A new post in praise of students who resist pressures to identify with existing categories of career, calling and more, hosted by VocationMatters, a site of the Network on Vocation in Undergraduate Education.
Delivered at Maryville College on 4 February, 2020
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight–indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
This past Sunday, 2 February, was the celebration of the Christian festival of Candlemas. It celebrates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, the story we just heard. Candlemas happens also to mark the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It marks, I suppose, our turning toward the turning toward the light. Hence, 2 February is Groundhog Day, too, when the matter of where in time we really stand is supposedly decided by whether a large rodent sees his shadow (more days of winter dark!) or not (welcome the approaching spring!). The day is a day of prediction, of prognostication, a day for claiming to fore-tell, to fore-know, the future, and thus to know just where we are, here and now, in the middle of things.
At least, in the case of the Presentation of the Lord, it is a day for claiming that once upon a time someone knew. When it comes to this story and stories like it in the Gospels, a cardinal rule of responsible interpretation is this: Ask not, How amazing is it that prophets, who naturally could not have known what was to come centuries after them, nevertheless supernaturally foretell and foreknow the events of Jesus’s life? Ask, rather, some fairly natural questions: Why is this writer drawing on the prophets as if they predicted Jesus? What is the writer trying to do?
(I say, this is a rule of responsible interpretation, and by that I mean it is a rule of faithful interpretation, too. For faith, I think, does not mean abandoning our natural questions for supposedly supernatural answers. No. Faith is courage to trust that our natural questions place us already in response to the presence of God.)
So, why is the writer drawing on the prophets as if they predict and prognosticate? Why does he depict two such characters—Simeon and Anna? What role do they play in the story? We might start to investigate these questions by noting that the literary theorists of Luke’s day recommended that a good story teller might start their narrative in medias res, “in the middle of things.” Start with some crucial action on which the drama turns, they advised, rather than at the chronologically earliest point. Starting in the middle of things creates immediate interest. The audience gets invested. The chronology of the story—how the characters arrived at that crisis, what happened to them after—all this can then be stitched together through flashbacks and foreshadowing. Tell a ripping yarn.
Now, Mark’s Gospel begins in medias res. It drops us into the crucial action of the baptism of Jesus. Curiously, Luke, who builds his story upon Mark’s, and whom scholars with better Greek than I consider the superior writer, does not commence his tale in the middle of things. Or at least, he affects not to do so. Luke opens with a dedication, promising his patron, Theophilus (a name that means, literally, “Lover of God”) an “orderly account.” Then the story starts, affecting to begin at the beginning, with predictions and prognostications of the birth of John the Baptizer and of Jesus. Following their fulfilment, we come to the scene where we, for our part, began—Mary and Joseph presenting their infant child in the Temple as Simeon and Anna interrupt the action.
Let’s ask again: What are Simeon and Anna doing there? Are they, and the other predictors and prognosticators featured in Luke’s Gospel, perhaps a piece of its promise of an orderly account? If he can describe an orderly account, the suggestion seems to be, then that is because a supernatural order was inscribed there, in events, all along. The prophets interrupt to explain it. What their predictions and prognostications, are meant to suggest, I suppose, is that everything is planned out. Nothing is unforeseen or unforetold in the divine plan.
If this seems believable to you, then let’s go on and ask another question: For whose benefit does the writer of Luke do this? Are we supposed to see this as good news to Mary and Joseph, perhaps? We might empathize and imagine that, even if the writer has his story all planned out, his characters would not experience it that way. Surely, they are in medias res when the angel Gabriel interrupts Mary, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day, to announce the divine intent to impregnate her. So Simeon’s predictions, his prognostications, maybe they are meant to reassure us that Mary was reassured: everything is going according to a plan—if, in the middle of things, the beginning seems unclear and the end uncertain, know this child is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
But maybe it’s not mainly for Mary’s benefit. If Mary is in medias res, how much more so Luke’s Theophilus? Imagine those late first century and early second century “lovers of God” for whom the Gospel is written. Imagine them living in the middle of perilous times, and caught between two precarious claims: on the one hand, that though he had died Christ had risen from the dead, and on the other, that Christ will come again. By the closing years of the first century, the former was a claim to which likely no one living could give firsthand testimony. It was a second- or third-hand claim at best. And the latter asserted a hope which, in the terms in which they had received it—that is, as an imminent return, “any moment now”—they must have found less and less supportable as the years wore on. So maybe this is why Luke interprets the prophets as predictors and prognosticators: in the middle of events his people are naturally unsure how to understand (since their beginning is receding ever further into shrouded memory, and their end is perhaps endlessly delayed) Luke’s “orderly account” interrupts uncertainty with seemingly supernatural reassurance that everything is going according to a plan. Even if the plan is no longer evidently as orderly as once was claimed.
If Luke and his contemporaries found themselves struggling to sustain an orderly account of the world’s salvation, how much more so us? Where do we stand in the middle of the things of God? With 14 billion years of cosmic past behind us, and maybe 5 billion more years in the future, I think it is safe to say: this is not a human-sized history. And so I think claims that the ways of God can be reduced to a story we can easily comprehend are claims we should treat with circumspection, if not suspicion. Like for instance Luke’s interpretation of the prophets—Simeon and Anna, and all the rest—as predictors and prognosticators.
We might not have thought about it, or we might have thought about it and decided to ignore it, but here is a fact: the predictors and prognosticators of the first century mistook their their sense of their place and time in history as the anchor-point for God’s ways with and in creation. Trustworthy guides they may still be in many respects, but not in that respect.
I’m not saying that I have a better grasp what the beginning, or the middle, or the end of God’s ways with us is. I only want to witness to the fact that we do not, and cannot, know for sure where or when—let alone how—we stand before God, here and now, in the middle of things.
Luke’s Gospel, indeed all of the New Testament, and the whole religious heritage of humanity contains a wealth of mythological stories: imaginary beginnings and ends, predictions and prognostications, fulfillments and foregone conclusions. These myths, some suppose, are meant to comfort us that a supernatural plan is making sense of it all, and that it will interrupt us soon, any moment now, to show us so. But the truth of the deepest myths is not in apparently describing a beginning of things nor an ending. Rather, the deeper truth of the myths is in how they crystallize our human condition: how it is to be thrown into existence, always and forever in medias res; and in how they call us to bear our condition responsibly, having to determine for ourselves, how best to begin and what best to aim to become, before God. So, if we insist on treating Biblical, mythological communication as literal description foreknown and foretold, then we may fail to recognize its most demanding call upon us, the call to being human before God.
Faith, then, is not believing that someone has a plan all figured out, even if we can’t figure it out. Faith is the courage to lead our lives as best we can, through the midst of things, trusting that we go before God. The way of the Lord, the prophets all say (and in this I affirm they are good guides), is not pre-prepared. It’s we who must prepare the way of the Lord. Somehow the way we live our lives prepares the way of the Lord. Indeed, the Biblical prophetic call to prepare the way of the Lord, when heeded, typically has the ironic effect of averting the need for the Lord to come. The prophets admonish us that the Lord comes, has always come, will always come, in and through our lives. It is in our lives that the divine life finds its way. When we prepare the way of the Lord, God doesn’t come to us. God doesn’t need to come to us. The way of the Lord is prepared in our walking. And thereby we may venture ever more deeply into the divine life. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the prophetic call turns our attention to this world as the way of the Lord.
So, then, can I say anything faithful about the road ahead? I will say, we don’t need prophets to issue supernatural predictions and prognostications. We can foresee what lies before us. We already know in rough form what is coming. Climate scientists of various kinds, for instance, inform us, with a high degree of probability, that we have bypassed all the ways we might have kept this God’s world from dramatic climate change. There will be—no, there already is—disruption, dislocation, devastation. What we do need prophets for is to call us to attend!—attend to our unbypassable responsibility to walk in the midst of this in such a way that we prepare the way of the Lord.
What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord in this circumstance? How shall we walk the way of the Lord? You know, Maryville College has been known at times in its history as a “school of the prophets.” And the mission of the college still issues a prophetic call. We say that “Maryville College prepares students for lives of citizenship and leadership as we challenge each one to search for truth, grow in wisdom, work for justice and dedicate a life of creativity and service to the peoples of the world.” Because this statement is vague, there are many ways to participate in the MC mission. But, equally, there are many ways to deviate from it while telling ourselves we are doing good on some possible scale. But doing good on the largest possible scale is not identical to the aggregate sum of smaller scale goods, no matter how many, if they are not consistent with the mission. So the school of the prophets demands more. What does our mission mean today, in light of the road ahead?
An Address Given at the Samuel Taylor Wilson Chapel, Maryville College
11 September, 2018
Luke 10: 25-37 (NRSV)
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Cognitive scientists who study metaphor have theorized that a great many metaphors are based on our experience as embodied creatures making our way in a physical environment. So, for instance, it is “natural” to us to speak metaphorically of our live as journeys, with points of departure, destinations, and, one hopes, interesting and enriching experiences along the way. Such metaphors permeate Jewish and Christian scripture. The Book of Exodus is a story of the physical journey of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom under the reign of God in the land promised their ancestors. That story is already greatly embellished, but the image of a journey, from slavery to freedom, becomes a metaphor that resonates through the entirety of Scripture, and in the personal experience and shared histories of the people who read it as Scripture.
A weakness of metaphors, however, is the way they break on those bonds of our existence, which no amount of embellishment can ease. We may tell ourselves the stories, but sometime, one way or another, life is going to stop you in your tracks and shake you down. Some of us never get to start again. In life, not everyone gets to reach their long hoped-for destination. But for all of us, the end of the road is unreachable.
Our journeys end, never not abruptly. The way goes on, but we do not.
No wonder, then, that we wonder, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
* * *
Seventeen years ago on this day (it happened to be a Tuesday that year, too), Chrissy my wife and I were living with her parents in New Orleans and we were starting the last preparations for our new jobs directing a study abroad program in Comparative Religion and Culture. In a week’s time – September 18, 2001 – we were to travel to San Francisco, where we would meet the 25 undergraduate students from across the United States, with whom we would travel the full academic year through Taiwan, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Turkey.
Seventeen years ago on this day, I say, we ate breakfast, while the morning news played on TV. Was I shaving? – I think so – when the news began to break. A terrible accident in New York City. Our program was headquartered in New York. An airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. I am watching, eighteen minutes later, when the second plane breaks the face of the South Tower. Who can believe it? Peter Jennings, the then-anchor of ABC news, wants not to believe it. He is inside a studio, uptown. The North Tower falls in upon itself in plumes of smoke and pulverized concrete, and Jennings’ reporter at the scene, Don Dahler, tells him, “The second building . . . has just completely collapsed.”
And I remember Jennings interrupts – I think he’d heard well enough but thinks he must be hearing things – Jennings interrupts to say, “I’m sorry, what was that?” But Dahler’s voice weirdly insists, both plaintive and implacable, “The entire building has just collapsed . . . . it’s not there any more.”
Our journeys end, never not abruptly. The way goes on, but we do not.
No wonder, then, that we wonder –
* * *
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” an expert in the law asks Jesus. In a classic teaching move, Jesus questions the question: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” It’s a question crafted to call out of the student something revealing. For the second of the commandments, which they both have in mind, contains a crucial ambiguity. Its source is Leviticus 19:18. The Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures renders that verse to command love of neighbor. But the Hebrew it translates is indecisive. Hebrew was written in consonants only. Readers supplied vowels based on the context. Often, then, readers had to specify for themselves in speech the sense of a word which, as written, could mean several things. That is the case here. So Jesus’s question, “What do you read there?” asks, “How will you decide to read this word.”
The word at issue is this: ער. Depending on how a reader decides, the word could be this: רֵעֲ, “neighbor,” or – and now it gets interesting – it could be this: רָע, “wicked one,” “enemy.” So that question, “What do you read there?” – oh, it’s a tough question. Jesus demands your candour, demands that you disclose a deeper, even if a discomforting, understanding of the choices you make about whom, and how, you will love.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer chooses the “easier” reading. Still, Jesus congratulates him: “You have given the right answer.” (Indeed, the other synoptic gospels identify these commandments as the basis for understanding anything of Jewish law and prophecy.) But then Jesus adds, ironically, “Do this and you will live.” It is not enough to give the answer; you have to live the answer. Note, Jesus doesn’t say anything about the lawyer’s wish to inherit eternal life. It’s as if he says, “What are you wondering about eternal life for? Are you even alive now? Do this and you will live!”
Now who needs telling that those two commandments are easier said than done? The lawyer knows it. Perhaps, hoping to make his reading of the commandment easier still, he asks his infamous question, “And who is my neighbor?”
So Jesus tells a story of a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead; a story of a Samaritan who becomes a neighbor to this stranger, this enemy in distress, and, showing him mercy, loves him as himself. “Go and do likewise.”
I would like to do likewise. I would like to live. But I also want to interrupt. I want to break through the perfect face of Luke’s fourth wall, and call out, as if from the gathered crowd, “Stop telling us this story! ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind?’ Do you know how hard it is to love God? When the life we are given us stops us in our tracks, shakes us down, and leaves us half-dead at the roadside, how are we to love God? When ones we love dearest are gone, nowhere near their hoped-for destinations, how can we call God our neighbor? Is God, who gives us these broken journeys, not sometimes more like an enemy? ‘Love your enemy as yourself? Do this and you will live?’ Have mercy!
It seems to me that a danger for us who would be seriously religious in the United States today is that the popular culture celebrates willingness to love God with our heart, but not our mind, so we are passionate but ignorant; and to love with our strength, but without soul, so we are forceful but unfeeling. Wilfully ignoring the shadow side of God, refusing to feel the theological depths of our brokenness – these failings make it all but impossible for us to read the second commandment aright, let alone do it – that we shall love our neighbors as ourselves and be neighbors even to our enemies.
* * *
We spoke with our dean in New York. He was safe, but clearly, our TVs told us, many were not. Their journeys were ended. And was ours broken, too, before we even got started? We didn’t know, but as the day wore on into night and another day, we resolved to try to go on. Whatever the attacks meant for the future, we concluded that now, more than ever, the mission of the program mattered: to be out there in the world, learning to see, and be, neighbors, not enemies. A week later, 24 of the original 25 students met us in the San Francisco airport – one had caught a Greyhound from Maine to California! – and we flew off into the world.
* * *
Luke sets the story of broken journeys from Jerusalem within a narrative of Jesus’ journey there. There, he has already said, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he does not deviate. Moreover, he teaches, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Lk. 9: 22-24) They follow this ever stranger person, a person for whom broken life is the price worth paying to love God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, to become a neighbor to enemies and love neighbors as himself.
Not that they read him right. Knowing his life’s journey is about to end in extreme abruption, they are afraid. They would rather inherit eternal life. Him they abandon, half dead, dying. Only later, they will learn to see the secret, that the person on the broken journey is their God and neighbor.
Do we read him any more right now? Don’t we keep wishing for unbroken journeys, even if it means abandoning our enemies, our neighbors, our God?
* * *
I know it is controversial to say so, but I think Love Actually might be the greatest of films about 9/11. It is a film lost in fantasy in many ways, as we are. But how beautiful it is in defiantly celebrating love, even unpretty loves, under the awful pall of the terrorists’ attack on the life we knew and our escalation of violence across the globe in reaction. As the film begins, David, the British Prime Minister fancifully played by Hugh Grant, speaks:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
Yes, indeed. All God’s creatures that can, loving however they can, in fragmentary, but always glorious, confusion. Yet, we are called, from deep within the glory, to love wholly. To gather up as neighbors all our brokenness: hearts and minds and soul and strength, to live in the life of God. Do this and we will live. What is it, to live eternally? Now, more than ever.
An Address Given at the Samuel Taylor Wilson Chapel, Maryville College
10 October, 2016
Luke 6:20-30 (GNT):
20 Jesus looked at his disciples and said,
“Happy are you poor;
the Kingdom of God is yours! 21 “Happy are you who are hungry now;
you will be filled!
“Happy are you who weep now;
you will laugh!
22 “Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and say that you are evil, all because of the Son of Man! 23 Be glad when that happens and dance for joy, because a great reward is kept for you in heaven. For their ancestors did the very same things to the prophets.
24 “But how terrible for you who are rich now;
you have had your easy life! 25 “How terrible for you who are full now;
you will go hungry!
“How terrible for you who laugh now;
you will mourn and weep!
26 “How terrible when all people speak well of you; their ancestors said the very same things about the false prophets.
27 “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If anyone hits you on one cheek, let him hit the other one too; if someone takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well. 30 Give to everyone who asks you for something, and when someone takes what is yours, do not ask for it back.
In one of his great Essais, the 16th century Frenchman, Michel de Montaigne, wrote that we should not be deemed happy till after our death. For, he explains, mortals such as us, “no matter how Fortune may smile on them, can never be called happy until you have seen them pass through the last day of their life, on account of the uncertainty and mutability of human affairs which lightly shift from state to state, each one different from the other.”
In saying so, Montaigne was following in a tradition of wisdom that stretched back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Indeed, to refine his point, he calls on the wisdom of Solon, the Athenian law-giver. In seeking happiness, Solon, he says, was indifferent to fortune and misfortune. For him, happiness depended on “tranquility and contentment of … spirit,” and “the resolution and assurance of an ordered soul.” (86) Happiness, in the long view cultivated by Greek and Greco-Roman philosophers, including Solon, meant to fulfill the distinctive potential of one’s nature through all the course of life, and to bring it to a culmination in the dying of a “good death,” free of fear.
There is something a bit funny, isn’t there, about refusing to declare that someone is happy until they are dead? It gives new meaning to the proverb, “Better late than never,” doesn’t it? But the wisdom is clear, I think: no matter how secure one’s circumstances might seem to be, and no matter how well one might seem to be leading one’s life, the risk of failing to actualize one’s potential, whether by accident or through one’s own fault, can never be ruled out of the range of possibilities. Don’t ever presume! I mean, consider the unhappy fate of Brangelina.
But my question is, Was Jesus happy? It must have been a question on the minds of the writers of the New Testament Gospels, for each of them portrays Jesus as providing the very model of a good death. He is resolute to the end. Yet, it is also likely that, if their stories were to inspire their audiences to cleave to the Christian way, then the writers needed to portray Jesus as dying a death so good, one might wonder if he was not superhuman. For by any objective standard of the time, Jesus did not die a happy person. A sudden and secretive arrest, followed by the savagery and the public shame of crucifixion, figured in no first century handbook to happiness. And then there are those dreadful words in the Gospel of Matthew: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” No, we should acknowledge how horrifying his dying must have been; how the promise of humanity in him was desecrated. How unhappy that man of sorrows.
But what if Jesus had been engaged in the pursuit of happiness? How—what way—was he running that race, before he was taken out of competition? One of the few clues we have is the Gospel we heard a short while ago. There are problems here, of course: these so-called “Beatitudes” appear in both Matthew and Luke, but differently, and we have no unassailable reasons to believe that the character of Jesus that emerges in either story is a close reflection of Jesus of Nazareth. Still, however Jesus actually said these things, or if he said them at all, or if, instead, they enunciate a lesson followers drew for themselves from having shared in his way, it is utterly striking that Jesus proclaims a person’s happiness does not depend upon the fulfillment of a natural potential—not the obvious potential, anyway.
The word for “happy” in these statements, makarios, is pointedly not the word the philosophers used to guide disciples to their goal. Makarios can also be translated as “fortunate,” or “lucky,” or “blessed.” In fact, oi makarioi—“the blessed ones”—was a term employed in referring to the Gods, who, presumably, enjoyed perfect tranquility and contentment of spirit, neither having to strive for it nor struggle to preserve it, as we mortals must. However, the term was also used in a more slangy way to speak of the upper classes of the Roman Empire, the elites in a desperately unequal society. These were the ones on whom fortune smiled; whose existence must have seemed charmed to the vast, immiserated majority. Today we might call them, with a similarly ironic edge, the “beautiful people.”
Jesus’s words, then, are a poke in the eye to them. How utterly striking, when Jesus looks upon the defenceless, the exploited, the excluded, and sees what he then says: You, you poor, you are the beautiful people. And you, the ones who are hungry and have nothing to eat, you are the beautiful people. You who are grief-stricken, hopeless, who can’t keep from crying, you are the beautiful people. If you are hated, rejected, mocked and slandered, then be happy, for you are the beautiful people. You, in short, are God’s favorites.
Can we say such things? Do we truly see them? Oh, that we had a divine eye. Oh, that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear.
But hear this, too: If the writers of the gospels are to be believed, the poor, the hungry, the hopeless can be happy because a great reward is kept for them “in heaven.” I don’t believe them. If you have heard me preach here before, lo! these 10 years, then you’ve heard me return, again and again, to this tension between the words of Jesus and the worldview within which they made sense to him and his followers, a worldview which make little sense to us—well, at least to me. It makes me unhappy when Christians reassure themselves or, worse, others, that poverty, hunger, hopelessness in life are not so bad, because Jesus is coming to take people away to a place called Heaven, if he hasn’t already gotten them there. It makes me even more unhappy when Christians go on and convince themselves that it matters more that we believe there is a place called Heaven, and a God in it, then that we see this world and those in it as Jesus seems to have done, with a divine eye.
If being faithful means believing all the same things the New Testament writers, maybe even Jesus himself, believed about life, the universe, and everything—well, what a waste of our potential. We have a different physics, a different biology, a different cosmology, a different economy; it seems to me there is nothing to be gained from turning our back on these truths. So many Christians routinely ignore Jesus’s insight into happiness, his dedication of his life to the service of God’s favorites. I think my disagreement with the gospel writers on the likelihood of a supernatural heaven might be excused.
God, the kingdom of God, is not “compensation.” And this is the nub of my disagreement. Jesus does not say, Sorry, folks, there’s nothing to be done about your present unhappiness, but don’t despair—you will be happy later, in Heaven, it’s only fair! No, he says, to the poor, the exploited, the excluded: You are the beautiful, the blessed ones; you are God’s favorites. And he gives his life to them.
St. Paul saw the kingdom of heaven right there in the gift of that human life. “God was in Christ,” he wrote to the Corinthians, hoping to interrupt their squabbles over who really were the beautiful people. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Jesus’s inversion of conventional wisdom as to who is happy, and who is not, is not meant as a promise of eventual compensation. It is meant to motivate us to reconciliation. For all my doubts about Jesus and his followers, my faith in Christ is he lived in God, as God lived in him, and concretely in the life he lived in companionship with the hungry, the helpless, the hated.
If that life is happy, the metric can hardly be the classical canon of self-fulfillment, can it? No, with his divine eye Jesus saw unsuspected potential in us, an immeasurable potential for reconciling self-transcendence toward one another. Jesus’s own death was not terminal, but germinal. His life did not end with him. It transcended itself, inspiring his followers, down through centuries, to follow him where he might be found, among the poor, the exploited, the excluded. Deem no one happy until their death. That is good wisdom. But don’t be fooled into thinking we know exactly when death has come. The spirit of Christ inspires the disciples of Jesus to live in God, with a potential for happiness ever greater and ever new. I don’t mean trying to make someone happy up in “Heaven.” I mean, we bring the spirit of Christ nearer its true and endless fulfillment, when God will be all in all, when we lay down our life in Jesus’s way. This is the gospel as best I understand it today.
 Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, trans. M.A. Screech (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 85.