Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

So reads the third Beatitude in Matthew (5:5). I was taught (were you?) that this meant something like, “Blessed are those who endure injury with patience and without resentment, for they shall reap a last reward (in heaven). It was a promise to the passive. But not so for Jesus and his listeners.

They recognized “meek” as a legal term referring to people who have been judicially disenfranchised by bankruptcy and can no longer represent themselves in court and must find another elder in the assembly who can bring their case. And “earth” (eretz, in Hebrew) is a word that’s really rich with meanings: it can mean earth in the universal, cosmic sense, but it can also mean just dirt, soil, specifically arable soil; but more pointedly, in a meaning that more directly fits with the legal meaning of “meek”, it can mean your land, your family farm, your inheritance. (It can also stand in for eretz Israel, the land of Israel, Yawheh’s inheritance.)

So this is what Jesus’ listeners heard:

Blessed are those who have lost their family farm and can therefore no longer protect themselves in court or bring their own claims for judgment, for they shall re-inherit their portion and recover their position among the elders of the assembly.

What would we do today if we aligned ourselves with the spirit of this pronouncement?

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Jesus’ promise that those who mourn will be comforted corresponds directly to his promise in his inaugural proclamation in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah 61, to “bind up the brokenhearted.”  The “brokenhearted” are those who have been impoverished by foreclosure, as you can see from the poetic parallelism in Isaiah’s oracle:

[He has sent me] to bind up the brokenhearted // to proclaim freedom for the captives, // and release from darkness for the prisoners // to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors–four ways to say basically the same thing.

‘Comfort’ here is a legal term. The Comforter (Paraclete in the gospel of John) was someone who took your side in court, either as your proxy among the elders, someone who can bring your case up in the assembly of elders (since you can’t do it yourself because you’ve lost your land), or as a witness in your defense.

So Jesus’ listeners heard this Beatitude this way:

Blessed are they who have lost their land and home, their means of livelihood, and mourn for their family and their children in poverty; for they shall have their (foreclosure) case appealed and ultimately repealed–for, when God takes up your case, you win.

The message for us?: be comforters. Be advocates for those in poverty.

We’re not done with the Beatitudes. My favorite, and the most misunderstood, I think, is next: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth–a totally inadequate translation, as we shall see. But already some readers may be asking the question that naturally follows on all these promises: How? How is Jesus going to make good on these promises?

When they are just vague spiritual comfort, you can fob them off on the afterlife. But when the comfort promised is actual representation and action in real courts, including the reversal of real judicial decisions, as I am claiming, then how in practical terms did this work? Where is the evidence that Jesus actually fulfilled these promises? How did he plan to return the homeless to their land?

The answer, coming soon in a blog near you.

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.

Christ on bankruptcy

June 5, 2009

The thread that has unraveled the global economy is mortgage debt. The hands that pulled the string were the visible hands of greedy lenders and the invisible hand of markets structured to pursue profits over human welfare. About debt and debt relief, bankruptcy and poverty, Jesus has a great deal to say.

In fact, Jesus’ entire ministry was a radical program for debt relief, what I call the planks in the platform for a commonwealth of God. I will go even further: debt relief defined the very meaning of his role as the Christ/Messiah. And his teachings and actions relating to poverty and debt relief are so extensive that it would takes weeks to discuss it all. So I will return to this theme over and over as the economic crisis grinds on, as it grinds down workers and homeowners, the sick and the poor.

With Chrysler and GM declaring bankruptcy and getting mega-help from the federal government while people I know are trying to scrape together the money needed just to file ($1,500) without even a rag of vinegar to put to their lips, I feel bankruptcy is the place to start. Also, there is no more exciting place to start in the teachings of Jesus than the Beatitudes, which are all about bankruptcy law. And one of the reasons they are so exciting is that virtually no one seems to recognize that they are about bankruptcy—and inheritance law—even though the word ‘inherit’ appears prominently in several. Rather, the Beautitudes are always presented as conveniently vague sayings of spiritual comfort, when in fact they are unconvienently concrete prescriptions for legal practice. (It’s useful to remind ourselves that Jesus’ religion was, in fact, a legal framework.)

Next week, I’ll start with the first one, whose real meaning is always eviscerated by the usual translation: “Blessed are the meek,  for they shall inherit the earth.” Once you know enough about legal terminology in the Bible, a better translation becomes clear:

“Blessed are the those who have been legally disenfranchised because they have lost their family’s portion (farm) to foreclosure and therefore can no longer represent themselves before the gate (in court), for they shall reinherit their farm and be restored to their status as elders/landowners.”

That will require some unpacking, as you can imagine. Meanwhile, I recognize that I have made some other radical claims not directly related to bankruptcy that I will also have to address—especially, that debt relief defines Jesus’ role as Christ.

I will do this soon, as well. The claim rests on the only passage in which Jesus declares openly what his mission is, Luke 4:18-19:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed (christ, in Greek; messiah in Hebrew) me to BRING GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR (OPPRESSED–same word in Hebrew), to bind up the broken-hearted (idiom for those how have lost their inheritance, that is, gone bankrupt), to proclaim (evangelion) release to the captives (debt slaves working out their debt with labor), and release to the prisoners; and to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors (the Jubilee, in which, every 50 years, are debts are cancelled, all debt slaves are set free, and all families are returned to their family farms).

I have used the original passage which Jesus is quoting here, Isaiah 61:1-2, rather than the version in Luke. Luke could only read Greek and so he had to use the Septuagint, the Greek translation in circulation in the 1st Century, where as Jesus would probably not have read Greek and would have used either a Hebrew version or one in Aramaic.

More on this incredible passage later. This is really the cornerstone of the commonwealth of God, the foundation for the planks in its platform, so it deserves a full treatment in good time.

Murder and Abortion

June 3, 2009

The recent murder of an abortion provider by a Christianist terrorist (I say ‘Christianist’ because the alleged murderer is no follower of Christ and because, like ‘Islamist’ terrorists, he seeks to impose his religious values on others through violence)–this person presumably justifies his act by feeling that he’s only murdered a murderer. The traditional conservative Christian view is that the fetus is a human being and therefore that abortion is murder.

However, the Bible is quite clear on this point: the fetus is not a human being. Or, more accurately, we become human beings when we draw our first breath, not when a human egg is fertilized. And, of course, we draw our first breath at birth. Genesis 2:7 states this quite clearly:

“then the LORD God formed man [adamah] from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

At the other end of life, the direct connection between human life and breath is reconfirmed by John 19:30, the account of Jesus’ death:

“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit”

In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for ‘spirit’ and for ‘breath’ are the same. Jesus ‘gave up his spirit’ when he breathed his last.

Thus Christians who would recriminalize abortion on grounds that abortion is murder base their argument, not on biblical testimony, but on science. The Bible is actually rather sanguine sometimes about murdering children. Leviticus allows fathers to kill disobedient sons, Jephthah was required to murder his daughter in order to join the Israelite tribal confederation, and, of course, God the Father required the murder of his only son as propitiation for the sins of the world, according to Paul.

It’s also ironic that conservative Christians rely on the microcosm of developmental biological science (embryology and related fields) to define human life over and against the Bible’s creation story when they categorically reject developmental biological science in the macrocosm (evolution) as the demonstrably verifiable story of creation.

Let me be clear, though: I am sympathetic to the idea that the fetus has special moral status. Somewhere in the development of the fetus, it crosses a line between being a mass of dividing cells and being, if not fully human, at least so close as to be morally indistinguishable. I do not know where that line is. Any attempt to nail it down would be arbitrary, it seems to me. I only point to the contradictions in the fundamental argument against abortion as murder; it’s just not biblical.