Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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God of the gaps is no God

I love reading from Bonhoeffer’s writings, especially in the series of the complete works in English translations put out by Fortress Press. Bonhoeffer is perhaps best known for his “Letters and Papers from Prison,” written between April 1943 (when he was arrested for conspiring against Hitler) and January 1945, three months before he was executed by the Nazis. These letters and papers were published after his death and became classics of Christian faith and expression in the 20th century. Today I came across this letter, dated May 29, 1944, and I want to share it here with you, from the translation in the Fortress edition. It was written to Eberhard Bethke, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and the one who did the most to get these “letters and papers” published after the war. It is the kind of “Christian” writing that is so absent in the superficial Christian “religious” writings of today. Bonhoeffer could stand comparison to any of the giants of Christian history. Note how he speaks of the “fullness of life” from his own perspective of imprisonment and war, and how Christianity puts together the fragments of our lives. I love his calling life “polyphonic” – surely inspired by his great love of music. What he wrote in the concluding paragraph about God as the “stopgap” is extraordinarily important. He rejects any notion of God being the god of the gaps! “God is the center of life and doesn’t just ‘turn up’ when we have unsolved problems to be solved.” Perhaps this is part of what we mean when we declare on Easter night, “Christ is Risen, and life politeuetai!” And I do not translate that Greek word, because I want to write an article on just that word. But please do read this letter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read it more than once! It’s the answer you may need for many questions in your life. TRULY THE LORD IS RISEN!

Dear Eberhard,

I hope that despite the air raids you both are enjoying to the full the peace and beauty of these warm, summery days of Pentecost. Inwardly, one learns gradually to put life-threatening things in proportion. Actually, “put in proportion” sounds too negative, too formal or artificial or stoic. One should more correctly say that we just take in these daily threats as part of the totality of our lives. I often notice hereabouts how few people there are who can harbor many different things at the same time. When bombers come, they are nothing but fear itself; when there’s something good to eat, nothing but greed itself; when they fail to get what they want, they become desperate; if something succeeds, that’s all they see. They are missing out on the fullness of life and on the wholeness of their own existence. Everything, whether objective or subjective, disintegrates into fragments. Christianity, on the other hand, puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; in a way we accommodate God and the whole world within us. We weep with those who weep at the same time as we rejoice with those who rejoice. We fear—(I’ve just been interrupted again by the siren, so I’m sitting outdoors enjoying the sun)—for our lives, but at the same time we must think thoughts that are much more important to us than our lives. During an air raid, for example, as soon as we are turned in a direction other than worrying about our own safety, for example, by the task of spreading calm around us, the situation becomes completely different. Life isn’t pushed back into a single dimension, but is kept multidimensional, polyphonic. What a liberation it is to be able to think and to hold on to these many dimensions of life in our thoughts. I’ve almost made it a rule here for myself, when people here are trembling during an air raid, always just to talk about how much worse such an attack would be for smaller towns. One has to dislodge people from their one-track thinking—as it were, in “preparation for” or “enabling” faith, though in truth it is only faith itself that makes multidimensional life possible and so allows us to celebrate Pentecost even this year, in spite of air raids.

At first I was a bit disconcerted and perhaps even saddened not to have a letter from anyone for Pentecost this year. Then I said to myself that perhaps it’s a good sign, that no one is worried about me—but it’s simply a strange drive in human beings to want others—at least a little—to worry about them.

Weizsäcker’s book on the Weltbild der Physik continues to preoccupy me a great deal. It has again brought home to me quite clearly that we shouldn’t think of God as the stopgap [Lückenbüßer] for the incompleteness of our knowledge, because then—as is objectively inevitable—when the boundaries of knowledge are pushed ever further, God too is pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat. We should find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants to be grasped by us not in unsolved questions but in those that have been solved. This is true of the relation between God and scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the universal human questions about death, suffering, and guilt. Today, even for these questions, there are human answers that can completely disregard God. Human beings cope with these questions practically without God and have done so throughout the ages, and it is simply not true that only Christianity would have a solution to them. As for the idea of a “solution,” we would have to say that the Christian answers are just as uncompelling (or just as compelling) as other possible solutions. Here too, God is not a stopgap. We must recognize God not only where we reach the limits of our possibilities. God wants to be recognized in the midst of our lives, in life and not only in dying, in health and strength and not only in suffering, in action and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. God is the center of life and doesn’t just “turn up” when we have unsolved problems to be solved. Seen from the center of life, certain questions fall away completely and likewise the answers to such questions (I’m thinking of the judgment pronounced on Job’s friends!). In Christ there are no “Christian problems.” Enough on this; I’ve just been interrupted again.


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Messages of the Just

A friend shared with me the concluding stanza of the poem September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden. Here it is:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden wrote this poem at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was first published in The New Republic on October 18th, 1939. Auden wrote it at the beginning of a very dark period in human history.

There is darkness today also, of various kinds: climate change and environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, terrorism and the threats of new world wars, racism and prejudices of many types, deadly viruses and the potential of biological warfare, tyrannical governments, electronic surveillance and cyber attacks, religious confusion, superstition and conflict, and I can go on with more. The darkness Auden confronted in 1939 was focused on one enemy; our darkness comes from many directions and different enemies. But the overall picture today is just as bleak as it was in 1939.

Most of us are able to go about our daily lives without much of a feel for this darkness. We watch manifestations of it in our evening or morning newscasts, but then quickly immerse ourselves in our work, family obligations and favorite forms of escapism. That’s one way to respond to the darkness. The other way is to acknowledge it, and oppose it as “ironic points of light” in the language of Auden.

I prefer the confrontational approach. Though I also have my favorite forms of escapist entertainment, I leave much room in my daily life for the Auden approach. I read, I inform myself about the world through reliable sources, I commune with the greatness of the human spirit – in music, literature, philosophy and religious writings – and I try to write and develop my own thoughts. I post stuff here on this website, though not nearly often enough. And I exchange ideas and encouragement with friends and people who also want to rise above the darkness. The friend who sent me Auden’s poem did so to encourage me. And I post it here to encourage you if you also are struggling or need reminding that you are here on earth to be light in the darkness.

The cover of LIFE magazine, March 26, 1965 (click to enlarge)

Physically I’m not able to take part in demonstrations or other forms of resistance, but I admire people and groups who engage in non-violent resistance and follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other men and women who took a stand for what is right. Our own Archbishop Iakovos walked hand in hand with Martin Luther King in the famous walk in Selma, Alabama. He was one of the few white clergy and the only church leader to participate in the walk! He was on the cover of the March 26, 1965, issue of LIFE magazine.

I recently watched the film Selma. An actor played the role of Archbishop Iakovos in the re-enactment of this important event in the history of civil rights in the United States. Iakovos was often quoted saying how important it was for him to support Martin Luther King and his struggle. Iakovos even received death threats warning him not to walk with King, but he did, and he made his mark in American history. On that day he was a point of light. He was one of the Just in Auden’s poem.

 

The walk in the film Selma, with the actor Michael Shikany portraying Archbishop Iakovos walking arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr., portrayed by the actor David Oyelowo (click to enlarge)

The real message of Auden’s poem is in the lines:

… wherever the Just

Exchange their messages.

Who are the Just? They are those who hunger and thirst for justice that Jesus calls “Blessed” in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). The Greek word in verse 6 and also in verse 10 is δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosyne. It is a pity that all English Bibles translate it as “righteousness” because the most direct literal translation of this word is “justice”. Righteousness is too focused on the personal, and Jesus himself wasn’t particularly fond of righteous people if you don’t mind my saying so. He attacked those who were righteous in their own eyes or in the eyes of others. And quite frankly, few people are going to be persecuted for being righteous (verse 10). But people can be persecuted when they stand in support of justice – as Archbishop Iakovos stood on March 15th, 1965.

Archbishop Iakovos sends us a message today, 52 years after he walked with Martin Luther King. He sends us a message as one Just man to the Just men and women of today: Where do we stand? Do we even stand for anything? The fight for civil rights is not over, it continues. Do we care for civil rights? Do we stand with those who are denied justice? What is our own message to future generations? Do we care for our planet and its environment? Do we care for climate change? Do we care to eliminate poverty and hunger? Do we care to end all wars? Or are we too busy with our lives to care for anyone or anything else? Let’s translate Jesus’ words a little more accurately so we can hear more clearly the call to be Just.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

Let’s exchange messages with other Just men and women of today, of tomorrow and of the future – if there is to be a future.

Kneeling in prayer in the film Selma. Prayer of the Just – a message to us.


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The Church is Boring, You Say?

There is a false and pernicious idea that Liturgy is boring; that church is boring and irrelevant; and that is why people, especially young people, are staying away.

Personally, I’ve never been convinced of that argument. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Perhaps people find church and Liturgy boring because they are bored, and because their lives are boring! I’m not saying this to put anyone down or to imply that nothing about the Orthodox Church is boring. Far from it, I’m the first to point out the deficiencies in Orthodox church structures and ways.

But look around. People are bored. That is why we run to every new gadget, why we bury our faces in small and large screens, why we communicate with text messages and emojis and YouTube and Facebook. Because we are bored. Nothing Apple can produce will satisfy people’s boredom; we will always want more. That is why Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Sony, and other behemoths, are constantly updating their products. People need something new every day: because they are bored!

So should the church join the racket of the weekly updates? Is that what will bring people to Liturgy? Don’t be fooled. Why are there so many revolving doors in evangelical and non-denominational churches? They look full every Sunday, but how well do they retain people? These churches change their songs and videos every week, they look like they’re catering to the market obsession with “the new”; but they don’t retain members any better than we do, they’re actually doing worse. But they look full because there is a constant movement of people from one “relevant, up-to-date” church to another. It’s the secret of evangelical success in this country – the revolving door of “believers” who are often nothing more than bored consumers of religion.

Look at your own habits, as I look at my own habits. I don’t go anywhere, even inside the house, without my iPhone in my hand or in my pocket. How often in any 5-minute span do you/I look at the notification screen of your/my phone or tablet? Why? Because we are bored.

So don’t tell me church is boring. That’s a cop-out. But let me say it more clearly: Church is boring, you say? I agree that it is! But it’s boring only because WE ARE BORING!

So let’s get off our boring and bored lifestyles. Let’s turn off the electronic devices that are turning us into carriers of attention-deficit disorder. Take a sabbath rest from the market empires that rule our lives. That’s what two hours on a Sunday morning can be for you: an entry into a new kingdom, a kingdom of beauty and peace and attention-fullness. If all of us could come to Liturgy with such awareness and such need for healing from our scattered, bored lives, then the Liturgy will becomes more alive for us.

There is nothing more “relevant” in our lives than the need for release and freedom. God ordained a sabbath for good reason. God has known from all eternity that a sabbath rest from the daily forces that feed on our boredom and lack of freedom is the most basic need of human beings. But for the first time in human history, the sabbath has been eliminated and it has been replaced by enslavement to the Now of computer screens and smartphone notifications. Don’t be a slave to boredom. Join the battle for holistic, authentic living, rather than the fakery that aims to claim every moment of your life with false promises of “something new” but only makes you more bored and hungry for more escape from boredom. Reclaim your life from the machine of boredom! And then church and Liturgy will cease to be boring as well. It’s a good goal to strive for in 2017. HAPPY NEW YEAR!


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Perfected in forgiveness

 

As I think upon the Cross of Jesus Christ today, I remember the first words that Jesus spoke on the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Forgiveness, the hardest thing for human beings to do. Yet, the thing most characteristic of the one who was God and Man! Oh, but you might still say, so easy for him to forgive! After all, he wasn’t just a man, he was God! Yes, but God nailed to a Cross in human flesh, enduring human suffering. God humiliated by sinful men! You want to think again about how easy we should presume it was for God to forgive?

Here is the thing about forgiveness. It is not a theoretical thing, something for philosophers and theologians to write about or speculate about. It is an action. And only if you have suffered in the hands of someone else can you forgive, can you experience forgiveness. To be truly forgiving, God had to suffer the indignity of the Cross. That is the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus did not die in order to appease an angry God, as you often hear from TV and radio preachers. Quite the contrary, Jesus died to bring to perfection God’s love – because love is perfected in forgiveness. It is the highest human perfection – it is the thing that makes us most like God.

Hebrews 2:10-11  In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation (ἀρχηγὸν τῆς σωτηρίας) perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same source (ἐξ ἑνὸς πάντες). So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.

Poster for the film Of Gods and Men (click to enlarge)

Poster for the film Of Gods and Men (click to enlarge)

Powerful example of forgiveness: seven French Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, beheaded by Islamic extremists in 1996. Their story was made into an award-winning film in 2010, Of Gods and Men. The prior of the Algerian monastery, Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins, sealed it, and left it with his mother in France. Opened after his murder, it read in part:

If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.

I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this: How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?

I know the caricatures which a certain Islamic ideology encourages and which make it easy for some to dismiss the religion as hateful…

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But such people should know that at last I will be able to see the children of Islam as He sees them—all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His passion. His secret joy will always be to establish communion and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.…

For this life lost, I give thanks to God. In this “thank you” … I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

The man who wrote these words understood the meaning of the Cross. We most likely will not experience death by beheading or death on a Cross. But we can forgive!

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There are many websites with information about the monks of Tibhirine. For example: Here and here.

Wikipedia has articles on Christian de Chergé and on the assassination of the monks.

The full text of the “last testament” of Christian de Chergé can be read here. Also here in a slightly different translation: Testament-engl


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Solidarity and love

Excellent commentary in the Guardian newspaper in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks. The key paragraph is near the end:

The biggest nightmare for Isis was how some European countries, such as Germany, welcomed Syrian refugees with open arms. The solidarity shown by thousands of citizens from Greece to Sweden harmed Isis. It cannot repeat enough that Muslims should come to its “caliphate” because Europeans are racists and Islamophobes. By hosting Syrian refugees, we have shown that Isis is wrong.

What many Islamophobes and racists in Europe and in the United States don’t realize is that this is a war for the minds and hearts of millions, if not billions of people. This is a spiritual war – not in the sense of a military war in the name of god, a holy war or a crusade. No, it’s a spiritual war because the spirits of people are at stake. The writer of this article, and countless others who have voiced similar thoughts in recent months and years, sees how our hatred plays right into the aims of the so-called Islamic State. It may sound idealistic and naive, but Jesus would agree with the message of this commentary: We fight hate with love.

The writer singles out Germany and Greece as examples of the solidarity that is needed to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Military strikes may achieve some victories, but this is in the final analysis a war for minds and hearts. We can’t speak hatred and expect the Moslem world to cave in to our world-view. (And we should never expect anyone to cave in to our world-view on the presumption that our world-view is better!)

It’s a war for minds and hearts – but not only for the minds and hearts of Moslems; the minds and hearts of European and American non-Moslems also hang precariously in the balance. Will we give in to hatred, racism and religious self-centeredness, as some hate-mongering politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are telling us to do? If we do, our souls are in greater danger than the physical lives of those Syrian refugees that are drowning in the seas between Turkey and Greece. Think hard so-called Christian of the West: God will judge us too!

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The evils of rigidity

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As the world is once again shocked by another brutal terrorist attack – this time in Brussels – I want to quote some words written by the late, great French theologian and philosopher, Jacques Ellul (1912-94), in his book Living Faith. He wrote of the connection between rigidity and violence, and thus the two faces of violence – the violence of rigid religious fundamentalism and government’s response to it.

The more one is afraid, the harder one’s armor becomes, the more it turns into a part of one’s own body like a kind of carapace. Like fear rigidity manifests itself in every area of life. We find it in religious movements as a return to dogmatic narrowness, formalism, scriptural fundamentalism. We see rigidity in administrators and planners – a sure sign that dictatorial tendencies are reappearing. When fear sweeps over society, a security grid will have to be imposed upon it. And this will necessarily be some kind of fascism, whether of the Right or the Left, which, before bringing on the terror, will have people heaving a great sigh of relief, glad to think that at last they know where they’re going, that someone is protecting them. Rigidity in religion will be matched by rigidity in politics.

Ellul wrote this book in 1983, long before Islamist fundamentalism and terrorist movements and the West’s attempts to respond or deal with this phenomenon. Fundamentalism is rooted in fear. Religious fundamentalists invariably leads to violence on some scale. It can be on the scale of “Christian” fundamentalists who bomb abortion centers or kill abortion doctors; or it can be on the more global scale of the Islamist terrorists of recent decades. Either way, it is the same phenomenon: Fear of change and fear of women!

That’s right, you read that last line correct – fear of women! Islamists are afraid of women asserting their equality with men. I know I’m probably over-simplifying things as I usually do in big matters, but I have long believed that the primary fear that motivates Islamist terrorism is not the Israel-Palestine conflict – they use that as a cover – nor Western support of Arab dictators, but the fear that women in their societies will wake up… To whatever they wake up, it doesn’t matter.

And that fear is not only limited to Islamist fundamentalism. It undergirds much of Christian attitudes to women over the centuries and TODAY! Why do churches refuse to ordain women to any role other than cooks and servers of parish dinners and singers in the choir? Why does our Orthodox Church still maintain such strongly patriarchal language in its liturgical practice? Why do we always ask for the “prayers of our holy Fathers”? Why never our holy Mothers? Why even in the prayers of the Soul Saturdays with which we welcome Lent every year do we pray for the souls of our fathers and brothers and forefathers, etc. etc. – all male entities? Do our mothers and sisters not count? Or is it enough that we fill in their general absence with their specific names that we hand to the priest?

Why in the new Liturgy translation that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is printing for parish use has the English version of the Creed reverted to antiquated, gender-exclusive language – “for us men and for our salvation” – in willful, intentional, yes rigid, rejection of the changes that the English language has undergone in recent decades? When a woman has been hearing “for us and for our salvation” for the past thirty years in the previous translation now hears “for us men” is she supposed to think that she is now being excluded from salvation? Or is the expectation that she will mentally footnote this phrase and understand that “men” includes her too? Of course, most other Orthodox churches in the English-speaking world have been using “men” all along! Now the Greek Archdiocese of America has chosen to do likewise. Too bad, our loss.

There is a sickness in the world – the sickness of religious fundamentalism. Sometimes it leads to violence and death, as in Brussels today. More often it leads to the quiet despair of women in the pews of churches that refuse to recognize them as fully important human beings. (And there are other people and groups of people who also sit in quiet despair in our churches or simply drop away to escape the hatred and mistrust aimed at them!)

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We’re all in this together. Whether it’s death or quiet despair, the evil is the same. It flows from fear and rigidity. And the fear and rigidity of religious violence lead to a political response that usually results in the tyranny of the state. We see this trend growing in Europe and in North America; not to ignore Asia and elsewhere. In one brief paragraph, written over 30 years ago, Jacques Ellul brought to our attention both sides of rigidity and fear: the violence of religious fundamentalism and the violence of the state’s response to it. The future of life on our planet is looking pretty bleak right now. Sorry I can’t be more positive today on this, another black day of violence and hatred.


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Blessed are the persecuted

 

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness/justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

Blessed are YOU, when when people revile you and persecute you and speak all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matthew 5:11)

Eight Beatitudes were spoken in the third person plural – Blessed are they…

Finally Jesus turns to his own, Blessed are you…!

It seems that Jesus addresses all humanity in the eight beatitudes: Blessed is anyone who is poor in spirit, meek, who mourns, who yearns for justice, who is merciful, pure in heart, peacemaker, and persecuted for the cause of justice. ANYONE!

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But then, Blessed are YOU when you are hated and persecuted for what…. For HIS sake, for Jesus’ sake. This is the unique persecution that only followers of Jesus will experience. Anyone can be persecuted for justice, for working against injustice; not only Christians. But Christians will be persecuted and have been persecuted for their faith in Christ.

And so what? Why are they blessed? Because “great is your reward in heaven.” Notice – and I have to make clear that this is my own interpretation, and I could be wrong or stretching things, but here goes: Blessed is anyone who is persecuted for justice and righteousness – theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The Christian also receives the kingdom of heaven – but the ‘reward’ is great if the Christian is persecuted for the sake of Christ.

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Christian martyrdom in Roman empire (click to enlarge)

This is not an encouragement to seek martyrdom. Jesus did not tell his followers to become jihadists. Jesus is not telling his followers to go and get killed so they would have 72 virgins in heaven. He is saying that following Jesus can make others hate you and persecute you – but great is your reward in heaven. St. Paul gives the same message today in his letter to Timothy: “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived.”

Great is their reward in heaven.

Great is their reward in heaven. (click to enlarge)

What is the great reward for those who are persecuted for the sake of Jesus? We’re not told. But Heaven is the great reversal of what happens here in our earthly lives. That’s why Jesus often said the first will be last and the last will be first. Heaven is the healing place. There is sickness in the world – hatred, selfishness, envy, bigotry, murder, economic and social injustice, suffering, political persecution, war, terrorism, too many walls and not enough bridges between human beings. Justice, righteousness, mercy, Jesus! These are the healing words – and they represent the kingdom of heaven.

Notice something else. We started with poor in spirit – and theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We finish with the persecuted – and theirs is the kingdom of heaven. I had never noticed this before but there is a mirror imaging of the promises that Jesus makes in these beatitudes, especially when read in Greek:

1st & 8th – kingdom of heaven

2nd & 7th – παρακληθήσονται and κληθήσονται – future passive

3rd & 6th – κληρονομήσουσι and ὄψονται – future active/middle

4th & 5th – χορτασθήσονται and ἐλεηθήσονται – future passive

I’m not sure there is any significance to this arrangement, but it is clearly Matthew’s arrangement of Jesus’s words, and there is a certain poetic balance. And perhaps the healing sound of those verbs that are bookended by the kingdom of heaven is the real message of the Beatitudes. Healing is the message of Jesus throughout the gospels. Healing is his message to us – and the challenge to us. Healers are the poor in spirit, even when they are persecuted. And they are meek, and they mourn, and they hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, and they are merciful, and pure in heart and peacemakers. Healing healers – followers of and inspired by the Great Healer himself. This is the message that is most urgently needed today. Christianity is more relevant, more needed today than it has ever been in history. Are we up to the challenge? Are we a people of the Beatitudes?