“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.”
Context is the key to unlocking Scripture and revealing its mysteries. We need to remind ourselves that these texts were written nearly 2,000 years ago – long before that in some cases – and in cultural contexts that were quite unlike our own.
Let’s start with the idea of blessing. We say God bless you without much thinking about what the words mean. In our culture, saying “bless you” – if it has anything to do with God at all – is a way of asking God to look favorably on a person or a situation. We’re asking God to make life easier or to give us something that’s important: healing, perhaps, or a new relationship, or prosperity. But that’s not what blessing was about back in the day. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he’s doing it in the context of an ancient society that was all about honor and social standing. He’s saying, “God honors the poor in spirit.”
When we think of the ancient cultures of the Middle East we need to move away from our contemporary obsession with wealth and prosperity. In America, wealth is the key that gives us access to power, comfort, security. Believe it or not, some of us actually believe that wealth brings happiness. In sharp contrast, the cultures of the Middle East were about honor and social standing. And it’s not hard to understand why: Most everyone was materially poor. They didn’t have microwaves or washing machines. They didn’t even have Salad Shooters®. Imagine life without a Salad Shooter®! There was no such thing as a middle class. Instead, there was the thinnest of upper crusts, beneath which was the great mass of the poor. By far most people in the world were subsistence farmers. And, since for all intents and purposes, nobody had anything, having things wasn’t really the point. Which is why a single woman without a male child could be described as a “poor widow” whether she was materially poor or immensely wealthy. Regardless – she had no social standing: no husband, no son.
OK? There’s more. There always is. It was assumed that there was in the world a finite number of material goods. And that these goods had been distributed more or less as they ought to have been distributed. Further, it was the classic zero sum game: If one person gained, another person lost. In crude terms, everyone had what they were supposed to have, which meant that a person who became wealthy was in effect a thief. And greedy. And dishonest. Economic gain was by definition ill-gotten. Profit-making and acquisition were assumed to be the result of extortion, theft or fraud. Which is why throughout the gospels the wealthy are looked at with suspicion: “You’re wealthy? What’s going on?”
So, knowing what we know, let’s retranslate Matthew’s beatitudes and see what we come up with: God honors the poor in spirit; God honors those who mourn; God honors the meek; God honors those who hunger for righteousness; God honors the merciful; God honors the clean of heart – having nothing to do with sexuality but rather meaning “God honors those with integrity.” God honors the peacemakers. All that honor and what do you end up with? A radical shift in values and a radical statement about how things really are.
But wait – there’s more. All of these blessed people are, in the eyes of the world, vulnerable. They’re neither rejoicing in or bragging about being strong. They’re not pretending that they have it all together. They value things that were unpopular and even weird, then and now: mercy and peacemaking, for example. And they are in fact the very ones that society dishonors, discounts and dismisses. In contemporary parlance, they’re LOSERS. Sound familiar? And when you say LOSERS you punctuate it with a sneer. And what do losers do? They lose. It’s who they are: losers. And you’re saying that God honors losers? Right…
Here’s a question: To whom do the world’s goods belong? Good question, and one of our dear Pope Francis’s favorite questions – Francis, driving around in that dumb Ford Focus – what a loser car that is. At least it’s better than the 1984 Renault he used to drive. So, to whom do the world’s resources belong? We think we know the answer: The world’s goods belong to whomever gets there first. Or to the strongest. Grab it, or in more polite terminology, discover it; keep it away from other people; it’s yours. Not fast enough? Don’t have the weapons to take and defend what you want? Well that’s just too bad for you. L.O.S.E.R.
Which is a lie, and a foundational lie. Francis has said so, repeatedly. As did Benedict. As did St. John Paul II. As did St. John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople, who died in the year 407. The truth? The world’s goods belong to everyone, equally. That’s the way God set it up. The world’s goods are for the common good – a concept entirely foreign to our hyper-materialistic, hyper-individualistic culture.
Cultures of sin – such as the culture of systemic racism we’ve been talking about but haven’t finished talking about, not by a longshot – serve to deaden the moral sensibilities of otherwise decent people. The other evening Fr. Pat and I – sad to say, Rags mostly slept through it – watched the HBO film Something the Lord Made. It’s about Vivien Thomas, the brilliant Black American lab supervisor who ended up pioneering the field of cardiac surgery. It’s worth your time. Still, in many ways it’s a standard biopic: Heroic figure fights impossible odds to make something of himself. Except that you shouldn’t have to be a hero to live a life of dignity and purpose. Anyway, one of the things I learned from the film was that back in the day in the American south Black Americans were expected to step off the sidewalk to allow white Americans to pass. It didn’t matter if you ended up ruining your good shoes in a mud puddle – you stepped off the sidewalk and if you were a man you tipped your hat. It was one of the hundreds of daily humiliations that Black Americans were forced to endure. Make no mistake, these humiliations were designed to wound. They were designed to remind Black Americans that they simply did not matter as much as white Americans. And they were drafted by Americans who no doubt had convinced themselves that they were doing the right thing. And I’ll bet that few of the white Americans who benefitted from this humiliation even thought about what was happening. They didn’t see it as a moral issue. It was just the way things were.
Sometimes people think that it’s helpful to feel sorry for the poor and for those who have been held back by racism or misogyny or homophobia. Now empathy is helpful, because empathy engenders solidarity. But pity? Feeling sorry? I don’t think so, not in the long run. You feel sorry for someone you feel superior to. But it’s more than that: These issues are matters of justice and I think that’s how they are best understood. Systemic racism is wrong because it’s an injustice, regardless of how anyone feels about it. Feeling sorry for people does not have the moral power to bring about the kind of broad-based and systemic changes we so desperately need.
And change we must. In this country, at this time in history, we inhabit any number of civic, economic, social, political and religious structures, institutions and systems that have – to put it bluntly – failed. If they ever served us, they do so no longer. A culture that understands violence to be a solution to life’s problems is a culture that has failed. A society that can neither honor nor protect the lives of its citizens from conception through natural death is a society that has failed. Economic, civil or religious institutions that deny or call into question the inherent dignity of every human being have in that respect failed. And no matter what you call them, economic systems that cannot adequately feed, house, and educate their citizens have failed. Climate change is a sign that we have failed. Ways of proceeding that disrupt, degrade or destroy the Earth our Common Home have failed. Injustice is itself a sign of failure. And whether those who struggle under unjust systems are heroes who rise against impossible odds or are crushed and succumb in impossible situations, injustice is wrong.
Brothers and sisters, we can change. We have the tools. Oddly, they’re contained in the beatitudes. The poor in spirit are those who know that they need God. Those who mourn are those who know they need other people. Peacemakers built community. Now add mercy, integrity, the hunger and thirst for righteousness, and there you are: “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”
There is nothing remotely normal about our national situation. I’ve read some increasingly dire predictions – made by people who actually know things – about what lengths to which our president and his enablers may go to keep him in office should his party lose the election. I hope the predictions are wrong. We’ll have to see. Whether we awaken on Wednesday to more chaos or to just another day in paradise, we’re going to be all right. Why? Because this is God’s world. Because although the arc of history may be long, it tends toward justice. Because we can stand together and stick together and give comfort and hold fast to what is good and show the world what Loyola Catholics are made of. Because we, though sinners, are beloved. We are the people who long to see the face of Christ. Beloved, hear these words again, for although they were written 2,000 years ago, they were written for you to hear and find strength in: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Praise God.