Ancient Answers


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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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Blessed are the peacemakers

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Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

μακάριοι οἱ εἰρηνοποιοί, ὅτι αὐτοὶ υἱοὶ θεοῦ κληθήσονται.

We attained the highest summits of the Beatitudes  with the merciful and the pure of heart. But what do you do when you’re at the heights of Christian faith, spirituality and commitment to Jesus? You become what he was; you become a peacemaker. Blessed are the peacemakers, indeed – and they shall be called sons of God, [and daughters implied, of course]. Jesus is the son of God – the peacemakers are sons [and daughters] of God.

Romans 5:1  Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 2  For he is our peace… he… has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

51zwqdTg38L._SY466_BO1,204,203,200_According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the basic feature of the ancient Greek concept of εἰρήνη is that the word does not primarily denote a relationship between several people, or an attitude, but a state, i.e., “time of peace” or “state of peace,” originally conceived of purely as an interlude in the everlasting state of war.

In the Hebrew Bible, shalom means “well-being.” In meetings or letters well-being is wished to others, and in conversations one asks about their well-being…. More commonly שָׁלוֹם is referred to a group, e.g., a nation enjoying prosperity. This brings us closer to the thought of peace (TDNT).

Paul echoes both Jewish and Greek understandings:

Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Rom 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Oscar Romero, Roman Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador, paid with his life in 1980 for being a peacemaker. He is on the way to being proclaimed a Saint by Pope Francis.

Oscar Romero, Roman Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador, paid with his life in 1980 for being a peacemaker. He is on the way to being proclaimed a Saint by Pope Francis.

But the Beatitude says something more:

εἰρηνοποιός – the only time this word occurs in NT. It represents a person who acts to bring peace where there is conflict and division. But peace-making can involve a price, which leads us to the eighth Beatitude (next week). Peace-making brings us into identity with Christ:

Colossians 1:19-20 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ εὐδόκησεν πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα κατοικῆσαι καὶ διʼ αὐτοῦ ἀποκαταλλάξαι τὰ πάντα εἰς αὐτόν, εἰρηνοποιήσας διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ σταυροῦ αὐτοῦ, εἴτε τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς εἴτε τὰ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

St. Gregory of Nyssa says that a peacemaker gives peace to another – but you cannot give to another what you do not possess yourself! Hence the Lord wants you first to be filled with the blessings of peace, so that you can then communicate it to others who need it. He then goes on to describe in graphic detail the physical appearance of people who are filled with hatred and envy – the opposite of peacemakers.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD), whose commentary on the Beatitudes is providing many insights.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD), whose commentary on the Beatitudes is providing many insights.

The peacemaker banishes these evil aspects of human nature and brings people together to share in what is good. This is why the peacemaker is called a child of God, because he/she imitates the Lord who is the Giver of all good things. God ordains for us also to throw off hatred and war, envy and strife, hypocrisy and any resentment that burns in the heart. Replace these evil things with the fruits of the Spirit – charity, joy, peace and so on. The peacemaker achieves inner harmony and unity of soul and flesh. The peacemaker is free of inner conflict. Only a person who knows peace in his/her inner life can be a peacemaker.

Perhaps Gregory is a little too demanding here. A more realistic approach is to take Jesus at his word. Be a peacemaker and the inner peace and harmony will come in your life too, as the gift of the Holy Spirit. The attainment of inner peace and harmony goes hand in hand with being a peacemaker.


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“Blessed are those who mourn”

 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

A wonderful, reassuring promise: those who mourn will be comforted. But what kind of mourning is Jesus talking about? Certainly the mourning that we all experience when we lose someone. But that’s not a uniquely Christian thing. All people mourn! Remember what Jesus said about love: If you love those who love you, what’s the difference? Even bad people love those who love them! (cf. Matthew 5:46) So also with grief. All people mourn their dead, regardless of whether they’re Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhists, or atheists!

Yes, blessed are they who mourn for their dead. They shall be comforted. But I believe Jesus means more here. Blessed are those who mourn. But the Greek μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται can be translated as”Happy are those who mourn” and even “Lucky are those who mourn.” Blessed sounds religious enough. But happy? Lucky?

Paul wrote some important thoughts in 2 Corinthians 7:

But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and… by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it), for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret… For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal…Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his mind has been set at rest by you all.

Paul is talking about grieving for sins. But note that he’s talking about this in a communal context. The grief that Paul caused them through a sharp letter he had written to them, motivated the Corinthian Christians to clear away the sins that existed in their midst. And this brought joy instead – joy to Titus, Paul’s messenger, and thus to Paul and to the Corinthians themselves as they were relieved of the burden that sin had created in their midst.

Sorrow over sin is classic teaching throughout the Orthodox tradition. I wrote a 35-page essay on this subject at Seminary. But not only sorrow over one’s own sins. That’s part of it, perhaps the first step. But you don’t stop there. You move on to weep over the sins of others – just as Paul caused the Corinthians to do. You weep for the sins of the world, for the suffering, the victims of war and terrorism and economic and social injustice. You weep today for the destruction of the environment and the horrendous loss of respect for life – all life, not just human.

sorrow

There is little you can do for the sins of the world; they are too big. But you can weep for them. Not just pray – prayers are too easy; rolling off names of people in your prayer list can be mechanical. No, there is deeper prayer needed. Weep! Penthos is the word that the ancient writers and saints of the church used to describe this holy grief. And Saint Antony the Great, whose feast we celebrate today, January 17th, is one of those spiritual fathers of our faith. This penthos is holy. And it is blessed. And happy indeed those who mourn with this holy penthos; and they shall be comforted.

A Coptic icon of Saint Antony the Great. Antony lived in Egypt in the years 251-356 AD.

A Coptic icon of Saint Antony the Great. Antony lived in Egypt in the years 251-356 AD.

But there’s even more to penthos. In the face of so much evil and sin in the world, it is easy to hate. Penthos teaches us not to hate, not to demonize. It might even teach us to understand why some people do evil things.

This broader understanding of grief fits into the message of all the Beatitudes. Poor in spirit, meek, merciful, peacemakers, hunger and thirst for justice and persecuted for justice! Even the pure in heart is about more than personal holiness. Throughout the Beatitudes, Jesus asks us to focus beyond ourselves and to see our place in God’s plan for the world.

A young man looking thoughtful as looks into the distance

And look at one more thing. What are the promises: Inherit the earth, receive the kingdom of heaven, the earth, become sons and daughters of God, you shall see God! Powerful images. And all these promises of comfort and the kingdom and mercy and vision…. all are meant to elevate us to desire God and desire the kingdom of God. And it is here that Gregory of Nyssa puts the emphasis in his own commentary on this Beatitude. He calls it blessed when we mourn our absence from God’s presence; when we mourn that we’re not in paradise, not in the kingdom of heaven. This mourning creates holy desire within us – and this is very blessed and very happy indeed.

I remember the words that we read in the Liturgy on the Sunday before Lent begins: Banished from the joys of Paradise, Adam and Eve sat outside and wept, crying out, “I am fallen; in your compassion have mercy on me.”

We weep for the losses in our lives; the loss of our loved ones. We weep over our sins. We weep over the sins of the world. We weep with longing for God’s kingdom. This is a blessed sorrow, a happy penthos! Rejoice, for you will be comforted by the God of all comfort.


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“Blessed are the poor in spirit”

 

There is no other way to be raised up to God but by constantly looking upwards and having an unceasing desire for sublime things, so as not to be content to stay with what has already been achieved, but to regard it as loss if one fails to attain what lies above.

ουκ έστιν άλλως προς τον θεόν υψωθήναι μή αεί προς τα άνω βλέποντα και την των υψηλών επιθυμίαν άληκτον έχοντα, ως μή αγαπάν επί των ήδη κατορθωθέντων μένειν αλλά ζημίαν ποιείσθαι ει του υπερκειμένου μή άψαιτο. St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Beatitudes.

Ascent to God is the teaching of this great Father of the Church. So he takes his cue from the fact that Jesus spoke the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1), and he invites us also to ascend and receive from the Word messages of goodness and hope.

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Beatitudes – μακαρισμοί: μακάριοι… οι πτωχοί τω πνεύματι… (Matthew 5:3, etc.) Beatitude is possession of all things that are good. The person who is called μακάριος is one who totally enjoys what he has and what is set before him/her. This is a happy person.

God exists in beatitude/bliss. Human beings are in image and likeness of God, so beatitude, blessedness, happiness, are also what God intends for us when we join ourselves to God’s will. Some of the Beatitudes sound difficult: poor in spirit; pure in heart. Some don’t sound too happy: those who mourn. And yet, every single Beatitude says something about the human condition that goes counter to common perceptions and society’s values.

The Beatitudes are the core of Jesus’ teaching, and that is why the Orthodox Liturgy uses the Beatitudes as the third antiphon in the Liturgy, before the priest enters with the Gospel book. The Beatitudes announce the Gospel, they prepare us for the entry of the Gospel into our hearts and minds. If we can immerse ourselves into the mind of Christ that we see in the Beatitudes, everything else falls into place. The Word of God speaks to us – the incarnate Word of God.

Happy are the poor in spirit. Luke has: Blessed/Happy are you poor. Matthew’s version is more meaningful. A poor person has a hard time feeling happy or blessed, because material poverty is not something people choose for themselves. But poverty of spirit is something that is voluntary, something that is chosen. And when you choose something, you are happy about it.

So Jesus can say, Happy are the poor in spirit – those who have chosen to be poor in spirit. Humility is one way to understand poverty of spirit. But humility is so limited. And Christians talk about humility too much and never practice it. Poverty of spirit goes deeper.

Poor in spirit means you shake off pretenses of self-sufficiency. To the church in Laodicea, Jesus wrote: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). But to the church in Smyrna he wrote: “I know your tribulation and your poverty – but you are rich” (Revelation 2:9). God’s measure of wealth and poverty is different from human measure.

The goal of Christian life is to become like God. The apostle Paul summarizes the purpose of Christ’s coming in terms of poverty: For us he became poor that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

The Son of God laid aside the weight of divine glory in order to teach us to lay aside all those things that drag us down and keep us from ascending. The Lord became poor so we will not be afraid of spiritual poverty. He became poor though he reigns over all creation. So if we become poor with him, we will also reign with him: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!


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Blessed salt… Blessed light

Jesus told his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). It’s a temptation to hear these words as requirement rather than blessing, as command rather than commissioning.

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Jesus is blessing us to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking this is a pep talk, or Jesus’ version of esteem building. Jesus does not puff up people’s egos or encourage self-indulgent self-esteem, like our society does. He shows us instead our high calling. And at the same time he is challenging us; he is challenging us to grow! We are becoming more salty; we are becoming more shiny. But above all, he is saying to us today: you are a sacred space! Sacred things happen in you and through you because you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Sacred things are happening because of your presence in the world.

“You are the salt of the earth.”  These words are meant for you and for me.  And salt cannot do its work unless you get the salt out of the shaker. Salt adds flavor and preserves. In the ancient world, salt brought healing; and it still has uses in healing. Jesus’ followers are salt because we add to the taste and beauty of the world. We bring out the flavor and goodness of the world. And we bring healing, through forgiveness and acts of kindness. When you forgive, you heal; you are being the salt of the earth.

But salt is at its best when it doesn’t draw attention to itself. When you add too much salt to food, you taste the salt. You don’t want to taste salt; you want to taste what the salt does to the food, how it enhances the flavor of the food. The right amount of salt brings out the flavor of the food without drawing attention to itself. Like salt, the followers of Jesus do not draw attention to themselves so much as they spice up everything around them. If you’re out there drawing attention to yourself, you’re not being salty in Jesus’ meaning; maybe you’re over-salty. We are not here to draw attention to ourselves, but to add to the work of Christ and bring out the goodness already present in the world.

The wall icon of the Transfiguration at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME

The wall icon of the Transfiguration at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME

You are the salt of the earth…and you are the light of the world. The Greek verb is λάμπω. The same verb is used to describe the transfiguration of Christ – ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος (Matthew 17:2). Jesus says that his listeners are the “light of the world.”  His mission is now their mission.  His words and deeds are their words and deeds. The church can only be the light when it reflects the light of Christ.

And just as salt brings out the flavor and goodness, so also light: it illumines and brightens the things that are good in the world and it illumines and exposes and dispels the works of darkness – and that is also part of the mission of Jesus’ disciples.

“You are the salt of the earth… the light of the world.” We read these words in the context of what Jesus spoke immediately before these words, those blessings that we call the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10).

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Who are ‘salt’ of the earth? They are the humble, the ones who mourn, the meek, and those who thirst after doing what is right in the world.  Who are ‘light’? They are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who receive abuse for standing up for what is right.

Salt and light are metaphors that meant much in the ancient world. Today, we have plenty salt, and light comes from flipping a switch. But let’s not miss the power and intent of Jesus’ words.

God is light. Jesus is light. And, Jesus says, so are you!


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Revolution thwarted – but not dead

It is a fact of human history that revolutions almost always end up as something other than originally intended. The revolution of faith that God initiated in chapter 12 of Genesis, when Abraham obeyed God’s call in faith and moved from the land of his father to the land God chose for him, that revolution of faith has led to four thousand years of conflict in that land that we have mis-labeled “holy land.” What is holy about a land that has caused more bloodshed, more hatred than any other land on the planet? Already in chapter 13, we see the beginnings of what is to come, when Abraham and his nephew Lot agree to a parting of ways to avoid fighting over land.

But our lectionary reading for today, Genesis 13:12-18, avoids the reason for the separation of Lot and Abraham and jumps directly to God’s promise of the land that will be the source of so much conflict. Did God not know that this land would become the source of so much ungodly hatred? But that’s to ask the question from the wrong perspective. God did not write Genesis, people wrote it – people who had a vested interest in pressing claims on the land and the various promises God made. God has his own purposes; how those purposes are interpreted by humans and how they are put down on stone and paper is another thing.

Or are we to take the promises to Abraham and his descendants as another test, like the test in the garden? If it was a test, then we have failed royally, for 4,000 years! And we’re still failing, as the recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu clearly shows. One of the hymns of the Third Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, has these words:

Come, all you kindred of the nations (αἱ πατριαὶ τῶν ἐθνῶν), and let us honor the Cross of the Lord. Rejoice, O Cross, perfect redemption of fallen Adam. Glorying in you, our faithful kings laid low by your might the people of Ishmael.

These are the words of an imperial Orthodoxy facing the threat of Arabs (“the people of Ishmael”) in the Middle Ages. Today the land is the place where apocalyptic violence by followers of the three Abrahamic religions feed into dreams of “armageddon” that extremists in all three religions promote as literal interpretations of their “scriptures”!

Today’s reading from Isaiah 37:33-38:6 certainly does not help: “For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David” (verse 35). The problem arises when scriptures are given a political spin that they don’t originally possess. God defends the city because of his own commitment to it and to David. But God also does not hesitate to destroy the city or hand it over to enemies of David. And we see this ambivalence throughout the historical and prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures. The bottom line for God is not the political meaning of Jerusalem and the “holy land” but the presence of justice and righteousness.

The Hebrew word for justice is the same word for righteousness: tzedakahצדקה. It is the same in Greek: δικαιοσύνη, one word for both concepts. In the mind of the biblical writers, justice and righteousness are two sides of the same thing. It’s only in the minds of some Christian interpreters of Paul’s letters that “righteousness” has become something narrower, defining a particular view of salvation. In interpreting Paul’s statements that we are not “justified” (=made righteous) by the “law” but by faith alone (Galatians 2:16 and elsewhere in Romans and Galatians), it seems to me that some Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater and have lost the double meaning of the one word in both Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Throw out the “justice” meaning out of some dogmatic concern not to do “works of the law” (Galatians 2:16 again) and you’re left with an inward-looking, one-on-one version of faith that has nothing to do with God’s abiding concern for social justice throughout the scriptures.

That’s also the danger with how we usually translate the 4th and 8th Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In both, the word in the original Greek text is δικαιοσύνη. When “righteousness” is only a personal virtue characterizing one’s relation to God, I can’t quite see how one might be “persecuted” for it. But people who hunger and thirst for “justice” and work for it might very well be persecuted, even in our allegedly enlightened modern age. They are the same people who are also “merciful” and “peacemakers” in the 5th and 7th Beatitudes.

In these Lenten Reflections I have not often referred to the daily readings from Proverbs, but today I choose to do so. Consider these assertions from today’s reading:

He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
    but he who is kind to the needy honors him.
The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing,
    but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity.
Wisdom abides in the mind of a man of understanding,
    but it is not known in the heart of fools.
Righteousness exalts a nation,
    but sin is a reproach to any people.

God’s view of righteousness is inseparable from acts of justice, both on the personal and national level.

The call to us today is the same as the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” But for us, the calling is not so much to leave our homes, but to leave our inherited thoughts behind, to encounter God with open minds and hearts, to learn anew the meaning of promises and to renew the revolution that has been thwarted. The abrahamic call to us is to join God’s revolution of faith and righteousness and justice! The revolution has been thwarted, but it is not dead or buried. As long as we can honestly encounter the scriptures as if for the first time, the revolution can happen again – a revolution of faith, a revolution of the renewed heart and mind that God seeks to cultivate in us. May Lent always be a time to pause and open our hearts to God’s renewing spirit.

 


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Blessed are those who are scared

st_matthew_logo_150w_RIGHTNovember 16 is the feast day of Saint Matthew, the evangelist. On this day, I call to mind another great saint, Antony of Egypt. At the end of his life, Antony is reported to have said to his disciples: “Live as though you were dying every day. Pay attention to yourselves and remember what I taught you.”

“Live as though you were dying every day.” It means, live with constant awareness of your mortality. This is not morbid advice, it’s an encouragement to appreciate the preciousness of every moment; live with an intense awareness of the present moment. This is how Jesus lived – and this is why he was alwaysF-24St.MatthewMt9.9-13.tif aware of who was around him and who needed his help. He saw where others didn’t see! He saw things clearly— unhindered by the clinging, egoistic mind. He saw the widow who was about to bury her only son. He “saw” the woman who touched his garment and was healed. And he saw Matthew, and what Matthew needed to do. “Follow me,” he told Matthew in our Gospel reading today, and Matthew immediately followed (Matthew 9:9).

At around eighteen or twenty years of age, Antony heard a text from the Gospel being read aloud: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give it to the poor… and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Antony felt the power of the words as if it had been spoken to him directly. Immediately, he got up and sold his possessions. He kept something to provide for his sister, and gave everything else to the poor. But this encounter with the Gospel did not free Antony entirely from his attachment to his former life. He heard another Gospel passage: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34). These Gospel words broke his resistance and freed him from all attachments. He left his old life forever and embarked on a journey that would take him deep into the heart of the desert, and deep into spiritual union with God.

“Come, follow me” means more than going with Jesus. It means learning from him, becoming like him; it means simplicity of life and being, cultivating silence in one’s inner life, withdrawal from busyness to engage God in prayer – and one doesn’t have to go into a desert or live alone in the forest or on a mountaintop to experience this inner peace and simplicity. One can have it right here, in the midst of life in Portland.

Following Jesus means taking over from him after the end of his life on earth. That’s what Matthew did, that’s what anyone who follows Jesus does! It means Jesus never being absent from the world – because there are always those who follow him; who represent him; who do or speak what he would do or say. Or, are there?

You see, the part that most followers of Jesus forget or intentionally ignore is that there is a price to pay. For most of us the price is not going to be the price Antony or Matthew paid. It might be losing the friendship of someone, it could be losing the love of a family member or even a spouse or parent. It could be giving up a good chunk of your income or savings. It could mean losing your job because you expose dishonesty or illegal practice. It could mean you’re arrested or imprisoned because you choose to work for peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers” is one of the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus (Matthew 5:9)

beatitudes

Flying back from Greece last Friday I had one of the most intense encounters I’ve ever had in my life. I sat next to a man whom I’ll call Jake, in obedience to his own wishes should I talk about him in a sermon. Jake works for the UN and had much to say about that organization and his own struggles with his work and personal life. When he found out I was a priest, the encounter turned into a confession of sorts – all right there on a Boeing 747. He had a window seat and I an aisle seat, and there was an empty seat between us, and that empty seat became a confessional. After a couple of hours of intense conversation and tears, he told me he would be leaving later in the week on a mission to West Africa, to be with UN teams working on the Ebola virus. I asked him if he was scared, and, in a tearful voice that I hope never to forget, he answered Yes. He was scared. And that was the turning point in our conversation.

We are all scared, in one way or other. But if Jesus has given you a deed to accomplish while following him, you press on despite your fears. And that’s what Jake was doing. He was a man of faith, a Christian. And he was scared about what he would be doing over the next several months and what dangers he might face. But he was flying to New York to receive his instructions from the bureaucrats at the UN. It is a blessing to be scared for the sake of something like that.

Inspired by my encounter with Jake and as I meditated upon the fear that I saw in him, I want to add another Beatitude to the ones that Jesus spoke in chapter 5 of Matthew. I want to say, “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO ARE AFRAID WHILE FOLLOWING JESUS, FOR THEY SHALL NEVER LOSE THEIR WAY.” May you and I be blessed when we’re afraid on the road with Jesus.