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January 30, 2005

"What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life" - January 30, 2005

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Micah 6:1-8 ; Psalm 37:1-18; Matthew 5:1-12

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew just might be the most familiar passage from the gospels, and I’d hazard a guess that the Beatitudes, the passage we read this morning, just might be the most familiar section of the Sermon on the Mount. But sometimes I think that very familiarity makes the Beatitudes harder rather than easier to understand; we’ve heard them so many times before that we tend to let ourselves be carried off by their cadences without letting it sink in just how seriously they challenge us.

Here’s one way to think about it: there’s a person’s story behind what Jesus is saying here, and recovering that story outlines for us in very concrete terms both what the cost can be to follow Jesus and why someone might think that is was worth the price.

The key to the story behind the Beatitudes is in verse 11, in which Jesus addresses his followers directly to say what happens when “people revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you.” The middle verb there – the one the NRSV renders as “persecute” – has a sense that’s a little more specific than it might seem. It literally means, to chase out. Jesus here is talking to those who have been literally “chased out” – disowned by their families, no longer welcome in their villages. He’s talking to people who have been dis-honored, in a culture in which someone without honor would have difficulty finding anyone who would do business with them.

That’s the root of all the hardships outlined in the Beatitudes. Certainly, being chased out by your family would leave you a person in mourning for what you’d lost, but very quickly that loss would have very practical consequences – without honor you can’t make a living. A person who IS nothing in the eyes of their village will very quickly become a person who HAS nothing. The word used for that in verse 3 is ptochos, a word that indicates having absolutely nothing. “Poor in spirit” in this context doesn’t mean some kind of strictly metaphorical poverty – it’s more like “poor to the core,” bereft from the inside out.

That sounds like harsh treatment of one’s own flesh and blood, but many families would have had little other choice. You’ve heard me say before that Jesus’ culture is what anthropologists called an “honor/shame culture.” A man who behaved in the ways the Beatitudes describe – who is meek, refusing to defend the family honor when challenged, who’s a peacemaker, seeking reconciliation instead of retaliation with someone who attacks, who strives to become “pure in heart” as Jesus defines it, embracing those whom others saw as impure – wasn’t behaving as it was thought a man should behave, and as a result, he could bring shame on the entire family if the family didn’t chase him out first. Rather than see the whole family bereft, many families drove out a son or daughter who chose to follow Jesus.

So Jesus is speaking to men and women who are literally hungry and thirsty “for righteousness” – because of their choosing to follow Jesus. Having lost their families, they have lost their honor, and having lost their honor, they have lost everything. So far, this sounds like a pretty sad story … and it would be, if the story ended here. Why on earth would a sane person choose such a costly path?

I’d say that such a person was insane, except for two things. Here’s the first thing:

What if the cost of leaving the “rat race” for honor, steep as it is, is still less than the cost of staying in it?

Jesus’ culture values honor above all else, and there’s only so much of it to go around. That turns every encounter between people into a competition for honor. That’s why anthropologists also call Jesus’ culture an “agonistic” culture, from agon, the Greek word for a contest or wrestling-match. What an exhausting way to live, constantly striving like that!

If this whole honor/shame thing is a little too distant and abstract, let’s bring it a little closer to home by talking about the values that are analogous to honor and shame in importance for cultures like ours, which anthropologists call an “achievement/guilt” culture.

We prize achievement. We say that achievement makes you an important person, and more and more, and earlier and earlier in life, we order our lives around getting it. We’ve turned achievement into a moral value, and maybe the one most highly prized in our culture, and what a costly path that is. There’s a book out by Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice that I encourage you to take a look at. Its subtitle is How the Culture of Abundance Robs Us of Satisfaction. Schwartz is a psychologist who found in study after study that for a lot of achievers, the more choices they are offered, the more two seemingly incompatible things happen: 1) the better the option will be that they end up with; and 2) the less satisfied they will be with their choice. In other words, you get better stuff, but you’re less happy with it!

That’s where the title of the book comes from – The Paradox of Choice. And it seems to apply to all kinds of decisions, from what kind of jeans you want – classic fit, easy fit, boot cut, low-rise, button fly, stone-washed, acid washed? – to choices about which career path, whom to marry, or what parish to worship in. The more choices we believe are open to us, the more responsibility we feel in our achievement-guilt culture to make not just a good choice, but the very best choice. It’s a costly way to live.

For one thing, this way of life is incredibly labor-intensive. How on earth can you KNOW that you made the very best choice, unless you investigate ALL of possible choices from the dizzying array of options? And then there’s the regret and self-blame. If I’m dissatisfied with something about my life, does my mind leap immediately to what I might have done differently – to that opportunity I passed up or that other choice I could have made six months, or a year, or ten years ago? For a lot of us, the answer is yes. That’s a high-pressure way of life, when every choice represents a new life or the end of a whole life’s possibilities.

You’d think that the high anxiety and the high blood pressure that comes with living like that would be enough to motivate us to think about opting out of it. But the pull of achievement is so great in our culture that many of us do more than give in to it ourselves; we pass the pressure along to our children.

My mother is the head of a private K-6th grade school, and more and more, she’s got parents of third-graders or younger in her office fuming about their child’s test scores, because if she doesn’t raise her scores in a hurry, she’ll never get into Flintridge Prep for middle school, in which case Harvard-Westlake is unlikely for high school, in which case Harvard is out of the question, and then where will she go for med school? It might be almost comic to listen to, if it didn’t make our children so anxious and miserable. And I’ve heard more than one teenager in this community say, “this is the most important year of my life.” They say it without a trace of irony; they think that the academic choices they’re facing now will affect their potential for happiness FOR LIFE.

Our children think that because we teach them to think that; we’ve passed along our own values to them. We do it because we care, it’s true – and we also do it because we’ve turned parenting into one more arena in which we would rather be achievers than feel guilty about the choices we made, or didn’t make.

What an exhausting way to live! What an anxious way to live! But what other choice do we have, if the basic value around which we structure our lives is “Blessed are the achievers”?

That, however, is a choice that we make. Are we going to order our lives around achievement and guilt? Do we live as though the good life is a matter of getting the right grades to go to the right schools to get the right job to buy the right house, so our kids can go to the right schools and get the right grades to go to the right college … is THAT what life is about?

Who do we say is really worthy of the best God has to offer – and by that, I mean, what do our LIVES say about it? We can tell our children until we’re blue in the face that we love them no matter what, that they are important not because of what they do but because of who they are, but it’s just so many words unless we can say that with our lives. We cannot teach our children that they are precious as God’s children until we can take that truth in ourselves, so deeply that it bubbles out of us in every arena of life. YOU are important not because of what you do, but because of who you are – a child of God, loved with such depth and power and tenacity that it’s almost as if you were the only person in the universe for God to love. Taking that in is Step 1. When we do that, we encounter the living God, and in that encounter we realize that God loves each and every person in that very same way.

Once we’ve taken that in, it’s bound to spill out in our thoughts about who deserves to be our neighbor on our street or in the pew, about who deserves a good education and meaningful work that will feed their families, about who deserves love and peace and justice, and God’s blessing. And then our children will see who we really think is God’s child.

And that leads in to the second reason we might decide to opt out of the rat race and in to the values of the Beatitudes. The first reason was the knowledge that staying in costs us and our children even more than getting out. But the second reason is even more powerful that the first:

The rewards for living into the Beatitudes far outweigh the cost for opting out of the “rat race” for achievement. They far outweigh the most lavish rewards that the rat race can offer. They offer the ability to live into something else Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, something that’s as much of a promise as it is a challenge: “don’t worry about your life … Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? … Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:25-34).

So which will it be for us: honoring the meek or honoring the achievers? Are we important because of what we do, or because of who – and whose – we are? And what do we want to pass along to our children: an insatiable appetite for achievement, or an unshakable sense of faith in and love from the God who created them? What does the Lord require of us? Or as poet Mary Oliver asks the question:

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand …
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,  
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done? …
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from House of Light (1990)

January 30, 2005 in Epiphany, Matthew | Permalink


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I think you take these believes about the poem in a unchristian way, negative. Because to me the poem tells me that: people go their whole life asking questions about why should we do that or do this? but that is what all humans do, because we are eager to know more than what we can!!! so I disagree with you're statements.

Posted by: Elisa | May 7, 2007 10:27:05 PM

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