This is a re-post of an article I wrote a few years ago – I am still struggling with this.
This week a few people in our community started to memorize Jesus’ sermon found in Matthew 5-7. We started with the first twelve verses. As an addition to my memorizing I also read through Carter’s commentary, “Matthew and the margins”. He states that the “first four beatitudes critique the political, economic, social, religious and personal distress that results from the powerful elite who enrich their own position at the expense of the rest. They delineate the terrible consequences of Roman power” p.131
When I read this I exchanged the word ‘Roman’ with ‘South African’ and this propelled me deep into my context of living in a post-Apartheid environment. I’ve said this before so I won’t elaborate on it, we as white Afrikaners (living in the suburbs) should renounce the lie of middleclass. Renouncing this false label places me/us smack in the middle of being part of the elite in South Africa.
I memorized the first four beatitudes:
– blessed are the poor in spirit
– blessed are those who mourn
– blessed are the meek
– blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice
It struck me that these conditions are not mine, except maybe the fourth one. It also dawned on me how easy it is for the elite to dismiss these categories by the hermeneutical tool of spiritualizing the text and the poor. For example, in the new Afrikaans translation, verse 3 is translated as, “geseënd is die wat weet hoe afhanklik hulle van God is / blessed are those who know how much they’re dependant on God”. This translation favors the status quo and it can serve to continue unequal economic and social structures even within Christianity! All that is needed is an attitude of dependence. How nice to have Jesus and be a part of the elite, thanking God daily that I’m not poor and mourning. [I do believe that there is a definition of poor that extends beyond economics, but I reject all interpretations that ignore the economical category].
A good friend of mine had a meeting with an extremely rich man this week. As they talked the American (the country is actually irrelevant) mentioned that he believes in the absolute sovereignty of God and that for him this means that some people are poor for a reason and some are rich for a reason. When I heard this I once again realized how easy it is to develop this kind of mindset when you’re rich.
Furthermore I realized that we, as the rich elite, usually criticize the Pharisees for their lack of righteousness. We especially like to emphasize their obsession with works. This caricature serves to strengthen our passivity and non-involvement with those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek and they that hunger and thirst for justice. We use this as a very effective rationalization – for after all we don’t want to get involved in ‘dead works’. It also dawned on me that it has been a long time since I’ve heard someone talk about the economic facets of the Pharisee party, that they had an economic reason for feeling threatened by Jesus’ table fellowship and for maintaining the status quo. When we open our doors to the outcasts it will have consequences for our own economic rhythms, and everything that we label as our lifestyle! In this sense the church can easily become no different than the medical aid schemes of our day, screening people out if they pose a risk to the purse.
I’m struggling with these few verses. The fact of the matter is that I’ve been privileged in South Africa at the cost of others. This leaves me with a sense of being poor in spirit, but for goodness sake I don’t want to use it as an excuse for ignoring the physical poor! It also left me feeling that in a significant way I’m already living the rewarded life, Jesus said – according to Luke,
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” (6:24)
As I dug further into the sermon it also struck me that I live in a country where the minority took 92% of the land and displaced the majority on the remaining 8%. This led to a group of South Africans who are “economically poor and whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice.” p.131.
Also that the meek, quoting Psalm 37, are those who have lost their land and doesn’t retaliate out of revenge but allows God to make things right. The promise for this group is that they will inherit the land – or get a fair share of the other 92%! This is highly relevant for our South African situation.
This stuff is very real for me and I wonder/pray/struggle daily on what discipleship means for me and my family (faith and biological). What does it mean to disentangle the deeply ingrained social sins that have benefitted me and my family?
Please don’t think that I’m in despair. I’m not. Carter states that “The focus in the second group of beatitudes moves from the circumstances which God is reversing to human actions that manifest God’s empire.” p.134. There is hope! Just take Matthew the tax collector as an example. He also benefitted from being on the side of the oppressor – and then he stood up and followed Jesus.
But, before we move into solutions too fast I think one (or I) has to grapple with the fact that my/our personal and collective histories as Afrikaner(s) places me/us in the oppressor category when I/we read the first four beatitudes.