Monday, January 9, 2012

Blogging Sacrilege, chapter 4: Letter to a Greek Professor

After I'd graduated from college with my degree in Bible and smattering of biblical Greek and Hebrew, I remember sitting down and typing out an email to a former prof asking about Jesus inauguratory teaching in Matthew 5: makavroi oiJ ptwcoi; tw/: pneuvmati, o”ti aujtw:n ejstin hJ basileiva tw:n oujranw:n.

For the words that Matthew chooses to introduce Jesus' first meditation on what his good news means for the community he's called around him, these are strange words. Up to this point, in Matthew's telling, Jesus' only public words have been "Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is arriving!" and "Come along with me, and I'll make you fishers for people." So now, after a healing or two, Jesus finally sits down to instruct his followers in what this is all about. And what does he say? "Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs."

Who are these people who have it good? That's what I wanted to know from my Greek professor. What does poverty, spiritual or otherwise, have to do with the dunked-in-the-cleansing-blood gospel I'd confessed from childhood onward? I'm still waiting for an answer that makes complete sense of this to me.

Surprisingly enough, Hugh Halter takes on this saying of Jesus in chapter 4 of Sacrilege. In fact, the remaining chapters of the book seem to take the Beatitudes one-by-one for a structure. Not something I expected from the billing on the book's cover. but I'm always open, even excited, to return to Jesus' words and wait and listen.
The Beatitudes seems to be hitting me from every side at the moment. A small group Cindy and I facilitate is reading and praying our way through Matthew. We've just made our way into the first bits of the Sermon on the Mount. (Incidentally, we're using a great study method a friend with TOAG introduced us to; I eventually hope to post outlining this method.) Our conversation parked at the Mt 5.3-12 for a while.

Then yesterday Scott Brownson, a former youth pastor, mentor, and friend, stopped in to lead worship and preach for a Sunday morning. The sermon was about, yes, the Beatitudes. I sat through the sermon thinking, "Wow, this is starting to get eery."

Whether I'm reading Sacrilege, listening to Scott, or even in my living room praying through a passage, I keep stumbling over (or even stubbing my toe on) the thought that ptwcoi; tw/: pneuvmati primarily points to a "spiritual" reality.

Scott explicated the line as referring to our admission that, no, we can't do it on our own. Spirituality, the kind of spirituality God cares for, depends utterly and wholly upon the Spirit. We're bankrupt without the Spirit.

Halter hears the line as pointing to an epistemological or doctrinal humility. I use the fancy verbiage of epistemology and doctrine, but the thrust of the chapter might better be summed up as "not thinking we have it all together" or "not judging people."

Halter starts off with a story about hot yoga and a conversation with a yoga instructor ostracized by Christian family members. She's still searching for God or spirituality, and Halter maintains that she might be closer to being "in a good space with God" (to use Scott's gloss for blessed) than the Evangelicals who judge her. And on this point, I'm inclined to agree with him.

He writes,
Unlike the philosophers of the day, Jesus did not seem interested in arguing fine points of theology or philosophy. . . . [H]e was primarily trying to prepare his young apprentices for an entirely new paradigm of living under a new order he called the "kingdom of God." Jesus knew that any paradigm shift is difficult to adopt, especially for those who have closed their minds and want to stay comfortably stuck with what is familiar. So it's probably no surprise that he preferred being around the spiritually hungry and disoriented over the already hyperspiritual (but also hyperapathetic).
We might read as thinking we could have all the answers as our original sin (though is definitely not the only way to approach Genesis 3). Hugh skillfully deflects accusations that this outlook doesn't really take scripture as truth. (He says, in effect, "The Bible is God's truth, but we don't have God's brains to understand it. So calm down.") Then he points to our practice as the place we prove whether we know Jesus or not. In his words, "You can know a lot of concepts about a lot of spiritual stuff, but according to Jesus, you don't really understand and 'know truth' until you live it out."

As a whole, I'm on board with Hugh's commitments: we don't know it all, so we shouldn't act like we do; and we only really know what we're living in practice. BUT I think it's off base to read all this into Jesus words in Matthew 5.3:  makavroi oiJ ptwcoi; tw/: pneuvmati, o”ti aujtw:n ejstin hJ basileiva tw:n oujranw:n.

I've been using the greek text of the first Beatitude all along to disorient us, to make the words sound strange to us again. Until we struggle with this text--what it means to be blessed, who's being blessed, and the reason Jesus gives for this outlandish statement--we have no room to read over it epistemological humility, spiritual dependency, or even justification by grace alone.

So here's how I hear what Jesus starts to say here.

So far in Matthew's telling, Jesus is born in a context of exile (1.11-12, 17) a scion of the former dynastic rulers of the Jews (1.6,17, 20; 2.2). Jesus is not only a political heir; he is also God returned to the people, Immanuel (1.18, 23). This is important, because the exile represented not only a departure of the people from the land. It also signaled according to some traditions the departure of God from the people (cf. Ezekiel 10). Jesus is God returned to be with the people, Yahweh the deliver, Yahweh the savior (1.21).

Matthew re-emphasizes the exilic political context with two stories. First sages from the east (Iran?) travel to meet a new king only to find a toddler in a sheep town, Bethlehem (2.1-6). Next, Herod reenacts the slaughter of Hebrew babies by Pharaoh (cf. Exodus 1-2) right in the Jews' heartland (Mt 2.16-18). Note where Matthew cites the Prophets. Jesus and the circumstances of his infancy and childhood, somewhat ironically or unexpectedly, brings ultimate fulfilment to these texts. These citations again bring home the political aspect of the ripples Jesus causes, even as a baby.

Matthew moves from these beginning to John's summons to repentance at the Jordan. John's message requires that acceptance of the kingdom message (3.2) effect change in lifestyle and practice (3.8). Nominal membership in the covenant people won't cut it (3.9-10). Neither apparently will assiduous religious observance or social status or role; Pharisees and Sadducees get singled out as those who are farthest from true repentance (3.7), and the one coming after John will come with judgment for them (3.11-12).

Jesus enters the scene, undergoing a baptism with God's people, entering with them into the new thing John has proclaimed God is doing (notice that Jesus word-for-word take ups John's message; compare 3.2 and 4.17). Just as he does this, God confirms Jesus' status and role (the one with the winnowing fork of judgment, God who returns to be with God's people) as God's anointed servant and royal son (cf. Ps 2).

Immediately Jesus status as servant is tested in the desert by the adversary. Will Jesus as Yahweh's servant enact judgment and comfort (cf. Isaiah's Servant Songs) through un-God-like means--feeding the masses in to popular revolt, apocalyptic spectacle, or devotion to the devil's schemes (or however we interpret the three temptations)? No. Jesus perseveres in accomplishing his mission of judgment and comfort in the way God directs him.

So Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee (not Jerusalem, the center of power). He starts in the "land of the shadow of death" (4.16), proclaiming that God's kingdom is arriving. What does this announcement look like? Calling average people away from their jobs--not the super pious Pharisees or expert scribes, not the town elders, not the priests or politicians. He calls fishermen to become fishers for people (4.19)--to invite others into the new thing God is doing. Jesus proclamation looks like healing "every disease and sickness among the people" (4.23) and casting out evil spirits from the demonically possessed (4.24).

In this context, Jesus finally sits down on the mountainside (perhaps like Moses on Sinai) to explain what he's inviting people into.

He "opens his mouth" to teach them, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

After how Matthew's begun his story, I don't think we can 1) de-politicize the word poor, or 2) import a theology of justification by grace through faith that Matthew has never yet spoken a word about. Blessed is fairly easy to interpret. Just read what's happening around Jesus four verses earlier in 4.23-24. These people, whatever their identity, are blessed in that Jesus is working incredible things for them. Blessed might mean a lot more than this. We might want to read in heaven or eternal security and bliss. But at a minimum, and probably most immediately, blessed seems to mean that the poor in spirit are finding blessing in Jesus deeds and words.

oiJ ptwcoi; tw/: pneuvmati. Halter writes that the Greek term means "to be completely empty and dependent upon someone else for provision." He suggest a homeless person as a model. There's a lot of debate over how literally to take Jesus' word here. The Hebrew Bible tradition to label the godly community the anawim, the humble and humiliate, might in fact flow back over the literal meaning of poor. Perhaps poor signals godly in this case. Perhaps not. Jesus certainly did spend a lot of time with the literally poor, and even named our response to the poor and those in need as the arbiter of whether we receive comfort or judgment at the Son of Man's return (25.31-46) in his last public address. But I by no means intend to settle the identity of this group here and now.

Poor is modified by a dative noun, tw/: pneuvmati, what we translate traditional "in Spirit." This modifier, more than anything else, is what caused me to email my Greek professor so many years ago. If our poverty is to be limited only to the spiritual parts of our lives, then maybe there's reason to hear Jesus' first words as telling us not to try to go it under only our own religious effort or not to think too highly of our spirituality. According to my old syntax textbook, the dative may be used (among many other uses) as an adverb. That's the traditional interpretation, poor spiritually. Dan Wallace names this a dative of sphere.

But the dative may also indicate what Wallace calls "interest." We might translate the text then "poor for the Spirit." A dative can also indicate a causal relationship--"poor because of the Spirit." Gustavo GutiƩrrez runs with this final way in a chapter well worth reading, "Poverty: Solidarity and Protest," in A Theology of Liberation. GutiƩrrez suggests that the first Beatitude should motivate us to join the poor, to live alongside and be numbered with those who are oppressed today.

When I hear Matthew's story, it feels more natural to me if poor in the Spirit indicates the type of people who were finding blessing in Jesus. These were the people, after all, who catching sight of the kingdom's arrival in Jesus' healing, exorcising, and preaching.

A lot of doctrinal assumptions lurk just beneath the surface of any discussion of the Beatitudes. I'm curious to see where Halter's carry him in the unfolding chapters. I'm curious to see how they challenge and reshape my own.

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