Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rami On the First Beatitude

Let me begin with some general comments on the language of this beatitude.

First, I love the little detail that Matthew supplies here: Jesus first seated himself and then his disciples came close to him. This is most likely a sign of respect. Rabbinic students stand in the presence of their teachers, sitting only when the master (“my master” being the true meaning of rabbi) sat.

As for the term ashrei (“blessed” or “happy”) a term that occurs forty-five times in the Hebrew Bible, twenty-six of these in the Book of Psalms, I agree with your notion that “genuine happiness is found in taking the right journey or embracing the right perspective.” The idea of “right perspective” parallels the Buddha’s teaching of Right View. When we see things as they are, interconnected and impermanent, we are free from selfish desires of control, and learn to engage life rather than master it; a practice that is a hallmark of the enlightened mind.

I wonder, however, about your notion that wisdom puts the lie to the serpent’s claim that eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil will make you like God (Genesis 3:5). In fact God confirms the serpent’s claim when God says of Adam after he has eaten from the Tree, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil,” (Genesis 3:22). The Hebrew is k’achad mimenu, “like one who is separate from among us.” The problem with Adam, and humanity as a whole, is that we feel separate from God. God banished Adam from the Garden to prevent him from eating from the Tree of Life and thus becoming permanently stuck in this sense of alienation. The Kingdom of Heaven, as I understand it, is revealed when we overcome our alienation and reclaim the unity that is God, woman, man, and nature.

The phrase Kingdom of Heaven (Aramaic Malchuta Dishemaya) is unique to Matthew, while Kingdom of God appears in all four Gospels. Since Matthew knows both terms we might say they are interchangeable. We might also wonder why only Matthew uses Kingdom of Heaven, and, since Matthew knows and employs both terms, whether or not distinguished one from the other in his own mind? We can’t know, of course, and our speculation would shed little light on the subject.

As for the textual differences between Matthew and Luke, I disagree with you that they are saying the same thing. In Luke Jesus is being mobbed by the crowd. Luke says, “Then he looked up at his disciples and said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.’” (Luke 6:20) In the midst of a sea of poor folk, Jesus singles out his disciples as the blessed poor. Why? Because, unlike the crowd surrounding them, the poverty of the disciples was deliberately chosen. In choosing to follow Jesus they had abandoned their livelihoods. He is assuring them that they will be rewarded for this.

I read Luke 6:20 along with Psalm 41:1: “Happy are they who consider the poor,” that is happy are those who take the plight of the poor seriously and do what they can to alleviate it.

We can assume that Jesus’ disciples new the text of Psalm 41, so what were they to make of Jesus’ recasting of it? Can it be that Jesus, contra Psalm 41, is telling his disciples to ignore the needs of the poor? I doubt this. Rather he may be saying something like this, “You cannot be concerned with the poor unless you are free from the system that creates such poverty. So choose poverty and free yourselves from the system of oppression that impoverishes others, and in these ways position yourselves to be of service to the poor.”

What does it mean to be of service to the poor? In the short term it may be ministering to their suffering, but in the long term it means overthrowing the system of oppression that is the Kingdom of Caesar and establishing the system of justice and compassion that is the Kingdom of God.

With this in mind we should add Isaiah 61:1 to our reading of Luke as well: “The spirit of HaShem God is upon me, because HaShem has anointed me (mashiach/messiah means “the anointed one”); He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed….” The role of the anointed, what I called earlier a Lamed Vavnik, is to bring good news to the oppressed. What is this good news? That an unjust world will be made just, and with it the ending of poverty, oppression, and war.

In Matthew Jesus is not talking about financial poverty but spiritual poverty. I read Mathew 5:3 in light of Psalm 34:18, “HaShem saves those crushed in spirit.” This is something other that financial poverty. Even the wealthy can be crushed or poor in spirit, a fact that is no less true in our time then in Jesus’ time.

But what is poverty of the spirit? While in no way disagreeing with your take on humility, let me take a different slant. The word “spirit” (Ruach in Hebrew and Spiritus Latin) also means “breath.” A poverty of breath could refer to meditative practices known and practiced by the rabbinic mystics of Jesus’ time that slowed the breath as a means to shift consciousness from narrow mind (mochin d’katnut) to spacious mind (mochin d’gadlut), and in this way overcome the egoic sense of alienation (achad). Matthew’s Jesus may be saying to his inner circle: Happy are those who cultivate the emptying of the breath for in this way you will experience the unity that is the Kingdom of Heaven.

I find this compelling. Jesus is offering a political agenda (reading Luke in the light of Psalm 41) focused on the ending of poverty, and a spiritual practice (reading Matthew in the light of Psalm 34) for those of the inner circle who wish to reenter the Garden of Eden by overcoming the ego’s sense of separation from God and Creation.

No comments: