Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Great Reversal: Blessings and Woes in Luke 6

The Great Reversal: Blessings and Woes in Luke 6

Rick Malloy, S.J.

VALENTINE’S DAY: A gal walks into a post office one day to see a middle-aged, balding man standing at the counter methodically placing "Love" stamps on bright pink envelopes with hearts all over them. He then takes out a perfume bottle and starts spraying scent all over them. Her curiosity getting the better of her, she goes up to the balding man and asks him what he is doing. The man says, "I'm sending out 1,000 Valentine's Day cards signed, 'Guess Who?' " "But why?" asks the girl? The man replies, "I'm a divorce lawyer.”

1. To understand things, you have to understand context and background.

- To understand this week, you need to know what Valentine’s day is (and ladies, for guys, Valentine’s day makes as much sense as a dog looking at a computer screen).

- Yesterday Sen. Barack Obama announced he’s a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. He did so in Springfield Illinois and invoked the meanings and myths of another tall, gangly Springfield lawyer, who went to the White House and changed the Nation and the world’s history. If you don’t know who Lincoln was, you missed half of what Obama was saying in his electrifying speech yesterday.

- To understand what Jesus is saying in the Gospel today, you have to know his people’s history, the meanings and myths of the people of Israel. The central story of Jesus’ life has been re sung recently by Bruce Springsteen on his album, the Seeger Sessions. “O Mary don’t you weep.

Well if I could I surely would, Stand on the rock where Moses stood

Pharaoh's army got drownded, O Mary don't you weep

O Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn, O Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn

Pharaoh's army get drownded O Mary, don't you weep

Well one of these nights bout 12 o'clock this old world is gonna rock
Pharaoh's army got drownded O Mary don't you weep

Well Moses stood on the Red Sea shore And smote the water with a two by four
Pharaoh's army got drownded O Mary don't you weep

O Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn O Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn
Pharaoh's army got drownded O Mary, don't you weep

2.. What was Jesus’ context and background as he gave this sermon?

- “Pharaoh's army got drownded.” That’s the whole background of Jesus’ life. That’s the context within which Jesus understands God, as the God who freed the slaves, as the God who stood against the empire, as the God who reversed all the social patterns of those who unjustly oppress others. This God of Jesus was not on Pharaoh’s side. The God of Jesus was on the side of those who were fleeing slavery in Pharaoh’s empire. The God of Jesus leads the slaves into the challenge of the desert and the freedom of the Promised Land.

- Mary don’t you weep no more speaks of Mary Magdelene at the end of John’s Gospel. Mary don’t weep, because the resurrected Jesus now does what Moses did. The risen Lord promises that the empires won’t last forever. Jesus calls his disciples to believe in the promise and possibility of the Kingdom of God.

- Jesus preached a new social order, a world wherein all values are reversed and the first shall be last and the last first. A kingdom of Justice and Joy, Faith and Freedom, Peace and Prosperity, Hope and Healing, Liberty and Love.

- Marcus Borg: The kingdom of God is God’s hope for the world. God’s Kingdom will bring blessings for those dominated and exploited by empires; woes to those who benefit from established unjust orders maintained by military might. “The Kingdom of God is about a great reversal of the ways things are” (Borg 2006:245)

Jesus was a prophet like Jeremiah. Jeremiah says cursed is the one who trusts in human social structures based on oppression and exploitation. Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord. Jesus says woe to those who are rich, filled, Laughing, spoken well of. Their day of distress is coming. Jesus says Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the excluded and hated.

Jesus is saying those who serve Pharaoh’s army may be rich, and filled, and laughing and spoken well of. But empires built on exploitation and injustice cannot last. Those oppressed by such empires are poor. The exploited weep. Those destroyed by floods and war, like Katrina and Iraq, are hungry now. Those who speak up and call the empire to accountability and repentance are ridiculed, hated, persecuted and killed. But the great reversal is coming.

Jesus is saying all this in the context of his sermon on the plain. In this chapter 6 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus comes down to be on a level place and gives his campaign speech, telling us what he’s all about. He’s all about the Kingdom of God. He’s all about Loving our enemies. He’s all about not judging others. He’s all about forgiveness. He’s all about being merciful and compassionate as God our Father is compassionate and merciful.

3. What’s our context? What’s our background as we hear this Gospel of Blessings and Woes today?

Last week we heard Super Bowl players and coaches thanking God for helping them win. We’re going to hear presidential candidates invoking God as they campaign for the White House in 2008. We hear over and over how ours is a Christian Nation.

Bill McKribben last year wrote a provocative article for Harpers magazine. In that article he deeply analyses and questions whether all our rhetoric about being a Christian nation is matched by our actions. McKribben finds us falling short.

“Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.”

America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. Ours is among the most spiritually homogenous rich nations on earth. Depending on which poll you look at and how the question is asked, somewhere around 85 percent of us call ourselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish. It is true that a smaller number of Americans—about 75 percent—claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, and only 33 percent say they manage to get to church every week. Still, even if that 85 percent overstates actual practice, it clearly represents aspiration. In fact, there is nothing else that unites more than four fifths of America. Every other statistic one can cite about American behavior is essentially also a measure of the behavior of professed Christians. That's what America is: a place saturated in Christian identity.”

“But is it Christian? This is not a matter of angels dancing on the heads of pins. Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they'd fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?”

“In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it's not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It's also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it's that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention. And it's not as if the numbers are getting better: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that the number of households that were “food insecure with hunger” had climbed more than 26 percent between 1999 and 2003.”

“This Christian nation also tends to make personal, as opposed to political, choices that the Bible would seem to frown upon. Despite the Fifth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations (which at least should give us plenty of opportunity for visiting the prisoners). Having been told to turn the other cheek, we're the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest. Despite Jesus' strong declarations against divorce, our marriages break up at a rate—just over half—that compares poorly with the European Union's average of about four in ten. That average may be held down by the fact that Europeans marry less frequently, and by countries, like Italy, where divorce is difficult; still, compare our success with, say, that of the godless Dutch, whose divorce rate is just over 37 percent. Teenage pregnancy? We're at the top of the charts. Personal self-discipline—like, say, keeping your weight under control? Buying on credit? Running government deficits? Do you need to ask?” (McKribben in Harpers, 2005)

SALT OF THE EARTH: Among key trends outlined in the 2006-2007 report are:

  • The gap in income equality continues to widen dramatically.
  • Technology is making us more connected technologically but more isolated socially; Americans have fewer friends or family to confide in and rely on for emotional support.
  • Emerging generations of Americans are not adequately educated to lead the nation.
  • The U.S. reports the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy for people over 60 compared to other industrialized countries.
  • A record number of Americans have no health insurance; half of adults in middle-income families reported they've had serious problems paying for their health care.
  • Some 28 percent of veterans return from the Iraq war with health problems that require medical or mental health treatment.
  • Correcting problems in the juvenile justice system requires prevention strategies and alternatives to juvenile detention centers; detention not only increases the odds that youth will return to the justice system, but many emerge from detention with worse problems than when they went in.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among children and youth aged 10-24.
  • The number of single mothers who are jobless has increased significantly since 2000; yet single mothers leaving welfare for work remain poor or near-poor.
  • Over their lifetimes, School dropouts cost the U.S. more than $260 billion dollars in lost wages, lost taxes and lost productivity over their lifetimes

It’s Time to turn things around.

Don’t serve Pharaoh’s Army.

In Whatever you do, serve God’s Kingdom

To copy a final phrase from Obama,

“Let’s get to work.”

Our First work is to pray. The Eucharistic Liturgy is the work of the people. Let us pray.


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