Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Two Versions

So I've been thinking recently about Jesus' teachings and the strange dichotomy that resides in them all together. Mainly right now I'm thinking of Jesus' words about riches and poverty. It's this strange thing, and Andrew's blog reminded me of it, when he mentioned how Father Chacour interpreted the scriptures in temporal terms rather than hyperspiritual.

There are two versions of the sermon on the mount: one in Luke and one in Matthew. In Luke, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor." In Matthew, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." While Luke goes out of his way to portray Jesus as a man of the poor, who went out of his way to eat and drink and fellowship with the outcast and oppressed, Matthew focuses on his clash with pharisaical hypocrisy and really living the life of total obedience to the Father's will. (At least, that's the way I see it. If you're a Bible scholar, feel free to contradict me with your superior knowledge/understanding). So perhaps it's a little of both, the spiritual and the temporal. But what's the right balance?

I have difficulty balancing Jesus saying things like, "if anyone comes after me he must take up his cross and follow me," with, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." On the one hand he says that it's tough to follow him, and those who come to follow him should consider the cost of doing so, and on the other he says flat out, it's easy. It seems to me a bit paradoxical. He sends the rich man away, because he's unwilling to part with his riches. But he tells his followers to ask in his name for anything they want, believe they've received it, and it will be theirs. Now, I feel a little bit uneasy when either of these emphases are taken to the extreme.

On the one hand, there are people who think we must live in poverty, give everything we can possibly give for the good of others and heaven forbid we enjoy anything we've received ourselves. It's ultra-unselfishness, and it just seems to take the joy out of anything. Every achievement or success is tainted with the necessary awareness of the rest of the world's suffering and lack. I am sorry, but I cannot believe that this is the reason God created the world. And there is just way too much of the story of God, in scripture and history, of God's blessing his people with temporal good, to believe that such is our calling. Whether it was Job, Noah, Abraham, David, God blessed them, he increased their land, their wealth, their station, along with his presence and providence. You can say that these were special cases, for certainly there were many others who did not enjoy such blessing, including several prophets, who suffered greatly. But then, I would say, perhaps these were the special cases. Perhaps both extremes are special cases.

There is also the prosperity theology extreme to consider. God does not want you to suffer or struggle in life, they say. They put special emphasis on his yoke being easy and on receiving anything you ask for. They may tell you that God wants you to have a house, a new car, a great job, an overflowing bank account, a cushy retirement, everything your heard could dream of, and more. Since God loves you, he wants you to have everything that makes you truly happy. It's not necessarily all material, but it's the whole package. But what do they say about taking up your cross? What do they say about sharing in Christ's sufferings, or about giving all that you have? It's difficult to find direct answers. What do they say about Christ's teachings, "do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven..."

There seems to be a contradiction with Jesus, and I've been trying to fathom it, trying to balance it.

There are a couple of things to consider, for those who want to discount the prosperity camp entirely:
There are a lot of little tidbits, that I find incredibly interesting in this matter. There is the story of the old woman who gave two very small copper coins, and the rich men who gave gold and silver by the handful. I notice that jesus' question to his disciples was not, "whose gift was acceptable to God," nor, "who gave what God called them to give." His question was simply, "Who gave more?" The answer was that the woman gave more because she gave everything she had, while the others gave out of their abundance. I find it interesting that Jesus didn't turn to his followers and say, "that is the kind of giver you all should be," nor did he say, "go and do likewise." He merely let the comparison stand. I have to conclude that the comparison itself is the point, not the heart of giving. The point of the question was about judgment. When we look around and say, who's giving more, or who's doing more, the point is, we can't really know, because we don't know what each is giving from. It's really easy to see someone giving millions of dollars and say, what an amazing person, but to look down our noses and those who barely give anything at all, but that is essentially the problem. It wasn't that the rich men weren't giving enough. It was that they were being credited with incredible goodness and others were not. It fits in with one of Jesus' most common themes: judge not, lest ye be judged.

Abraham: the story of Abraham, who was told in a dream to sacrifice his son, I also find interesting. I find it especially poignant that the passage makes a point of the fact that Abraham had a justification for his obedience. He did not sit and reason to himself, the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. He is God and I am not. Unquestioning obedience... must do what God says, no matter the consequences. No, Abraham specifically reasoned to himself that God could raise Isaac from the dead. Abraham followed a God who blessed him and made him certain promises. If God had said in the dream, "Sorry Abraham, but my promise no longer stands and I want you to sacrifice your son to me, because I'm God and you have to do what I say, and don't think for a moment that you will ever see your son again," do you think Abraham would have had the same response? Considering the evidence in the story, I think not. But I glean from this story and others that sacrifice is not a matter of submission to a necessary state of poverty, but rather merely a test of faith in a God who blesses his people.

I say these things, not to boost the prosperity camp's claims, so much as to cast some shadow over the opposite extreme, which seems to hold more sway with a lot of well-intentioned Christians.

There is much, much more to this topic to be mulled over, debated, and set in hopefully some appropriate balance, but that's a lot for right now. Let me just say, I'm trying to take Jesus at his word, plain and simple, taking all of his words as weighty and substantial.

1 comment:

Susanna Metzger said...

I've been running into contradictions with Jesus and mainstream christianity a TON lately, and I don't know what to do about it either.