a reason why. God does things just because God is God. A German mystic remarked that a rose exists without a reason why; it blossoms because it blossoms. Now a biologist would want to take that further and talk about pollen, seeds, and reproduction. By the time the biologist or plant scientist is finished, there is no wonder, no awe, and hardly any beauty which is often the gateway to the divine.
Aristotle used that Greek word, Πράος to define the virtue between two extremes. It was for him, the “happy medium” between opposite passions. For example, Πράος described a generous man as opposed to a miser or a spendthrift. He goes on to describe the difference between complete passivity and rage as “meekness” or Πράος. As Aristotle saw it, there was a happy medium between too much and too little anger. This folds over into our understanding the Capital Sin, Anger, which Augustine rather artificially matched to this Beatitude in one of his sermons. Meekness thought of in this way, as I said at the beginning, is not weakness. The Meek are not without the passion or a virtuous Anger. It is just that they get angry about the right things, and they are never angry about any injury or affront to themselves.
Power is among the great temptations Aquinas warns against, and this Beatitude is its antidote. This Beatitude as about yielding. This is about directing our talents to a virtuous end. “Learn from me” says Jesus, for I am meek and humble of heart.” We have to become students; we have yield to the Teacher. The Epistle of James (1, 21) insists that we must receive with meekness the Word which is able to save our souls. We yield, we give control of our lives to Christ. If not, our lives will forever remain out of control.
If we are going to be and act like God, if we are to appreciate the act of God, we must come to appreciate the point of pointlessness or the joy of unnecessariness. There is some meekness in learning that there is satisfaction sometimes in just doing something for its own sake. As this truth began to dawn on me not too long ago, I began to understand my mother’s response and the wisdom of it when I would ask “Why?” She would look at me, shrug, and then say, “Because.” And that was all there was to it. It was always the end of the conversation. The reason why you go to Mass is not to try and be holy or obedient. It is because you do. It is because of who you are. It is because that is what Catholics do. There does not have to be some great and noble reason. There is meekness in this.
The meek will inherit the earth. The meek can be trusted with the good of this world. They will not hold too tightly. They will use everything in creation without exploitation or abuse. The meek do not feel the need to rush out and do something. It is better to rejoice in the Lord and be content to rest in his truthfulness and to gaze with wonder upon the world of his making with the eye of faith and the heart of hope. The meek are the source of hope and optimism in the face of helplessness.