Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Sermon on the Plain 

My RCIA instructor, knowing I was struggling with the concept of moral living leading inevitably to suffering, sent me a wonderful paper by Brother Giorgio Gonella: "Song of the Beatitudes." I can't copy the paper here, since it's under copyright, but I believe I can pass along some of the flavor of it. And the fact that this instructor is not just going through the motions, but is trying to reach me, trying to teach me, makes me feel at home.

The paper talks about the sermon on the plain and says that Jesus is not speaking on a moral level when he says, blessed are you that hunger, blessed are you who weep, etc. here's an excerpt:

Jesus is not talking about rewards or merits or exalting good, holy people. Jesus is speaking about "up and down." God will come "down" in order to lift "up" those who have been pushed "down," and with this hope God cheers them "up," and congratulates them.

The God of the Beatitudes is not the God of the official Jewish theology, who rewards the good and chastises the bad. Nor is this God a "bookkeeper," boringly weighing people's merits and sins, deciding what to do with them. The God of which Jesus is the herald is different. This God forgets about merits and sins and sees only the pain of those bowed down. This God's compassion does not depend on whether people are good or bad; it has to do with the fact that they are bowed down.

The paper goes on to discuss the sermon on the mount where Jesus tells us about how our spirit should be whether we are poor and downtrodden or not:

He proclaims as blessed not the poor of society, but those who have made themselves humble and meek. Not those who are short of food, but those who hungrily pursue justice and righteousness. Not those who are abused, but those who are persecuted for the sake of justice.... blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure of heart. Jesus does not promote self-inflicted renunciations or ascetic discipline. He promotes solidarity--solidarity with God, the defender of the afflicted, solidarity with the poor, the king's friends.

While we tend to exalt skill and competence, the Beatitudes exalt the "bite" of need, the condition of one who is empty. They exalt desire, want, lack. They exalt, as a psychologist once wrote, "the emptied and deflated ego." The Beatitudes raise the value of empty, abandoned ground because it is open space for God's visit.

So, as Brother Gonella explains it, Jesus addresses the rich and the full as unhappy and unlucky because their approach to to God, if they have one, is shallow. "Life has made some of the blessed empty," Gonella says, "others have decided to empty themselves."

I'll be reading this paper, (it is six pages single spaced, so I haven't included too much of it here) over several times because it does help approach the question of suffering quite well. Perhaps, after all, God does not expect me to beat myself up and empty my pockets... perhaps He wants me to cry for the injustices of the world and realize, no matter how much I have, I have nothing without Him.

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