Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Don't Be-Attitudes

Jesus is underappreciated as a social satirist. We've heard what he said so many times and in the reverent context of the church that his sayings don't strike us as humorous. But Jesus talked about the Pharisees being so focused on unimportant details that they strained gnats out of their drinks and then swallowed camels. He talked about hypocrites trying to take a splinter out of someone else's eye while walking around with logs in their eyes. He compared a rich man trying to get into heaven to a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a sewing needle. (I guess camels were the biggest animals you'd see around first century Judea.) If you think about it, the things he said must have provoked smiles the first time people heard them--a widow who gets justice from a corrupt judge by simply nagging him long enough, a guest who sits in the seat of honor only to get taken down a peg in public, a woman frantically turning her house upside down to find a lost coin. And what he said in the first part of Matthew 5 might have struck people as a joke. Or at least odd. I'm talking about the Beatitudes.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus is praising qualities that run counter to the values of human society--meekness, sadness, suffering persecution. The Beatitudes are so much a part of the church, it's difficult to view them as subversive. But they were. And they still are. We may learn about them way back in Sunday School but we really don't live by them. Is there any way to show how this part of our culture is actually counter-cultural? Can we somehow reverse the reverence?

I have a modest propose. Since Jesus was glorifying qualities that society doesn't really value, let's turn things inside out. Let's see what Jesus was saying humanity really treasures. We can call them the "Don't Be-Attitudes."

Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven." The world says: "Blessed are those who feel they have it all, for they make the kingdoms of the earth run."

You might have expected the mirror version of the first beatitude to be "the rich in spirit." But in Greek, the word translated "poor" really means "destitute," so bankrupt as to have no illusions. It could be translated "Blessed are those who are aware of their spiritual poverty."

Worldly people don't like being told that they are lacking in some vital aspect of life or missing out on what's important. That's why the most popular forms of spirituality are those that tell their adherents that they are perfect just the way they are. It would be nice to hear every Sunday that there's nothing wrong with you--except perhaps that you don't believe in yourself enough! It might make you happier; it might make you bolder. And that's great--provided there really is nothing wrong with you. Everyone wants a clean bill of health from the doctor--if it's true. You don't want your doctor saying you're fine when you've got an aneurysm about to blow, or when your heart's clogged with fatty deposits, or the mole on your back is cancerous. What you don't know can definitely hurt you! And others! We all know people who can't see their own flaws and we have observed how much damage they can do because of that ignorance. Jesus says it's far better to know precisely where you stand with God, that is, totally dependent upon the richness of his grace. Only when you realize that will you be at the point where you can enter and be a part of God's kingdom.

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted." The world says: "Blessed are those who have no cares or regrets, for they need no comforting."

Bible scholar William Barclay, on whom I'm dependent for much of this, points out that the word translated "mourn" here is that of the bitterest sort of grief. The question is grief for what?

Jesus could have meant those who literally lost someone they love. They will be comforted when they are reunited with their loved one in heaven. But I agree with Barclay that Jesus is again talking about the listener's spiritual condition. He was probably referring to the person who is grieved by his own sins. We don't see a lot of that. Having some grievous sin today ensures you a big fat book deal, all the news coverage you could want, and a profitable career collecting speaking fees in return for telling every sordid detail. Sometimes a person's life turns around and they sincerely want to share their tale to inspire and warn others. But it's hard to gauge sincerity when it's so profitable to sin and tell.

Another possibility, that goes hand in hand with the last, is that Jesus is talking about those who grieve for the sins of the world. We're not talking about going "tsk, tsk" and shaking our head at the most outrageous news story of the day. We're talking about being so upset that you must do something. It's interesting that many of the world's reformers come from the upper classes. They are rarely people who have suffered injustice, oppression or discrimination themselves. But unlike others in their socio-economic class, they can't ignore it. Gandhi, St. Francis, Florence Nightingale, even Dr. Martin Luther King could have lived with much less grief if they had not felt called to do something about the evil in the world.

The world loves those with unclouded consciences, who follow their dreams and become successful. It's OK if they give to charity as long as they still enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous. That's why we hear so much about Donald Trump, a flashy dealmaker with a string of beautiful wives, and so little about Tom White, a devout Roman Catholic builder who, during his lifetime, has given away the bulk of his fortune to fund a clinic for the poor in Haiti, long before the earthquake. The only place I heard about White was on "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," a TV program that is shown on our local PBS station in the wee hours of most but not all Saturday mornings. The world would rather cover self-indulgent people. Jesus says true comfort only comes to those who are deeply disturbed by the evil in us and around us.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth." The world says: "Blessed are the arrogant for they will seize the earth as their own."

Again Jesus is talking of people with good self-knowledge. By 'meek," he doesn't mean the spineless but those who know both their strengths and their weaknesses. Humility doesn't mean denigrating yourself but rather knowing that you are neither worthless nor the center of the universe.

The world has no patience for those who know their limitations. It glorifies those who are masters of self-promotion. What is the story arc of the typical American success story? A man has a dream. He follows it obsessively despite everyone telling him that he'll never achieve it. He does succeed at last and we fade out on our hero at the peak of his triumph. What we don't see are the family he loses while working day and night, the children alternately indulged and neglected, the colleagues whose contributions he claims as his own, the sharp business practices he uses to beat his rivals. And we rarely see what happens after his triumph: the divorces, the lawsuits, the decline of creativity. Henry Ford refused to let his company retire the Model T until his competitors had cornered the market on automotive innovation. Nobody is great at everything or all their life. Sure, arrogant people make a big impact on the world, but the effect can be as negative as it is positive. Jesus says that those who know what they are and are not good at are what keeps the world running and ultimately God will entrust the earth to their care.

Jesus says, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." The world says: "Blessed are those who don't get carried away trying to obey God, for they will be reasonably satisfied."

Again the words Jesus uses for "hunger and thirst" are more intense than the traditional translation. He's saying, "Blessed are they who are starving and parched for righteousness." In other words, he's talking about those for whom being right with God is not optional.

The world feels a little bit of righteousness goes a long way. Some bosses want you to be scrupulously honest in dealing with them, less so when dealing with clients or regulators. Society likes to appear to be just but appreciates those who can tolerate a certain amount of injustice so that the status quo is maintained. Government demands from others things it doesn't demand from itself: lower tariffs from other countries, fiscal responsibility from businesses, fair treatment for its captive soldiers from its enemies. A recent study of whistleblowers reveals them to be people of high integrity who cannot stand aside while unethical behavior is going on. But they learn that if you push for justice too hard or too fast, you will find yourself the victim of injustice. As far as the world is concerned justice delayed isn't so much justice denied as business as usual. Jesus says that only those who really desire righteousness will find their satisfaction in God.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." The world says: "Blessed are those who don't fall for a sob story for they won't get suckered."

In one sense, the world is right. If you say "No" to all appeals for mercy, you will probably never get taken advantage of. The problem is if you never cut people any slack, you can't expect it from them. And there will be times when you need it. None of us is good all of the time. We all fail. Should we shut people out whenever they fall short morally? Such a world would be merciless indeed. And if we don't give people more than one chance, we will find ourselves dealing with fewer and fewer people. Nobody is saying we must be a patsy. But being unforgiving is not healthy. Physically, forgiveness reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and reduces pain. Socially, it increases empathy and strengthens relationships. Psychologically, it increases happiness. And spiritually, it is a condition for God forgiving us. Jesus says if you want to know mercy, show it to others.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." The world says: "Blessed are those who can figure out a way of benefiting personally from anything they do, for they see the world clearly."

In the news a while back, a man who organized a number of star-studded charity fundraisers was investigated. It turned out that after the celebrities were paid for their appearances and all of the expenses were taken care of, virtually none of the monies raised went to the causes themselves. I don't know who is more reprehensible: a person who would conceive of such a scam or the multi-millionaire personalities who would consider getting paid to help out a charity. It is a matter of purity of motive.

You don't hear much about purity these days. Everybody considers it passe, even naive. None of us is ever pure in our motives, so why bother trying? As long as the greater good is served, who cares if we make a little on the side? So let's pad the rolls of the local Boy Scouts and get more money from the United Way. Let's have people from unscathed parts of the state get hurricane disaster funds from FEMA. Let's allow a business to advertise some event as a benefit, even though the charity will only receive a tiny percentage of the proceeds. It's better than nothing, right?

At the end of the movie "Schindler's List," the title character experiences an epiphany on the subject. The war is over and the Jews Schindler has saved by bribing and tricking the Nazis give him a gold ring they have made in his factory. Schindler knows how much went into this gift and then realizes that it could have been used instead to save more lives. Though his efforts boiled down to purchasing lives, for the first time he realizes that his jewelry, his clothes, his fancy car could have been turned into cash and used to free more Jews from the death camps. He thought he had come up with a novel way to do good: save people and live well in the process. Now he realizes that had he purer motives, more people could have been spared. It devastates him.

Jesus says that only those who strip their actions of all ulterior motives will be able to see God as he is.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God." The world says: "Blessed are the war makers for they will be able to play God."

In the Wild West, the Colt .45 got an interesting nickname. It was called the Peacemaker. And while it was meant ironically, it points out a revealing distinction in the way we use the word "peace." It can mean the absence of conflict. Shoot a man dead or just intimidate him with a show of arms and outward conflict will apparently end. By that definition the Cold War was a time of peace. But living under a nuclear sword of Damocles hardly made for peace of mind. Yet the world still feels that peace can only be achieved by beating people into submission. By that definition, Saddam Hussein was a great peacemaker because he kept a nation of fractious sects and ethnic divisions relatively quiet by being ruthless. But lasting peace will never come until people are motivated by things other than fear, anger and the desire to dominate.

By contrast, the Biblical meaning of peace is "total well-being." That kind of peace can only come about when the parties concerned act towards one another with fairness and good faith. We can have peace with God because he is just and trustworthy. Jesus says if we emulate God's true concern for the total well-being of others, we will be his children.

Finally, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." The world says: "It is more blessed to victimize than to be a victim."

Actually, there are people who proudly proclaim their victimhood: the people who claimed McDonald's made them fat; the people who claim that letting school choirs sing Christmas carols is a form of government endorsement of religion; the Christian groups who claim that teaching evolution in biology classes is a form of religious persecution. This is not what Jesus is talking about. Going through a drive-thru lane and paying people to give you a meal with enough calories to feed an entire third world family is not persecution. Listening to beautiful centuries-old music is not torture. Listening to another point of view is not mistreatment. Go watch "Hotel Rwanda" or "Schindler's List" or "The Killing Fields" or "The Passion of the Christ" and then we'll talk about the meaning of persecution.

The world doesn't endorse martyrs--while they're alive. Although he probably diffused an all-out race war, nobody proposed a Martin Luther King Day while he was still around. Only after they're safely dead and can make no more trouble, does the world honor those who pour their lives into exposing the standard operating B.S. and changing the status quo.

The world likes winners and it defines winners as survivors. Thus a while back, on the 50th anniversary of "Playboy" magazine, Hugh Hefner was hailed as a man who changed society. Few dared to say he changed it for the better. We tend to celebrate conquerors, entrepreneurs and alpha males who put their stamp on the world regardless of how many lives they destroyed. That's irrelevant. Coming out on top personally makes you a winner to the world.

Jesus says putting your life on the line to make the world a better place for others makes you a winner in the eyes of eternity and God's kingdom is made up of such as these.

So, you see, what Jesus said in these 8 simple pronouncements was really quite radical. Many in his original audience must have thought he was joking. Others must have thought him crazy. But still others saw the world in a new and unflattering light. They saw that, as topsy turvy as it seemed, what Jesus said was actually made sense. They saw that it was what the world said that was out of whack. And they realized that it was the world that had to be changed. As Paul said, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise."

It didn't take a whole lot of people subscribing to this point of view to get things started. Just 12, really, and one was a scoundrel. But that is enough to make things happen if you're as crazy as our God is--crazy like a fox!

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