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The Beatitude we are considering here is given two different contexts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. For Luke, this is the third portion of a much larger context: the community that Jesus sent out returns and share their stories and experiences. But in Matthew, the context is different. It is part of Jesus’ response to why he taught using parables. Let’s take a look at both.
“The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise, they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” (Matthew 13:10-17)
Matthew, which many scholars today believe was written to a predominantly Jewish Jesus-following audience, seems to be trying to do two things:
- Affirm (and possibly explain) Jesus’ teachings to that audience in the face of rejection on the part of that society’s elite.
- Affirm that Jesus, his teachings, and the path his followers walked because of those teachings were all rooted in the long-held hope that injustice, oppression, and violence would be put right.
In the early 2nd Century, Irenaeus tells us that those in the Jesus community who were Jewish Jesus followers, the Ebionites, exclusively used Matthew’s gospel (Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 11, paragraph 7).
These Jewish-Jesus followers, holding on to the great Hebrew hope of survival, liberation, and restoration, would have been deeply encouraged by connecting Jesus and his teachings to what their ancestors had been looking forward to.
“At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.’” (Luke 10:21-22)
Luke, on the other hand, is believed to have been written with a predominantly Gentile Jesus-following audience. Luke also preserves Jesus’ solidarity with the marginalized of his society:
- God’s wisdom given to the most vulnerable, as opposed to those in control of the status quo.
- Jesus’ testimony that he received this wisdom by direct revelation and was choosing to share it.
- Jesus’ disciples were encountering a “God-given” wisdom from the excluded and marginalized that not many kings and prophets were privileged to know. Through following Jesus, they entered into deeper compassion and a posture of humble listening.
This setting from Luke is very important. The “kings” would have been in positions of power within exploitative systems. And the “prophets,” those of the school of the prophets, would have spoken on behalf of the exploited but not necessarily as part of the exploited community. (Exceptions to this include prophets like Amos, who was a sheepherder and farmer.)
What we are encountering in this passage is a wisdom by the most vulnerable among us; a wisdom directly related to their experiences from living and being marginalized in our world. This is the wisdom and perspective that the disciples were encountering. It’s as if Luke’s Jesus leans over to his followers and whispers, “You are blessed! The wisdom you are seeing, this wisdom gained through listening to the experiences and voices of those at the lowest sectors of our society is wisdom that those in other sectors of society are not able to see (see Matthew 18:2).
I run into this dynamic more often than I’d like to. Recently, after I gave a presentation on Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence, I was struck once again by the resistant response of some in my audience.
I’d been careful to explain that Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence were specifically targeted at the lowest classes of his society, the poor and disinherited, as wisdom about survival and nonviolent resistance. I pointed out that it was through this nonviolent resistance that Jesus taught them they would be liberated and their enemies would be challenged and hopefully transformed.
Afterward, a couple of audience members came up to me and asked, “But what do you do if someone is breaking into your home?”
What I want you to notice is what this question reveals. My audience members were encountering Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence not from the position of the lowest class, but from the middle classes, and maybe even the upper class. Jesus’ message of nonviolence would have instead addressed those who would be breaking into homes as a method of survival, not the ones whose homes were being broken into. To the poor, Jesus taught nonviolent forms of resistance, ways for them to reclaim their humanity.
I must also add, we must be able to distinguish the difference between self-defense on the part of those in less privileged social locations and someone in a position of privilege and power using violence to protect their dominance over others.
Just as nonviolence might not have been received well by those who felt violent means were their only means of survival, I’m sure Jesus’ teachings about mutual aid, resource sharing, and voluntary wealth redistribution were also met with resistance from the middle and upper classes.
Middle to upper-class church members I recently spoke to spent the first half of our week together struggling to get their heads around the Jesus they were encountering in Matthew and Luke. This Jesus really didn’t sound like the way they were used to thinking about him.
The Jesus story’s themes of survival and liberation from the human suffering caused by systems of injustice simply don’t mean as much to those whose position in society protects them from that suffering. Those in a privileged, more centered societal location prefer themes that focus on their personal forgiveness, God’s love for them, and promised post mortem bliss.
An Example of Wisdom from the Margins
I’ve been preparing a talk for this weekend on nonviolence and what Christian theologians call the atonement. One of the points I’ll be making is the importance of listening to those who have been victimized by various atonement theories. To illustrate what I’m saying, let me share an experience of Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher:
“Whenever I preached this passage [God is love] as a pastor, I could always expect to gain at least one new convert! There is something inviting about such love, a love which has been poured out toward us human beings first, by GOD. For no earthly rhyme or reason the GOD of the universe has ‘loved us first,’ sending an ‘only Son’ to die for us and become ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10b), that through the death and resurrection of GOD’s Son, we might die to our sins and live in the reassurance of God’s mighty love. Such is the standard ‘atonement-love doctrine’ preached weekly in Christian churches throughout the world. Abiding in this sacrificial love of GOD as expressed through the death and resurrection of ‘His’ Son Jesus is posited as the consummate experience and expression a GODly life.
“The strengths of this position are time-honored. When one conforms one’s life to a model of love-as-atoning sacrifice, then the complication of prioritizing is greatly simplified. Life becomes one’s individual sense of a calling by GOD. Life unfolds as a conflictual, strenuous, and yet not unmanageable series of testings, temptations, victories, and occasional failures to do GOD’s ‘will.’ The important norm for such a life is obedience to the will of GOD, and the GOD adored and followed is regularly consulted for guidance. GOD’s love, in such a view of love-as-atoning sacrifice, enables one to become ‘Christ-like’ because of one’s willingness to die to self and rise in Christ. There is a galvanizing power in believing that even if one dies for a particular ‘cause,’ all things will be all right because it is a redeeming and atoning sacrifice, a sacrifice of love, freely given. Such a view of love conflates sacrificial acts, all such acts, with GOD’s Christ-like love. The conflationary energy of such enables one to be Christ in situations of conflict, trial, oppression, and even abuse. It is precisely in the confectionary energies of love-as-atoning sacrifice that its greatest danger and weakness resides.” (My Sister, My Brother: Womanist and Xodus God Talk, by Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher, emphasis added.)
Kasimu goes on to demonstrate the detriment this gospel has brought to women in domestically violent situations who are desiring to be simply “Christ-like.” He then states, “Being ‘like Christ’ or imitating Christ by sacrificing one’s self for another is dangerous.”
He contrasts the above private, individual, and personal way of seeing Jesus with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “reformulation” of GOD’s love. King saw God’s love in the Jesus narrative as including not simply his death but also the elements of “justice, social power, hope, sacrifice, and a vision of the telos of community that has great potential for a healthier view of GOD’s love.” But all of this drives home the point.
This reformulation is the result of what the vulnerable see! Those in positions of privilege and power in our society are so indoctrinated and socialized that they don’t even see what is so wrong and dangerous about the traditional description of love-as-atoning sacrifice. Not being able to see it yet is a strong indication of one’s need to begin looking at the Jesus story from the perspective of those to whom our society’s present structure is doing the greatest harm. (I’ll be posting more about this in the coming days in A Primer on Self Affirming Nonviolence, Part 4) This means looking for God in those that we and our society today have “othered.” When you do finally see it, it will be as if Jesus himself is leaning over to you, saying to you as he did his disciples long ago:
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you: Many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, but never saw it, and to hear what you hear, but never heard it.”