So I found a member of a religious order called the Sisters of Mercy. Their founder was Catherine McAuley, an Irish woman who lived during the mid 19th century.
They arrived in NZ quite early and are principally known as a teaching order.
What I discovered through my email discussions with Sis. Elizabeth was the ancient church tradition of the 7 works of mercy:
There were 2 wise things Sis Elizabeth highlighted for me. The first is that in the bible mercy is primarily an action, rather than simply a feeling. "It's a verb" she said.
Her second piece of wisdom arose after I pushed back, wondering whether mercy had become understood as somewhat paternalistic. Here's what she wrote: Yes, the one dispensing mercy can seem to be 'lady bountiful'. However, I think the first step is always the receiving of mercy. We cannot give what we do not have. And everything is gift anyway. Growth in awareness of this reality is a lifetime journey!
I'd put it like this: you can't do 'in' or 'out' without also doing 'up'. This is cryptic discipleship language for the 3 dimensions of life Jesus calls us into. While we might love our community (in), or love the people we feel God calling us to be and proclaim good news to (out), both are blighted without a deep love for God (up). When we try to be merciful without knowing ourselves as objects of divine mercy, we lose the Jesus-touch. The gospel writers are alive to this in Jesus' life, often pointing out how a time of ministry was preceded by a night of prayer.
Interestingly, the 7 tradition works of mercy, were complemented with the 7 spiritual works of mercy. I think the instinct is right. It's the balance of up, in and out which helps his followers smell like Jesus. And this is never more important when we embark on works of mercy in his name.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy
So far the beatitudes have focused on society's 'have-nots': the poor, those who mourn, the meek, and those longing for righteousness/justice. But this one seems to shift focus onto people in a position of power; those able to give or withhold mercy. My expert guide to the beatitudes, Glen Stassen, suggests that Jesus expressed mercy in two main ways. One was forgiveness of sin, and the other was forgiving debt. He points to the story in Luke of the woman ("who was a sinner") anointing Jesus' feet with ointment and her tears. Simon the Pharisee expresses shock that Jesus would allow such a woman to touch him, and Jesus responds with a parable about a creditor who forgave one man a large debt, and the other man a smaller debt. "Which of them will love him (the creditor more?", asks Jesus. Simon is forced to concede that the one who was forgiven the large debt. Jesus then then praises the woman for her extravagant display of love (in comparison to Simon), and on that basis announces that her sins ("which were many") are forgiven.
For Stassen it's Jesus' combination of spiritual forgiveness and material justice, which makes this an exemplary story about mercy.
However, in Wellington we have a well know religious order called the Sisters of Mercy. My mission this month is to try and talk with one of the sisters about their take on mercy. I figure they must have thought about it quite a bit. I hope so!
During the Covid lockdown I noticed a backpack stowed away, out of sight, down the side of the church. Previous experience suggests it might belong to someone sleeping rough - a place to store their gear when they're moving about during the day. The housing of rough sleepers is a justice issue top of mind for many Kiwis. But like lots of justice issues, 'solutions' are not so straight forward. One person I worked with last year had been homeless for years, moving about sleeping in unused sheds etc, and sometimes staying with kind people for a few weeks. But what was keeping him homeless, in my opinion, was shame and unresolved guilt. And he had a lot to feel guilty about! So he kept on the move. For him, justice wouldn't look so much like a house, but rather more like a community where he could feel accepted.
I couldn't get him off the street for more than a few weeks, but my wife and I have been able to help another family with housing. This is my ongoing experience of a kind of restorative justice in the area of housing. It involves us leaving our home and renting it to a family who came to NZ through the Government's official refugee programme. It's been going for over three years now, and will end (we believe) with the family having enough money to buy their own house. An incredible achievement on their part. Here's a video made a couple of years ago where Fiona and I describe what happened.
Two housing crises, but I think the restoring justice each was after were totally different. A refugee family needed housing in a particular area that was affordable enough for them to live comfortably and even get on the housing ladder. A homeless man needed, not so much a house, as a community to embrace and accept him.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied"
The word "righteousness" doesn't mean (at least not here) the gift of being at peace with God after we have repented and asked Jesus to come into our hearts. Like all the beatitudes, Jesus is echoing the language of the Old Testament, especially the Psalms and Isaiah. A better translation would be "justice", although not the "make my day, punk" Dirty Harry sort of justice. God's justice is about doing things to restore victims and their offenders back to full life in the community and creation, When this sort of justice happens, God's purposes are restored, and in this sense we are brought into a right relationship with God.
And who are the hungry and the thirsty? Is it a metaphor for those wanting to see justice in the world, or does Jesus mean those who really are deprived of life's necessities, who cry out to him for a justice that will restore them to life in the community? As with the first beatitude about the poor, Luke simply says "blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled" (Luke 6.21). This leads to the idea that Matthew has (again) 'spiritualized' Jesus' words. As with my take on "the poor in Spirit" [see January's post] I suspect Jesus meant those who really have missed out on life's necessities (food and water) and who look to the LORD for a justice that restores them back to fullness of life. This extended extract from Psalm 107 gives you the idea:
4 Some wandered in the wilderness,
lost and homeless.
5 Hungry and thirsty,
they nearly died.
6 “Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
and he rescued them from their distress.
7 He led them straight to safety,
to a city where they could live.
8 Let them praise the Lord for his great love
and for the wonderful things he has done for them.
9 For he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.
The late Glen Stassen suggests that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) is also a good example of someone hungering and thirsting for righteousness/justice.
Well, although I often cry out for food and drink it's never because I'm in any danger of death, and has nothing to do with my sense of being excluded from the "good things" God has purposed for me. Nonetheless, I can be part of God's restoring justice.
Right now (Covid lockdown) many Kiwis are helping provide food and other basics for people who have lost their jobs. That's restorative justice. My challenge this month is to do something practical for someone struggling with the necessities of life. The aim to to participate in God's great project of restorative justice.
9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12 The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85)
If you feel inspired, give it a go too. Will report back in a month's time.
My aim this month was to find some Kiwis who were meek, and therefore (according to Jesus) will inherit the earth.
It has been tough. Partly I've been distracted by life in lockdown, but mainly I've simply struggled to think of people who fit model of humility/meekness set by Jesus.
I discussed my thoughts about what Jesus meant by meekness in the 3rd beatitude at the beginning of the month. Over the month my shorthand for what I was looking for became 'a donkey-riding kiwi'. The idea is someone who leads in that strange 'upside down' kingdom way. I figure this is what Jesus is doing on Palm Sunday. So...not just someone who is humble, but someone leading out of a meek (πραΰς) character.
Who are these meek Kiwis? I could only think of two: Sir Michael Jones and someone I knew for a year at university I'll call Fred.
I guess Michael Jones is reasonably obvious. The donkey riding bit that stands out for me was his consistent refusal to play on Sundays. Completely incomprehensible to most Kiwis, and usually just filed under the cultural-religious category - a common depository for secular Westerners to deal with beliefs and behaviours that otherwise don't make sense. But Jones was offering prophetic leadership to a society that often places far too much weight on sport "For the Kingdom of God is not food and drink [and rugby], but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" Rom 14.17)
My other example of a donkey-riding kiwi was a bloke who taught me how to do evangelistic visiting at university hostels. Fred was clearly a donkey-rider in that most people found him weirdly focused on what he believed. He was always gentle and generous, but clearly was guided by a different light than most others around him.
Someone who went to school with him told me he was always exceptionally kind and lacking in egoism. When he became a Christian his humble character simply found a cause - a Jerusalem to ride his donkey toward. And I do wonder whether God has made only a few people humble like Jesus, and the rest of us need to discover our true selves in the other beatitudes?
Perhaps some of you feel I should have put in some secular examples. Ed Hilary, or even our Prime Minister? I'd love to hear of Kiwis you've known (or know about) who fit your definition of meek. They might be important people to know on day - Jesus says they'll inherit the earth. That'll be a shock to some of our well known national posers!
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth"
"Meek" doesn't read well in contemporary English. Clarence Jordan writes: "In English the word meek has come to be about the same as weak or harmless or spiritless. It is thought that a meek person is something of a doormat upon which everyone wipes his feet, a timid soul who lives in mortal fear of offending his fellow creatures". That doesn't sound like the good life! Not are doormats hurting themselves, they often enable bullies. So that can't be what Jesus meant.
The Greek work used by Matthew is praeis. In a dictionary sense it means 'humble' or 'gentle', but contextually, like all the beatitudes, Matthew points to Jesus as its true meaning. Jesus uses it of himself: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle (praeis) and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls." (Matt 11..29). As I'm writing this we've just celebrated Palm Sunday (Covid 19 style!), and here Matthew quotes Zechariah 9.9: "Look, your king is coming to you, humble (praeis), and mounted on a donkey..." (Matt 21.5). And it's often pointed out that in Numbers 12.3 Moses (surely nobody's doormat) is said to be the most humble (praeis, LXX) person on the face of the earth - something presumably not written by Moses himself! Given that Matthew is especially careful to represent Jesus as the new Moses, I suspect we should also be thinking of Moses when we come to any conclusions about what "meek" really means in this beatitude.
Here's my take. Jesus' radical way of ushering in the Kingdom was peacefully and gently on the back of a donkey. To do so took praeis: a humble bowing of his will to God's way of reconquering his creation: the cross. Moses too had praeis because he also was surrendered to the task of bringing God's people into a new kingdom. One founded on a covenant with Yahweh, not the power of horses and chariots (Ps 20.7; Deut 17.16 cf Isaiah 31.1). The meek are blessed because they are the ones who follow Moses and Jesus in winning the earth in the kingdom way we see most clearly on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The meek will inherit the earth because Jesus, The Meek , already has.
So here's my challenge: find examples of meek Kiwis. No doormats, but meek like Jesus. I'm happy for any suggestions or contributions. to be share Perhaps it is exactly at a time like this that the truly meek will shine? Self-nominations are excluded, although if you think Moses wrote Numbers 12.3 then you could argue for a biblical precedent :-)
"Blessed are those who mourn...." Results
Just to remind you that I think the sort sort of mourning Jesus is talking about in his second beatitude, is the sort that prophets do. It's grief that leads to action: mourning over the violence, injustice and idolatry of our world. Certainly it includes our sadness and anger in the face of death, just as it did with Jesus when he approached the funeral of his friend Lazarus. But for me it also includes abortion. And that's what I tried to do something about this month.
Up until 40 Days for Life called off our prayer vigil outside Wellington hospital when the Government went to Level 3 in the Covid 19 emergency, I biked down to the hospital on Monday and Friday mornings. I joined a few others in an act of public prayer witness. We had signs saying such things as 'pray for and end to abortion', but we only talked with those who approached us. Mainly we prayed.
Sometimes people would stop to share their story. One hospital worker told me how, many years ago, he had battled the welfare authorities to support someone he loved who was being encouraged to abort. Miraculously (as he saw it) the mother changed her mind. In that case there was a beautiful outcome for him, the mother. and her child. However the experience left him cynical about the guardians of the abortion industry. And so he encouraged me and went on his way.
The negative reactions happened. Perhaps the one that sticks in my mind the most was a well dressed 40-something woman who walked past and then commented back over her shoulder: 'great news about the passing of the legislation last night'. I couldn't help blurting out: 'not so much'!
She was, of course, talking about the Abortion Act that removed unwanted children in the womb from the protection of the Crimes Act. For her, no doubt, this was part of a narrative about the freedom and autonomy of women; for me it was about removing thousands of pre-born NZers from the human family. Unwanted babies in the womb are now health problems for women to choose treatment options for, rather than members of the human family who are (at least to some extent) protected by the law.
Us pray-ers talked a lot about how people holding such different narratives around abortion can talk together sensibly. It drove us back to prayer!
The enactment of the Abortion Bill was a disaster. My role in praying publicly this March seemed to be the sort of prophetic witness Isaiah talked about:
‘Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.’...
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6.9-10)
Interestingly, Jesus invokes this same prophetic justification for speaking in parables to the crowds (Mark 4.10-12). So I'm not just being 'all Old Testament' about it.
I guess one lesson has been that the beatific life Jesus talks about is not all beer and skittles. Even when it feels as though no one's listening or looking, the blessed ones in Jesus' Kingdom are called to speak and act. The promise is that we will be comforted. May it be so.
Next month... blessed are the meek. I'm not sure it sounds much like me!
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted"
We've just begun Lent, which seems the right time to be thinking about Jesus' second beatitude. I was taught early on that "mourning" (penthountes) means more that sadness over the death of a loved one or losing your job. Like all the beatitudes, its meaning is best located with the Prophets, especially Isaiah (eg Isaiah 61:2). But I like how the late Glen Stassen explains this by pointing to another of Israel's prophets describing a society that doesn't practice the sort of mourning Jesus is on about.
The prophet Amos pronounces God's judgment on those who do not mourn: They oppress the poor and crush the needy and then say, "Bring something to drink!" They sin and then bring sacrifices to the temple, thinking their sacrifices cover their sins, even though they continue to practice injustice. God pronounces "Alas for those who are at ease in Zion....Alas for those who...sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, ...but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!... Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it? ... I will turn your feasts into mourning" (Amos 4:1-5; 5:6, 14; 6:1-7; 8:7-10; 9:5).
(Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount).
So this Lent I'm joining the 40 Days for Life prayer team that holds vigil outside Wellington hospital. It'll be the third Lent I've done this, and so I have some idea what to expect. Abortion pits two groups against each other who both think they are on the side of the vulnerable and oppressed. In the middle is a great swath of people who see no cause for mourning - at least not enough to do anything about it. So I'll get yelled at, argued with, and told what a good job I'm doing. But mostly I'll be ignored.
Aside from "mourning" in prayer over the abortions performed at Te Mahoe (Wellington Hospital's abortion clinic), I'm going to keep a notebook of any significant interactions or reactions over then next 6 weeks. I'll let you know what happens, and just how blessed I was to be mourning this Lent. If you want to mourn with me the online signup form is here.
So My challenge this month in exploring Jesus' recipe for the good life (the Beatitudes) was to ask poor people about whether or not they thought Jesus was right that being poor was a blessing. I'd been told by another rich person that the question was offensive, so I headed out the door wondering how to to ask it without getting hit or yelled at. Although, if someone whacked me I guess I could infer they didn't feel particularly blessed being poor, or even being associated with the impecunious.
First stop: Kilbirnie. Usually you find people begging at the town centre, but today I was out of luck. I did spot an older and younger man hanging about who looked poorish. I introduced myself and said I was asking people about a well known saying of Jesus. The old guy immediately clocked me as a religious fanatic and slowly moved away as I talked with the younger guy. He really wanted a light. I'd brought some coins thinking I might have to pay for comments, but hadn't thought of a lighter,. Luckily, he agreed to talk even if I couldn't help him with what he really wanted. I was surprised by the optimistic tone of his responses: "there's always a heaven"; "all are blessed"; and "money can't buy time". Then he remembered his unlit cigarette and went off to remedy the situation. There seemed to be some social art event on at the Community Centre, but I wasn't brave enough to do my Louis Theroux there, so I headed back to the ute, and drove to the Miramar town centre.
I immediately spotted a middle aged Pacifica woman, perhaps not so poor, but clearly hanging around waiting for someone. Sadly she wasn't waiting for me, and told me so after proudly announcing that she belonged to the Catholic church across the road. Wounded but not down, I spotted another young man. Again, not looking especially poor, but I wasn't feeling fussy. Mike was a pleasant guy who said he didn't really know about whether the poor were blessed, but then said he guessed it was something to look forward to. By which I assumed he meant heaven, rather than poverty.
An older Assyrian man, Yonan, proudly told me he belonged to the Assyrian Orthodox Church on Glamis Ave. I tried to get a response about the poor being blessed, but kept getting told about his church. Either he didn't really understand, or saw this as a great opportunity to market his church.
Finally I talked with someone who seemed to be waiting for nothing in particular at the bus shelter. He said: "[if you're poor] you have no financial worries"; "nothing to lose"; and finally "money is the root of all evil".
And that was that, except later in the day I was telling a friend what I'd been up to. He was keen to give his two cent's worth. I hadn't thought of him as poor until I recalled that he'd been a missionary his entire adult life and relied on the donations of others. Perhaps Neil was the pious poor person I needed! Clearly he knew that I was misquoting Matthew (although not Luke!), and went for a more spiritualized understanding of the 'poor'. And while he conceded God may help the poor, he was clear that material poverty wasn't a good thing in itself: "poverty is like pain, no one would choose it".
No one took offense at me asking them about the poor. I don't think it occurred to them that I was implying that they were poor. In fact, only my more theologically trained friend had anything negative to say about poverty. I wonder whether the idea that the poor will get a better deal in the life to come is somehow part of our culture.
As for the poor being blessed in this life, my attention was drawn back to the picture of the very first church described by Luke: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2.44-5). Perhaps in such a community the poor are indeed blessed? There's enough to go around, but so many of the poor and the rich aren't connected into the sort of generous and spirited groups described by Luke. Occasionally I've seen signs of it break out. It's a beautiful thing, and looks like what I think Jesus meant by the kingdom of heaven.
What do you think? Have you got any evidence that the poor (in spirit) are blessed?
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" - Jesus
So now the rubber hits the road. What to do with Jesus’ beatitudes?
This first one seems to hinge on what ‘poor in spirit’ means. In Luke’s version it’s much more straightforward - blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Much more straightforward but apparently impossible for me who has just this week bought a second house. I feel like the rich young ruler faced with the camel and needle dilemma! Am I ruled out unless I sell all my possessions?
OK, what about Matthew’s versions - seems more...spiritual, less economic? Is Matthew spiritualising Luke, so that he now understands Jesus to be talking about humility? This is probably the most popular interpretation, but not the only one. The interpretation I’m going with is poor in spirit = pious poor. In other words, those among the community of the (Holy) Spirit who are economically poor. This fits with Luke’s version, while acknowledging that Matthew is trying to avoid the idea that poverty is, in itself, a blessing.
That all said, what am I, rich as I am, going to do in response to this beatitude? I once was reading this beatitude with a poor person who, much to my surprise, exclaimed that she knew exactly what Jesus meant. Then she explained how that very morning she had found a box of food at her door just as she was thinking that she had nothing to give her son for school lunch.
So my challenge in February to see if I can find poor people and asked them if they feel blessed. I’m thinking about the street people who hang out in Kilbirnie. And as I’m after the pious poor, I’ll particularly try and find someone who fits that. Probably requires some tact… I’ll let you know how I get on.