The Beatitudes and bankruptcy — part 1
June 8, 2009
Matthew gives us eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3-10), a number associated with over-abundance (think of Noah’s children)–one more than seven, the number of fullness. The number itself is a promise. (It would be nine Beatitudes if you count the one that breaks completely from all the others in its rambling, even chaotic, format (v. 11) and which seems to be addressed to believers suffering persecution, as they were in Matthew’s own community, rather than to the poor, and which promises relief from persecution rather than debt redemption like all the rest. I think this ninth one is a late addition.)
All the Beatitudes deal with inheritance law and specifically with bankruptcy and the severe poverty that foreclosure brings to free peasant farmers who have lost their land. The first is very straightforward (see also Luke 6:20):
Blessed are the poor (in spirit), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (God).
“The poor” is ani in Hebrew, which also means ‘oppressed’. (Bethany, the village where Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Simon the Leper lived, is beth ani, house of the poor. Apparently, Jesus had two important community churches there, and we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes had a leper colony there.) The poor are those who have lost their family farm and have no way to support themselves, except to appear in the morning at the village gate and hope for day labor on someone else’s farm (sound familiar?). It would not have been uncommon for the poor to end up working on their own farm, now in the hands of the man who had held their mortgage note. This is the source of the term “broken hearted” in Jesus’ delcaration of Jubilee debt freedom in Luke 4:18, and of “those who mourn”, which appears in the next Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (We will discuss this one in a day or two.)
The promise–the fulfillment of the blessing–is “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is the central teaching/promise in Jesus’ ministry: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Father’s will is this (Luke 4:18-19) : that all debts be cancelled, that all slaves be set free (as He set the Israelites free at their foundation), that all families be returned to their original inheritance.
Jesus is saying:
Blessed are those who have lost their family farm/inheritance and now daily face starvation or humiliation as day laborers dependent on others, for they shall be returned to their portion.
The message for today? — Christian communities should be doing all they can to keep people in their homes and to help them get back on their feet if they go bankrupt. And they should support very liberal bankruptcy law, unlike the most recent federal bankruptcy legislation, which makes it hard to file and hard to start over. This should be the central mission of every congregation, as it was the central mission of Jesus.
In part 2–what does “comforted” mean in the next Beatitude? Coming soon to a blog near you.