Do you want to be constantly striving or at peace?

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Epiphany 6, 17th February 2019

I was trying to remember a quote from a medieval theologian which said something along the lines of the happiness Christians will enjoy in heaven will be made even greater upon hearing the suffering of unbeliever’s burning in hell. In searching for that I came upon a website which has an entire section devoted to collecting similar quotes on the people being punished in hell and I discovered that what I remembered from that medieval theologian was fairly tame compared to some! There was also that more contemporary challenge: Turn or burn, but my favourite was the question:

How will you spend eternity – smoking or non-smoking?

Leaving aside the issue of whether the idea of hell is a useful one, I suggest that belief in hell as a place of punishment assumes God’s nature is like the worst of human nature, so that rather than rescuing us from the worst of ourselves, God is in the same boat as us. The reason I’m bringing this up is that today our gospel reading includes what are called the Beatitudes (or blessings). There are four blessings and four woes. Now if we assume God is a punishing God, then we’ll read these along the lines of them being four rewards and four punishments. Taking them that way assumes there are implied commands there about what we should and should not do. For example, blessed are you who are poor, but woe to you who are rich, means you should be poor, not rich. I’m sure there are people who take them this way, because I have met religious people who seem to take the woe to those who laugh as a command to never laugh at anything.

Jesus is not condemning people here, rather, he is pointing out how people condemn themselves. And it’s not a matter of reward and punishment, because he points out that some of the recipients-of-woe actually are rewarded. ‘You have received your consolation’ he says. The point is whether or not that reward really counts for anything, and surprise surprise, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s not so much that it doesn’t count for anything, but that it’s not a good idea, because it’s not in your best interests, not to mention the consequences that go beyond yourself.

I’ll explain that a bit more. Say you have a corporate box at the footy and a game is coming up on a day when the usual friends you invite along are unavailable. Well, Jesus would say you should invite a load of people who live on the street. The experience of being in a small enclosed space with a group of people who may not have entered a shower recently would cause a degree of suffering, however, your graciousness in doing so would not make you righteous in the eyes of God. But what you would be doing for yourself is unravelling yourself from false righteousness.

One of the greatest sources of false righteousness is being acknowledged by others, whether it be for nice things we do for them, or whatever. In Jesus’ day, people achieved righteousness (i.e. approval, a sense of being a good or worthwhile person) by, for example, inviting someone over for a meal. The guest would then be in debt to the host and the host acquires credit for their good deed, taking their righteousness up another notch.

The trouble is this is a huge game in which everyone is constantly striving for more credit.

We end up driven by this, exhausting ourselves and damaging others along the way. There is also collateral damage for those who are unable to win approval from others, for example people who live on the streets. They will never be seen as shining examples of citizenship. Anyway, the point is that people who are driven by the need for others’ approval (probably all of us to some degree) do receive their reward. In other words, sometimes they/we do strike it lucky, winning approval from others, such as when I was awarded the Governor’s medal for saving that child from a burning house, (although that may have occurred in a dream) or just when I made it into the social pages of SA Life magazine (possibly also in a dream). So on those occasions I was rewarded, but like a rat which keeps pressing the bar in his cage to get a reward, so my reward reinforces my drive for approval. So yes, I am rewarded, but my reward has made me more driven by a desire for approval, so my life becomes more competitive and my sense of being a worthwhile person becomes more fragile.

In his Beatitudes, Jesus is explaining to his disciples the way things are, that is, what you get when you live a particular way.

Being poor gives you access to God’s kingdom – not in the future, but now. God’s kingdom being a way of living in which you and others flourish. Being poor may include financial poverty, but it’s really about something much deeper than that. It’s about not binding yourself to things which give you value. That may be having lots of money, but it also might be using your position in the world to give you status, rather than a role. So, for example, a boss who sees their position as requiring people to grovel to them, rather than their position being one of helping others to play their part in the organization. Or you could be rich in an intellectual sense, using your expertise to intimidate others who are then too afraid to offer their opinion. Alternately, you could be intellectually ‘poor’ in the sense of humbly admitting you don’t know everything and therefore being willing to hear others’ opinions. Similarly, you could be what Jesus refers to as ‘full now’ – that is, so full of yourself that there’s no room for others in the room. You may receive the reward of feeling self-satisfied and being the greatest person present, but you miss out on what others can offer.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh’, says Jesus, whereas those laughing now, will mourn and weep later. In line with the rest of Jesus’ teachings, I think this could refer to being satisfied at other’s expense, or while others go without. The reward might be current satisfaction, but the long-term consequences won’t be so great. China is on a wonderful economic boom at present, but what’s going to happen when all their poorly paid workers decide they don’t like that anymore? Similarly, if we mistreat others, that will come back against us eventually.

Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you… on account of the Son of Man (the Human One) – remember Jesus isn’t telling us that being hated is worth striving for, but that it’s what may happen to us if we live in accord with Jesus’ Way.

Hate is a bit strong actually. It’s just the way Jesus emphasised his point, but what he means is that if you follow his Way, which means you trust God as your source of life, that is, your source of worth, if you believe you are unconditionally loved by God, and therefore so also is everyone else, then you are likely to be excluded at times by people who resent that, because it goes against the ‘world’, which values people differently.

You may have heard the story of the bloke who tried to outsmart the wise sage who lived in his village. Holding his hands behind his back he asked the sage whether the bird in his hand was alive or dead, the sage replied that it was up to him.

That’s similar to what Jesus is saying in his beatitudes: it’s up to us whether we are alive or dead – in a spiritual sense that is. There are usually rewards to be gained from whatever we choose, but are they heavenly rewards, in the sense of the deep things which make us truly alive, connected to God, the earth and each other, or are they rewards which bind us more strongly to pursue things which only satisfy temporarily?

So, to go back to where I began, the question Jesus continually holds before us is not How will you spend eternity – smoking or non-smoking?, but how will you spend the present – striving or non-striving? Exhausting yourself striving to be worth something, or relaxing in God’s love?