Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh.
If salt loses its zing, how will it be made salty? It then has no further use than to be thrown out and stomped on.
A city sitting on top of a mountain can’t be concealed.
Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket but on a lampstand, where it sheds light for everyone in the house.
Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for our shirt, let that person have our coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you.
Love your enemies.
These sayings, collected into one discourse by Matthew and very likely said by Jesus at some point, are the heart of Christianity – or should be. Considered on their own, without Matthew’s interpretive additions, they are at once simple and radical. What happens if they are lifted out of their 1st century context, and transplanted directly into the poisoned political environment that is the United States in 2011?
The poor, owning God’s domain? What a joke. That’s all the poor have – a vain hope that after death, they may get into heaven. The hungry, a feast? On watery soup, downtown, in a building that has no commercial value, rehabbed for the purpose with donations (we can’t use public money for deadbeats, after all)? Who, exactly, is laughing here? That shining city on a hill – purportedly Washington, D.C., according to the zealots who now run the place – has no place to hide its determination to gut the health care bill; repeal the 14th Amendment; and preserve the rights of the mentally unstable to keep their guns in their cold dead hands. The idealistic light that may have once illuminated the founders of this nation is indeed hidden. As for non-violence, and loving your enemy? Please.
The Elves have us reading Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians throughout Epiphany in association with Matthew 5. His letters to the community he founded in Corinth contain Paul’s 1st century understanding of how to live a life in community with followers of the risen Christ. What is most important is not Paul’s prohibitions about sex and marriage, but Paul’s conviction that those who have accepted the crucified and risen Anointed one as the lord of their lives (and not Ceasar) are transformed, body and spirit. The transformation begins in this life, and continues in Paul’s conception of the life to come. His ecstatic conviction is that Jesus will return soon. It is an apocalyptic vision, which does not translate well into jaded, 21st century skepticism.
Nevertheless, look at what he says, according to the new Scholar’s Version of the Authentic Letters of Paul (SV).
The message about the cross is utter nonsense to those who are heading for ruin, but to us who are bound for salvation it is the effective power of God. I remind you that it is written in the scriptures, “I will bring to ruin the wisdom of the expert, And I will confound the intelligence of the best and the brightest.” Where does that leave the expert? Where does that leave the scholar? Where does that leave the pundit of this age? Has not God shown the world’s wisdom to be foolish? Since in the larger scheme of God’s wisdom the world did not come to acknowledge God through its own wisdom, God decided to save those who embrace God’s world-transforming news through the “nonsense” which we preach. At a time when Jews expect a miracle, and Greeks seek enlightenment, we speak about God’s Anointed crucified! This is an offense to Jews, nonsense to the nations; but to those who have heard God’s call, both Jews and Greeks, the Anointed represents God’s power and God’s wisdom; because the folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are. 1 Cor. 1:18-25, SV p. 79. [Bold emphasis in the original; italics mine.]
To unpack some of this wording: “ruin” versus “salvation” means the downward spiral into corruption and violence of imperial society (including 21st century U.S. society) versus liberation from injustice, and the establishment of distributive justice-compassion. Any pundit from the New York Times to the Wal-Mart shopper will tell you that to think we can reverse that downward spiral is naive at best, foolishness at worst. Nevertheless, Paul says, God liberates those who embrace that very world-transforming nonsense. In the 21st century, many expect a miracle (the Rapture comes to mind); others seek enlightenment, but Christians (traditional, orthodox, or liberal/progressive) still proclaim Christ crucified. That means God’s appointed messenger, executed as a common criminal. What is crazier than that?
Paul says later (1 Cor. 3:18-21a): “Don’t be deceived. If any of you thinks that you are wise in the eyes of this age, you will have to become foolish, before you can become truly wise. Because what this world counts as wisdom is folly in the eyes of God . . . So you must not place your confidence in human leaders. Because everything is yours . . . and you are the Anointed’s and the Anointed is God’s” (SV).
What is foolish in the events of Tucson? The governor of Arizona recently eliminated mental and behavioral health care from state-funded programs. She continues to deny state funding for life-saving care to citizens who need transplants. Her version of immigration “reform” is spreading like wildfire among reactionary state legislatures nationwide. Where is the outrage that should be coming from progressive Christians? Is it foolish to suggest rehabilitation for the perpetrator, support for his family and friends; gun control laws that prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of the marginally sane? Further, what is truly foolish in terms of economics? Progressive taxation that does not exempt the rich; social safety nets such as a guaranteed minimum income; free education for all from cradle to grave; free medical care for all (including mental and what is now called “behavioral” health); justice based on radical fairness, not pay-back?
Jesus probably said, If salt loses its zing, how will it be made salty? It then has no further use than to be thrown out and stomped on. As Christian principles are increasingly denied and ignored, Christianity itself becomes increasingly irrelevant to what matters on the Planet. So long as Christians claim the lordship of the Christ and do not put Jesus’ principles into practice, so long as Christians continue to hide behind church doors and decline to soil their hands with “politics,” nothing in U.S. culture will change. The first amendment – much trumpeted among fundamentalists – does not mean a mandate for any religious group to establish its practice as the law of the land; but neither does it curtail any religious group in living or promoting its moral principles. It means the freedom to engage the powers that be in questions that impact the common good. For liberal Christian exiles it means engaging society in treating with seriousness what appears to be the utter foolishness of distributive justice-compassion and the radical abandonment of self-interest.
We are overwhelmed. How can we take on the fear and the hostility, the greed and the mendacity that surrounds us wherever we are? The place to start, as Dorothy said, is right in our own backyard. Notice that the apostle Paul established small communities throughout the Roman world. He did not confront the Roman system head-on. He confronted it one situation at a time. That’s what his letters to the people in Corinth are about. They are not about evangelizing the world. His letter to Philemon is a prime example. But all of his letters are about living a life defined and transformed by the teachings of the one Paul called the Anointed, Jesus.
Jesus said that the realm of God is like a woman who lost a coin and lit a lamp and swept the house until she found it. The usual interpretation is that God searches for sinners, and won’t give up until God has found the lost one. But what that vignette illustrates is the close proximity of the realm of God to ordinary people, and the value of finding it at last. Once found, the poor can own God’s domain, the hungry can have a feast, and the despised and forgotten can find joy. Such transformation is nonsense to those who participate in conventional, cultural norms. But Jesus wasn’t talking about that.