3 Epiphany—Year C–January 27, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21, Psalm 19
Jesus, quoting Isaiah says, “”The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” If you and I were poor, what would constitute good news?
We might say good news consists of not being poor, having more money, enough to raise our income above the poverty line. But money, as necessary as it may be, by itself is not sufficient to change the life of a person or a culture for the better.
For instance, give $10 million dollars to a Hollywood celebrity who is filled with bigotry and narcissism and you’ll get more of that destructive behavior that destroys communities, only this will happen, not in a slum, but in a lovely mansion surrounded by well-tended gardens and a high wall.
But on the other hand, give a small amount of money to a poor family that is filled with love toward their neighbor and loyalty toward their community and that money may indeed help the family escape poverty and have a positive effect on their community.
Did you see the short clip going around social media of an interview with Martin Luther King, Jr in May 1967 in which King is asked why every other group who came here as immigrants got around their poor beginnings, but not Black Americans. King says that after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 those peasants from Africa, who were brought to this country in chains and worked for free for 244 years, and whose skin color was made a stigma, received nothing upon which to build a life. While many peasants from Europe, who were never enslaved on American soil, were given millions of acres of land as a base upon which to build a life in the West and Mid-West. So King says he believes people should work hard to pull themselves up, but that “It’s a cruel jest to ask a bootless man to raise himself up by his own bootstraps.”
This is a central question running through a wonderful memoir written by J.D. Vance, called Hillbilly Elegy, which was a runaway bestseller in 2016, but which I read last week. He writes movingly about growing up in a poor, at least a working poor, and quite dysfunctional, family in the rust-belt of Ohio, but which also had deep roots in Appalachia in Kentucky.
In the Afterword Vance acknowledges that he receives attacks from both conservatives and progressives. The conservatives are angry that he says there is a lot that government should be doing to help break the cycle of poverty in Appalachia and the progressives are angry that Vance says the poor have agency in their choices and thus share some responsibility for their situation, in that the values they follow in Appalachia often lead to dysfunctional decisions and behavior. Values like always using physical violence to protect the honor of your family.
So what does Jesus means by good news for the poor?
Jesus doesn’t go around handing out money or gift cards to Market Basket, since he too is living on a shoestring budget, provided for by others—many of his patrons were women—see Luke chapter 8.
So Jesus is materially poor, without a house, bed, or wardrobe, but all the evidence shows us a man living an abundant life, full of companionship, peace, non-violence, and a deep purpose for living which transforms the lives of those around him. His life is so abundant that he is followed by crowds who want his secret.
How is that Jesus can give away everything, yet seem to have everything at the same time?
I want to suggest that what Jesus is really passing on to people is his mystical experience of the God he calls “Father”. He passes on, like a virus that heals, his God-realization, his God-fullness that creates self-transcendence over the limitations of family, culture, politics, and poverty.
In short, by initiating us into his experience whereby we know God as “Our Father”, not “MY Father”, he is bringing us into the eternal reality of Divine Community.
So Jesus doesn’t give away any “thing”, like money, houses, clothes, or jobs, but rather he opens the door to the Community of Divine Love that transcends all human obstacles to happiness. On the road to Damascus Paul is brought into the mystical experience of Jesus so that he can say, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I live in the body I live within the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
Therefore, Paul, living in Christ, creates communities of Divine Love around Greece and Turkey. He says that when we are brought into the experience of Jesus we too will know that community in which “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says: “Inequality in human society is hindering God’s revelation: the ‘Beloved Community’ “hastens redemption. The true alternative to poverty is not prosperity; the true alternative to poverty and prosperity is community.” Reading the Gospel with Karl Barth, page 13
This beloved community is what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.
And we notice, like his first followers, that Jesus isn’t an expert. He isn’t an expert in the Bible, like the Scribes or an expert in institutional religion like the High Priest or an expert in violent revolution like the Zealots; and he isn’t an expert self-help guru who makes our lives just a little bit easier.
No, Jesus is the fully God-realized human being who transmits his God-realization experience to us in order to create the Universal Community of Divine Love.
So when we come to church just looking to Jesus for “things” we are aiming way to low. Joel Goldsmith uses the analogy of an orange: Imagine that what you want from God is an orange: money, health, forgiveness, a healthy relationship, inner peace is the orange you are seeking. And it is wonderful when you get this orange. But mostly we don’t get it as our prayers often go unanswered. Maybe we think we have to pray harder or be a better person or find a better church.
But what we really need is not the orange—what we need is that which produces the orange, that is, we need an orange tree. The orange tree is Jesus’s experience of “Our Father/Our Mother”. The orange tree is the experience of the Mind of Christ. When we grow in God-realization in the Body of Christ the tree produces the fruit of the Spirit.
So this is why Jesus tells us to “seek first God, and God’s faithfulness, and all these things will be added to you.”
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: Seek God-realization and you get earth thrown in. Seek earth and you lose both.
Jesus, full of God, the Spirit, brings good news to the poor.
If we cannot yet see the poverty in our lives, Jesus is patient, while life makes our inner poverty manifest.
And when we know our need, let us not settle for lesser things, like the rich man who spent his whole life working for wealth and then found a way to bring a suitcase full of gold bars to the Pearly Gates, only to have St Peter ask him why he brought paving stones to heaven.