The beatitudes address the oppressive conditions of empire—ancient and contemporary!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2014-2015
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Blessed are the Children of God
The meaning of the festival of All Saints Sunday is aptly expressed in the Prayer of the Day from Evangelical Lutheran Worship:
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow our blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever (ELW, p. 59).
The first reading from Revelation 7 provides a vision of those who gather with “inexpressible joy” in worship before the throne of God. The second lesson states the basis on which we might hope to be included in their number: the “love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” (3:1). And the Gospel for the Day sets out, in the words of Jesus from his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12), a description of what such ‘lives of faith and commitment” might look like, so as to indicate the way we are to follow, and empower us to do so.
Is the lion an enemy or a creature created to praise God?
What might we draw from these readings of relevance to care of creation? Constituting something of a summary vision of the way and goal of Christian life as this collection of texts does, we are glad to see that creation and its care are richly implicated in them. We exclude from this characterization the appointed psalm. An individual lament, Psalm 34 is rather typically anthropological in focus and contrasts the well-being for which the psalmist prays with the “want and hunger” suffered by “young lions.” As Arthur Walker-Jones comments, “This typical imagery and implied narrative imagine a world that continues to influence contemporary constructions for nature. Thus, contemporary society continues to view wild animals as enemies and wilderness as both refuge and threat” (For the significance of this image, see Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality pp. 44-47). Compare this imagery, on the other hand, with the image of the lion associated with the four creatures at the throne of God, discussed below.
Those robed in white and gathered around the throne of God and the Lamb in the text from Revelation 7 represent the saints whom we honor this day, as God honors them eternally. Of them it is said that they will no longer experience suffering in relationship to the rest of creation:
“. . . the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7: 15b-17).
These images of reconciliation, moreover, are part of John’s great vision of the reign of God, to which v. 11 draws our attention: “And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing . .” As readers of the Revelation of John are instructed at 4:6-8, the four living creatures are, respectively, one “like a lion,” one “like an ox,” one ‘with a face like a human face,” and the fourth “like a flying eagle.” Thus do creatures both heavenly and earthly join in praising God for the redemption of the saints.
Lions, Oxen, Humans, and Eagles praise God without ceasing
“Is heaven for pelicans?” asks Christopher Southgate in his provocative discussion of “Eschatological Considerations” in his The Groaning of Creation (p. 78ff.). A literalistic response on the basis of this text might be, “no, only lions, oxen, humans and eagles.” The images here are, of course, mythical. Each of the creatures is “six winged.” Though clearly angelic, they nonetheless represent humankind and all the animals created by God (cf. Genesis 1:20-27), perhaps as ‘they existed in God’s mind from all eternity, “to adopt the suggestion of a footnote to the text of The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Strikingly, these creatures are all “full of eyes all around and inside;” they are made for seeing the glory of God and giving God praise. “. . . without ceasing” they sing “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is to come.” Ever watchful, they lead the elders in praise of the one who sits upon the throne, singing “you are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (4: 9-11; see the footnotes to Rev. 4:6-11 in NOAB, P. 369NT).
For what reason do these four creatures join in the praise of angels and elders before the throne of God? Because they see that God has brought the saints out of “the great ordeal.” Or, to respond as the author of 1 John might, they behold those who are now revealed to be children of God and are therefore “like God, for they see God as God is.” Or yet again, to draw insight from Chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans, they rejoice to see those for whom “the creation waits with eager longing” in “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:19-21). Or to turn to yet another relevant text, the Gospel for the day, they welcome those who have followed the way that Jesus, the Servant of Creation, showed them in his Sermon on the Mount.
The Beatitudes affirm “God’s favor for certain human actions and situations.”
We draw here from our previous comment on the Sermon, when it was the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. The four creatures, the elders, and the angels rejoice together, we want to suggest, because those who came through the great ordeal followed the teachings of Jesus, which constitute justice and which fostered love for the whole of creation. Warren Carter, whose exegesis of the Sermon we follow here (Matthew and the Margins, pp. 130 –37), proposes that the beatitudes concern “primarily God’s favor for certain human actions and situations (Ps 1:1-2).” Beatitudes, he writes, “are directed to the present and future ages.” The nine blessings of the Sermon identify and affirm certain situations and actions as signs of the coming of God’s reign, present or future. They “reassure those who already experience the circumstances or manifest the particular behavior that God’s favor is or will be on them.” Accordingly, our question is, in what way are the actions and situations so favored of benefit to all creation?
God blesses those who are crushed in spirit and who grieve their ills.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. The “poor in spirit,” argues Carter, “are those who are economically poor and whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice. They can see no hope, but they know the corrosive effect of hopeless poverty. They are described in several psalms as oppressed by the wicked” (p. 131). The issue here is the overcoming of a totally negative expectation regarding the fulfillment of the promise of well-being, which from time to time dominates the spirit of an individual or a community. This is a condition experienced by people who, as Carter puts it, are “without resources and hope, subject to larger forces that seem beyond reach,” but also by their advocates that the powerful in an oppressive political arena refuse to hear. It is not uncommonly the experience in our culture of people who care passionately about Earth and its non-human inhabitants. Their advocacy on behalf of the ‘non-human other’ seems so futile, because the lives of the creatures that are the focus of their concern and love are threatened so totally; and the powerful appear so completely indifferent to their fate, maintaining policies that are completely driven by their own self-interest. A judgment expressed by Carter fits both oppressed humans and dominated nature equally well: “Denied justice, adequate resources, wholeness, and subject to the power of the ruling elite, there is no hope of change. Unless God intervenes” (p. 132). But God will intervene, Jesus promises: The poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. The fulfillment of the promise given with their creation is guaranteed to come to them, in the eschaton—if not sooner.
The point of the first beatitude bears emphasis by repetition, Carter thinks: “The declaration that the hopeless poor are blessed (see 5:3) because God is in the process of liberating them, is so startling that it is repeated. Blessed are those who mourn.” Yes, they are blessed precisely because they mourn “the destructive impact of imperial powers. . . . Oppression is not normative. It should be mourned.” Their mourning is, in fact, a sign of the enduring vitality of their spirit, however diminished in strength it might be.
Inherit the Earth is restoration to land.
With respect to the first two beatitudes, then, the blessings relevant to non-human creatures occur by virtue of the human impact on them, by the circumstances and behaviors of human beings. With the next several beatitudes, on the other hand, the application is rather more direct. Jesus continues: “Blessed are the meek,” those who give place to others and thus show appropriate respect for their need of that place for their existence. Theirs is an implicitly profound ecological behavior; and so the blessing is appropriate: “they shall inherit the earth.” As Carter insists, “this is not to be spiritualized. God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth (Ps 37:10-11).” But neither is this to be limited anthropocentrically, for “The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships will end. The earth and its resources belong to God (Gen 1; Ps 24:1). As stewards, humans are to nurture Earth (Gen 1:28-31) as a basis for a community in which all have access to necessary resources . . . Earth, then, refers not only to the land of Israel but to all of God’s creation” (p. 133).
Being peacemakers is the opposite of Empire—Roman and American
So, also, accordingly, those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—understood here as existence characterized by right relationships, including adequate resources for living (space, water, energy, sustenance)—“will be filled.” And, we would add, fulfilled: “for those who show mercy will receive mercy,” not just from God, but reciprocally in a community of practical and active love. The “pure in heart,” humans whose external actions must be consistent with internal commitments and motivations, but also non-humans whose external life conforms to the purposes God has instilled in their very nature—they will all together “see God,” again a promise that necessarily points to an eschatological fulfillment that is open to all creatures. And, finally, the peacemakers—certainly not the peace of the Roman Empire’s “order, security, and prosperity” and certainly not the peace of the American empire with its exhaustive quest to secure resources that now extends out into the cosmos beyond Earth. Rather, the reference is to God’s “cosmic peace in which all things are in just relation with each other and their creator.” Called children of God, the identity of peacemakers is shaped neither by ethnicity nor by species-being, but rather by conformity to the self-giving pattern of both God and Jesus.
Blessed are those who give up their lives in the struggle for justice.
The final two beatitudes return to the struggle identified in the first two, that of meeting and dealing with the overwhelming opposition which the forces of the status quo, with “its commitments, power structures, and beneficiaries,” mount against the just and reconciling way of life envisioned in his beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-11). What does it mean that God looks with favor on those who give up their lives in the struggle? Their reward, it notes, is “the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, says Jesus, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” They will participate in the completion of God’s purposes, enjoying the fullness of God’s presence and empire,” Carter insists (p. 136). And on All Saints Sunday, we are given to behold the confirmation of this promise.
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288