Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 30 January 2011
Zephaniah 2:3,3:12-13; Psalm 146:6-10; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Matthew 5:1-12a
The Beatitudes are Jesus’ manifesto, his alternate vision for humanity. They describe a downside-up world where the poor, mournful, meek and hungry are joyful and satisfied even though they suffer persecution. This list of blessings makes clear that it is not the powerful or the complacent that enjoy God’s Kingdom, but those who are very aware of their own lack, and out of that experience of poverty long for righteousness, treat others with tenderness, and work to bring about peace.
Psalm 146 tells us why the poor – those denied justice, the hungry, captives, blind, disabled, foreigner, orphan and widow – are blessed. It is because the Lord comes to their aid. This is a wonderful sentiment, but was no more evident in the ‘real world’ of the psalmist than it was in Jesus’ day, or indeed in our own time. So what does it mean to affirm it? One easy way out is to defer the reign of God to heaven and the afterlife. But Jesus invited his hearers to live its reality NOW. Or we can spiritualize poverty and mourning, so that Jesus is saying that we need to recognize our need for God, repent of our sins and desire to live holy lives marked by mercy, purity and peacemaking in order to experience the life of the Kingdom. There is truth there, but it is still seems to me to be a cop-out. The psalmist, anyway, is clear: the poor and oppressed have God on their side.
The prophet Zephaniah spoke during a time of upheaval. Earlier he had painted a terrifying picture of destruction reminiscent of the Deluge in Noah’s time, which would bring about the end of the world as they knew it. In the midst of this he calls on the humble and obedient to seek the Lord by seeking integrity and humility, in the hope that they find shelter on the day of God’s anger. Our reading then jumps forward a chapter to describe the situation after the storm. Just before the beautiful words of promise contained in the reading, are the words: “I will remove your proud boasters from your midst; and you will cease to strut on my holy mountain”. The proud have been replaced by nobodies who would have been ignored in the ‘good old days’, people of integrity who live in peace. The ‘shaking of the foundations’ in the time of the prophet was in terms of wars of conquest. The shaking of the foundations that we experience today is the slow collapse of a fundamentally unjust system built upon greed and exploitation. Those without power are caught up in the larger catastrophe. What does the Christian message have to say to them? The prophet reminds us that, despite the institutional church’s frequent collusion with power, the Kingdom of Heaven, the lived experience of the rule and protection of God, is not found in the halls of power and privilege.
Most of the people in Corinth who responded to Paul’s message were the ‘insignificants’ of their society. Those who were well off and confident in their own ability generally weren’t interested in a God who was revealed in the crucifixion of a carpenter. But those who were poor and lacking social power had their imaginations fired by the story of Jesus and the salvation he brought. But they had short memories, or maybe their imaginations hadn’t really been converted after all, because now they were jockeying for power and position within the Christian community. Those who couldn’t cut it in the big world outside were trying to throw their weight around in the church. Not much evidence of Kingdom blessings here! Being poor may be a precondition, but it doesn’t guarantee inheriting the Kingdom. The other criteria – of meekness, hungering for righteousness, being merciful, purity of heart and peacemaking – are just as important. That doesn’t mean, though, that social and economic status is irrelevant. I’m convinced that when I reinterpret ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ in a way that allows me to cling onto wealth and status by spiritualizing poverty (and it is desperately hard for those of us who aren’t poor to do otherwise), I delude and shortchange myself. Yes, I can be comfortably well-off and a Christian, but it may be that it is almost impossible to be such and experience the fullness of the Kingdom in my daily lived reality.