Sunday, January 15, 2012

Blogging Sacrilege, chapter 5: Comfort, comfort ye my people!

Hugh Halter titles chapter 5 of Sacrilege "The Problem with Family Values." This, IMHO, is a sign of hope.

I am a member of the generation who grew up with "family values" broadcast every morning from Focus on the Family on AM Christian radio. I read the books that, under the guise of defending "absolutes," really duked it out for traditional "family values" (cf. Josh McDowell's Right from Wrong). It seemed then that the fate of Christianity, or American Christianity, stood or fell with the family seated around the table for dinner, teens' attitudes about cheating, and kids keeping their pants on until they were married. The battle over "family values" was in the cultural air so much that Korn would launch the tongue-in-cheek Family Values Tour in Summer 1998.

In his reflection on the second Beatitude, Halter calls "family first" habits and values into question in favor of a practice of hospitality. I fully support this cause. He writes,
"So what I'm suggesting is this: cut out some of the nonstop activities and make room for a few more people in your family room. Keep margin in your life, blank days on your calender, and flexibility in your spare time so that you can adopt a few 'orphans' into your life."
Right on, Hugh! Opening our lives (which some would say is one of the first motions of love) requires that we topple the idols, dethrone the powers which enslave us. Sometimes this is our devotion to our families, our homes, or, even, our hobbies.

Halter mentions Matthew 12.46-50 as a testimony to how Jesus overturned family-first expectations in his own life: Jesus' family comes to talk to Jesus while he's busy teaching his followers. Instead of dropping everything to honor his family, Jesus makes them wait while he finishes teaching. When someone in the crowd objects, Jesus responds, "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he says, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

Jesus redefines every social relationship. In confronting the powers on the cross, he's made a new world where "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." And in this up-turned, re-righted world, "from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view; though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Cor 5.16-17). In this new creation, Jesus is the arbiter of meaning, of relationships and their significance (and signification).

So I'm with Halter's application point: When we're following Jesus, we must find our relationship to "family" somewhere along his way.

But . . . I'm not sure you can wring all of this out of Mt 5.4: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

To give him due credit, Halter talks a bit about actual mourning, drawing in Eccl 7.2-4 to support Jesus' argument. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes says, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every; the should take this to heart." Maybe Jesus had this in mind.

Then again, maybe not. Like the "poor in spirit," "those who mourn" may be more real-worldly than other-worldly. At his best Halter stumbles in this direction: "Jesus's call is for us to be tuned in to pain, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice." But, though this is biblical sentiment (cf. Paul's encouragement to some believers in Rom 12.15), Matthew's story present more immediate indicators of how we should interpret Jesus' statement.

Halter and I part ways over our understanding of the genre of the Beatitudes. Halter talks about them as a guide to, well, as the book's subtitle suggests, "Finding Life in the Unorthodox Ways of Jesus." Jesus first discourse in Matthew certainly has a lot to tell us about what it looks like for us to follow him as salt and light. But I'm convinced this how-to instruction only begins after vv 13-20 of chapter 5. Jesus declares that he has come to "fulfil" or bring to complete expression the Torah and the Prophets. The rest of chs 5-7 fill out what this means for his followers.

But vv 3-12 stand apart. Instead of a renewed torah, these versus declare to us the good news, the gospel Jesus preaches. The first beatitude makes this clear. Jesus preaches an arriving kingdom, and in v 3 he explains who it's arriving for. Similarly, the second beatitude expresses this in another way. Think of the Beatitudes as meditation on the many aspects of the gospel, the light sparked by the facets of rotating gem. For those poor for the sake of the Spirit, it means the return of God's presence with them, a world remade and set right; for those wearing the rags of mourning, it means comfort.

Matthew points us in this direction by his stress on exile in the introductory genealogy. He also suggests this reading by including an account of the Massacre of the Innocents in 2.16-18. If we were to read 5.4 and ask, "Who, so far in Matthew's story, has been mourning?" the women of Bethlehem immediate cry out for out attention, their toddlers and infants ripped from their arms by imperial soldiers.

But pay close attention to the way Matthew frames their situation. He writes, "The what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 'A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'" I didn't catch this until recently, but Bethlehem is not in the tribal territory of any of Rachel's children. Bethlehem, as the lineage of its other famous son reminds us, is the territory of Jacob's other wife Leah's son Judah.

For Matthew, a prophecy seems to be fulfilled when it meets its ultimate expression. So while Bethlehem is only the step-child of Rachel, the mothers mourning there fulfil in a complete and perfect way Jeremiah prophecy to Jerusalem on the eve of its fall and deportation to Babylon. If we read Jer 31.15 in context, we find the city's neglected prophet promising both the exile of its children and of their eventual return due to God's "everlasting love" and "unfailing kindness."

So, blessed are those who mourn. The later book of Lamentations reminds us that the Jewish people continued to mourn the sack of Jerusalem and the desecration of its temple. Already in Jer 41, mere weeks after the destruction of the city and the temple, we find pilgrims coming to mourn the fallen city and its exiled inhabitants. I suspect that Matthew points in the direction of those who mourn this exile through the story of mothers mourning in Bethlehem the contemporary effects of exile under their imperial rulers.

Comfort, then, sounds extremely similar to the words Yahweh commissions his servant to bring in Isaiah 40: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from Yahweh's hand double for all her sins." Those who mourn will be comforted because the exile is finally at an end! God is, once again, with us!

Or as Peter speaks this truth to the mixed congregations of early Christianity: "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Pet 2.9-10).

Now as God's people, we live lives that emulate our leader, his practice of hospitality, his embrace of the bitterness of human life, his mourning with those who mourn. But we do this because we have in him indeed received comfort.

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