It can be a rather bracing exercise of late just to turn on the news. Am I right? Global anxiety feels like it’s ratcheted up to 11.
And with some good reasons, I think. Poverty, civil wars, healthcare crises, the perceived instability of formerly stable governments.
- Nearly 3/4 of the world’s adult population has less than $10,00 in wealth. If you add all the wealth of that 71% of the world’s population together, it makes up 3% of the total wealth in the world. Yeah, 71% of the world owns 3% of the world’s wealth.
- Compare that with the 8.1% of the world’s population that has assets of $100,000 or more—that 8.1% of the world’s population owns almost 85% of the world’s wealth. (reference)
- The world’s richest 62 billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people.
- The richest 1 percent have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together. (reference)
- Countries like Syria are systematically killing their own people.
- Anti-immigrant and anti-refugee nationalism have led to a profound increase in hate crimes and bigoted regulations.
But it’s one thing for people to take notice of the huge disparity in wealth and power in countries half way around the world, or even on a national scale. It’s an entirely different thing to realize that people all around us are experiencing similar kinds of powerlessness and inequality—right here in the land of opportunity—right here in “Compassionate Louisville.”
People very geographically close to us don’t have access to food (except what you can buy at a convenience store). In west Louisville there are literally no grocery stores where you can buy fresh produce.
People not too far from the Douglass Loop have to do their banking with pay-day lenders at loan shark interest rates; and when their kids get sick they have to cart them down to the emergency room to sit with dozens of other families who don’t yet have health insurance—and, it appears now, may be in danger of never having it.
We’re not Syria or Somalia, who are living in hell—no question about it; but we have plenty of our own folks who’ve felt the sharp sting of having no power in a society that runs on power. (And thanks to a recent executive order, we can’t even help shelter people from those countries who are trying to find their way to, if not a better life, then at least one where they don’t have to live in fear every waking moment that their children may soon die violently.)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [humans] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And, for the most part, we like to think of ourselves as meaning those words. Americans, by an large, like to think of ourselves as people who want to welcome everybody to the melting pot—but some of us sure would appreciate it if they’d clean up some before they get here.
Americans like the idea of welcoming, of being in solidarity with those beat too far down to get back up—but we’d feel a whole lot better about everything if we could tell whether they genuinely deserve the help or if they’re just trying to scam the system.
It’s tough. We don’t have riots in the streets at this point, but we know that we live right smack-dab in the middle of a world where some have and some do not.
But it’s not like the world hasn’t known great disparities of wealth or the ugliness of xenophobia before. A great deal of what the Hebrew prophets railed about looked eerily similar to this.
If you remember from a couple weeks ago, the prophet Isaiah gave precisely these kinds reasons for Jerusalem’s destruction: They failed to seek justice, to rescue the oppressed, to defend the orphan, to plead for the widow. In other words, Jerusalem appeared altogether too willing to abide a situation where the powerful maintained their dominance at the expense of the powerless. And good people stood by and let it happen. And God was not pleased.
Things were apparently not that different by the time Jesus showed up on the scene either. Rome, the imperial power-broker, was occupying Jerusalem—sucking up all of the resources, throwing its weight around, and making life generally miserable for those who weren’t in a position to sell out as collaborators.
Just a few verses prior to our text for this morning, when given the opportunity himself to sell out to the political sales job laid down by the Tempter in the wilderness, Jesus made a quick decision not to align himself with the politically powerful.
The last temptation, if you remember, had the Tempter take Jesus to “a very high mountain and [show] him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” and that Jesus would be given all these kingdoms if only he’d fall down and worship the one who tempted him.
By contrast, today we find Jesus going up another mountain to begin his first big teaching session in Matthew, in which he sets down the design for a new reign—one very different from the kingdoms just offered to him in the wilderness—a reign very much concerned with building bridges instead of walls.
Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; Jesus offers another kingdom where those served will be anything but splendid.
The Beatitudes; that’s what they’re called—this passage in the Gospel this morning. The Beatitudes have had a tough go of it in the hands of biblical interpreters intent on spiritualizing everything Jesus said. “Oh, Jesus didn’t mean actual poverty, actual grief—he was talking about stuff in your heart—you know, about getting your soul straightened out.”
But here’s something you should know, all theological spiritualizing notwithstanding, Matthew’s beatitudes aren’t things you strive to accomplish with a positive outlook and a sunny disposition. Instead, they lay out a vision of God’s disposition toward those who’ve been kicked out of the rest of the kingdoms of the world.
The Beatitudes offer us a map of where, and among whom, Jesus is most likely to be found.
Being “poor in spirit,” for instance, isn’t something to put on your New Year’s resolution to-do list. As Warren Carter points out, these are the “economically poor … whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice. They can see no hope, but they know the corrosive effect of hopeless poverty.”
Moreover, those who mourn are those who grieve the oppressive regime (in this case, Rome) held up to Jesus by the Tempter.
The meek, for instance, are not the wimps of the earth. Rather, the meek are identified—as in Psalm 37 (from which we get the mention of the meek inheriting the land)—as the powerless and the humiliated, those who’ve been sorely used by the wicked and the violent.
Or look at the next one: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Surely, that one must be an admonition to a spiritual pursuit. But dikaiosune, the word that traditionally gets translated as “righteousness,” isn’t (as popular Christianity would have you believe) about personal morality. It’s better translated in this case, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” Those who’ve seen how all the kingdoms of this world in their splendor can grind the powerless to dust.
You get the idea. The beatitudes are Jesus’ announcement about what the reign of God inaugurated in his ministry is going to look like. Jesus is taking sides. He announces God’s reign as one in which the powerful no longer get to the call the shots, leaving those who’re on the margins to fend for themselves.
Jesus announces a new order of things in which the anawim—a Hebrew word applied to those who are the very lowest in society, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, the folks who live out next to the garbage dump of life—a new order of things in which the anawim occupy the places of honor, finally get to sit at the big people’s table, no longer handed the crumbs and the leftovers.
Jesus proclaims a new realm—unlike the kingdoms of this world with which the Tempter enticed him out in the wilderness just a few verses prior—kingdoms where some have and others are left holding the bag, where a few get to steamroll their way to the front of the line and everyone else gets flattened, where some have food, and others are left to starve. Because the reign of God does not exist where some are welcome and others are not.
One of my favorite stories that Fred Craddock tells is a story about a time when he was scheduled to give a lecture at a place up North in the dead of winter. He arrived at his hotel, and during the night a blizzard came. He woke up to a landscape freshly covered with over a foot of new snow. The telephone rang. He answered it, and a voice said, “Fred, this president Smith from the university. We’ve canceled classes today. Everything is completely shut down. We can’t even get anyone to you to take you out to eat. But if you can get out of your room, and get down to the main street–if you turn left and walk about a block, there is a bus station that will be open. They have a little diner in there where you should be able to find something to eat.” He put on his clothes and headed out.
When Fred reached the diner, it was packed, and he squeezed into a booth with some strangers. He was cold and uncomfortable, but looking forward to a good hot meal. A gruff looking man came to the table and asked him what he wanted. Fred said, looking at the menu, “I’ll have some of the meatloaf and mashed potatoes, please.”
“We’re all out. All we have left is soup. But it’s good and hot.”
“I’ll have soup, then.”
They brought him his soup. Fred said it was gray and had some sort of indistinguishable lumps in it. As the steam rose off the soup, and the smell hit his nostrils, he still couldn’t tell what kind of soup it was—only that it was unquestionably unappetizing. He couldn’t bring himself to eat it—hungry as he was.
And as he sat there pondering his latest dilemma, the door opened and a woman in a ragged coat walked in—her cheeks flushed from the effort of staying warm on such a bitter winter day. She came toward the counter, found a stool, and sat down. She pulled off her worn gloves, displaying her dirty hands and gritty fingernails. The gruff looking man came to her and asked what she wanted. She said, “Only a cup of water please. I just need to warm up.”
“You can’t sit here if you don’t buy something,” he said menacingly.
“But I don’t have any money.”
“You’ll have to leave, then.”
“Look, lady, I’m trying to run a business here. I need the space for paying customers. If you don’t have enough money to buy something, you gotta clear out.”
By this time the whole diner had gotten quiet. Everyone had stopped what they were doing to witness this exchange. With tears in her eyes and the sad resignation of someone for whom this was a common occurrence, she began to put her gloves on.
All of a sudden, a person in the next booth stood up. Then another one stood up. The person sitting on the stool next to the woman stood up. Soon everyone in the diner was standing up, glaring at the gruff looking owner. Finally, someone broke the standoff by saying, “If she ain’t welcome here, none of us is welcome.”
Everyone began to put on their coats and gloves—the whole diner prepared to leave with the woman who now stood by the door unable to believe her eyes. Craddock said he had never seen anything like it.
The owner, shaken by this sudden show of solidarity, shouted above the rustle of winter coats, “O.K. she can stay.”
“But can she eat?” the original protestor wanted to know.
“Yeah, she can eat,” muttered the defeated owner. And he brought her a bowl of gray, lumpy soup.
Fred said later, “It was amazing. All of us huddled together in the midst of this storm eating this unappetizing looking gray soup with big smiles on our faces. I never did know what that soup was, but sitting there in that diner with a ragged lady on a stool at the counter eating it too … it tasted like the body of Christ.”
You know, this is America. You can do what you want.
I mean, you have the right to invite whomever you want to invite, and work to keep out whomever you want to keep out.
You can help to make a world where some eat and some do not, where some are welcome, and others are rejected—a world where “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” wind up having to huddle somewhere else, where your wretched refuse have to teem on some other shore—across the cafeteria, on the other side of town, next to the garbage dump, in the closet … out of sight.
You can do all that—but, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not church.
You want to follow Jesus? You go find him where he is.
“But where is that?”
Go find that hungry woman from the diner.
Go to airports in Chicago, or Philadelphia, or Seattle, or New York, where refugees are being detained—or, heck, just go over to Mohammad and Alaa’s apartment where they’re still in fear of what will happen to them now that Islamophobia seems to be a policy position.
Go over to Temple Shalom as its people recover from being targeted by anti-semitic hate speech … on the Holocaust Day of remembrance, for crying out loud!
Go find someone like my friend who texted me a couple days ago, anxious to find an immigration attorney before the wheels come off.
Go find the folks in our own community who can’t find fresh food, and who can’t afford to buy it when to do.
You find them … and I’ll bet Jesus will be hanging around somewhere very close by. The reign of God does not exist where some eat and some do not, where some are welcome and some are not.