Welcome to the Girardian Virtual Bible Study! Each week we explore the lectionary passage with the help of René Girard’s insights into human relationships. We hope you enjoy this installment of the GVBS. Join us next week at 10 am Central on the Raven Foundation Facebook page for the live show. The show notes and video recording are below. This week’s episode explores Epiphany 6, Year C, Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-27. You can subscribe to the GVBS on Podbean!
Jeremiah 17: 5-10: “Cursed Are Those Who Trust In Mere Mortals” Doesn’t Condemn Atheists!
It’s always fun when the first words of the lectionary are a curse, isn’t it? “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength.” These are the kinds of words that would make me squirm in the pew as a child. With an atheist father and a questioning mind that struggled with doubt and fear, this kind of verse seemed to condemn both me and the people I loved. It also made me feel conflicted about my struggle to believe, since believing might save me but affirm condemnation for others. “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals,” didn’t sound like it could come from a loving God.
The blessings in the next verse didn’t help much, either. “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord.” Not only does this verse sound rather overly-pious to those who may be in doubt, but it can reinforce a sense of blessing over-and-against others. It looks as though those who are blessed by God need not fear hardship, not fearing in the year of drought. A superficial reading of the curses and blessings together sound like a prosperity Gospel, where the fruits of faith are stability and success, and where struggle and failure are the result of putting trust in “mere mortals;” the result of a lack of faith.
For those who struggle and doubt, this passage alone can make one feel very small and despised by God if God exists. Or at least, that is how I felt hearing verses like these, struggling to feel secure in faith for fear of the “curses” that befell those who lacked it.
And for those who were excluded, marginalized, and on the receiving end of condemnation in the time of Jeremiah and ever since, I am concerned that these words alone, stripped of context, could be used to harm rather than heal. After all, those who were poor and marginalized must not have put their trust in the Lord, right? Why else would they be suffering?
A False Understanding of God
The understanding that God is powerful and mighty has often led to the justification of the strong crushing the weak. Or, rather, as René Girard tells us, the reverse of this is true. Human culture from the beginning of time has found transcendence in the communal violence against marginalized people – scapegoats, outcasts, and enemies. Because human beings are formed in connection to each other, sharing our desires, our conflicts often arise not so much out of differences as out of shared desires for things we refuse to share – material goods, wealth, influence, and power. Competition turns to violence and violence self-perpetuates and escalates until unity can be restored. And often the way unity has been restored – from the foundation of the world until now – has been through uniting against a common enemy to be expelled or killed. The bond over and against another and the catharsis of the collective purge of a scapegoat was ascribed transcendent power. Humanity’s first understanding of transcendence wasn’t invented out of nowhere, but it was a false labeling of collective violence – and the collective relief from eliminating the enemy – as “God.”
Systems that uplift the powerful at the expense of others were thus thought to be God-ordained. And if God is associated with power in a world of marginalization and injustice, then condemnation of those who fail to believe in this God serves only to reinforce the status quo and further entrench injustice under a righteous veneer.
Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit
Yes, this is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, not the Sermon on the Plain. But when we see the implicit connection between faith and success in Jeremiah, the words from both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain help us recognize not that the words of Jeremiah are wrong, but that our human understanding can be so flawed that we can completely mistake lies for truth and truth for lies.
What does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” It is odd to hear that those who are poor in spirit are blessed when elsewhere scripture seems tells us that the blessed are rich in the spirit despite worldly poverty. One modern translation of this phrase I have read really sticks out in my mind, paraphrased as follows:
“Blessed are you when you suck at praying. Blessed are you when you question and doubt. Blessed are you when you cannot see God in the places you are told to look for God.”
Is this the opposite of Jeremiah’s words: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord”?
Not if the nature of God is completely different from the human understanding of the divine since the foundation of the world.
When society says that God is with the powerful, and the poor, weak, and marginalized are those whom God has abandoned or condemned for lack of faith, then those who question and doubt are truly blessed. Those who recognize the injustice built into a system of exclusion and marginalization, those who rebel against the conventional wisdom that God can be found in a society that tramples the poor and weak, are blessed with a sense of compassion and empathy. Since the true God is Love, those who lose faith in systems that uphold injustice are closer to God than they may recognize.
These words of Jesus are profoundly demonstrated in Islam as well. Before the Prophet Muhammad became the prophet of Islam, he was dissatisfied with the corruption and injustice he saw in his culture. His critique of his society came from a profound love for the people and his recognition of the humanity of those treated inhumanely by the powerful. In order to find blessing in the true God, he had to lose faith in the false gods of conquest and domination. These are the false gods the poor in spirit reject when they see through the false righteousness of injustice. And to dedicate our lives to Love, we must see through the deception we weave when equate God with power and success and reject those false gods as well.
We Curse Ourselves
So those who trust in the Lord are blessed, and those who are poor in spirit are blessed, and there is no contradiction even when those who are poor in spirit are not considered the most pious or holy by societal standards. Those who are poor in spirit trust in something deeper than systems of victimization and exclusion that are falsely attributed to God. They trust in the dignity and infinite worth of human beings, enough to know that systems that undermine or deny this dignity cannot be God-ordained. They may or may not recognize their compassion and empathy with other human beings as faith, but they live into their ordained purpose as children of God by reflecting God’s love.
On the other hand, those who trust in systems of exclusion and enmity have cursed themselves without realizing it. Exclusion and violence are the works of mere mortals which form the faulty foundations of every culture, and they have wrongly been ascribed transcendent powers. Those who trust in violence and force may believe that God is on their side, but they do not understand the nature of this God. In fact, this God is on their side, and everyone’s side, at the expense of no one. But those who live according to enmity fail to see this. The curse in which they entrench themselves is ever-deepening blindness.
The false gods of winners and losers continually demand sacrifice, so that those who worship them can continually feel superior and justified against others. Those who claim God’s will in conquest and defeat of others live in a world built on enmity that will eventually consume them as well.
So it’s important to understand what Jeremiah is truly saying. Trusting in the fundamental goodness of humanity is not what is meant by trusting in mere mortals. In fact, denying the value of some humans is denying faith in the God who is Love and loves all. It is denial of the worth and dignity of every human that leads to trust in violence and exclusion.
God curses no one. But when we find transcendence in violence, we live according to a power that can destroy us. Thus we curse ourselves not only when we trust in “mere mortals,” but when we ascribe transcendence to the mere mortal power violence, in which God is nowhere to be found.
Luke 6: 17-27: A God Of Inclusion And A Warning To Those Who May Exclude
We see all-encompassing love of God in the first few verses of this passage. A great multitude of people with diseases and unclean spirits gather to be made well, and power goes out from Jesus and heals all of them.
The people with disease and unclean spirits are the marginalized and excluded. They have been condemned as unworthy by many in their society, and were not supposed to gather in the open, let alone approach a “holy man” who could cure them of their disease. They were among the condemned.
Jesus doesn’t ask what they have done to deserve healing. By coming to him, they have demonstrated their lack of faith in the system that has told them they are disposable. That is hard to do, because it is so easy to internalize the hatred of others and a sense of your own worthlessness when you have heard it for so long coming from so many. The people who come to Jesus have been let down by false understandings of God that condemn them. So they do not trust in the mortal systems that would exclude them. But they do trust in something greater — not only the power of Jesus, but in their own goodness.
All — all those thought to be condemned, all who had been excluded, all with diseases attributed to sin or lack of faith — were healed. The Gospel bears witness to the moral imperative of universal healthcare.
Blessed Are The Poor
I’ve said that the poor in spirit see through the lies that justify injustice according to God’s will. They may not necessarily be poor themselves. I gave the example of the Prophet Muhammad who, before becoming the prophet, was a successful businessman from the most powerful tribe in his region. But the categories of the poor in spirit and the poor certainly overlap. And the poor in spirit see that the systems that create poverty in the first place are not ordained by God.
Poverty itself is a violence imposed on people by exclusion and scapegoating and marginalization. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, and out of its abundance the needs of all people should be met. Poverty is a result of finding God not by sharing the abundance that God gives to all, but by deliberately excluding some from it.
Thus the people who live in poverty are those for whom society has not worked.
The United States, “one nation under God,” was built on genocide, slavery, and exploitation. A history of slavery, segregation, and prejudice has made the median black household wealth 86 times less than the median white household wealth. In truth, these systems have harmed everyone by keeping us apart from each other, by building trust in idol of racism for some while at the same time keeping many of them poor as well, and by stifling the gifts and talents of those who, had they the resources needed, could develop their potential to the good of all of us.
Racism curses us. Bigotry curses us. Exceptionalism and blindness to it curse us.
And the poor more than anyone can see through these idols. This is part of their blessing.
Theirs Is The Kingdom
But the poor are blessed in a deeper way still. Just as 2000 years ago, the poor gathered around Jesus to be healed, so the poor have found their salvation where Jesus is found whether they know it or not — in each other.
Throughout history, the poor have formed coalitions to care for one another and to demand better not only for themselves, but for everyone.
It was African Americans, those who were deliberately held in ultimate poverty — slavery — who, during the Reconstruction era, planted the seeds of public education.
Martin Luther King Jr. brought together a coalition across the boundaries of race to work for full, meaningful employment. This cause has been reaffirmed in the Poor People’s Campaign today.
While not all of these demands have come to full fruition, our world is a better place not only because those with means have, at times, helped the poor, but far more often because the poor have helped us all.
The poor help us to see the weaknesses in our own society and they help us to see how the power of people coming together can build a better world.
Poverty comes from exclusion, but the poor themselves show us the power of inclusion.
Those of us who are not poor should give of ourselves. But we must also listen to those who are poor, and seek out their leadership.
Fortunately, this is beginning to happen. The recent Resolution to form a Green New Deal seeks to create environmental sustainability and economic security through transitioning to clean energy, thus helping to ensure the survival of our species and planet. Whatever one may think of the particular goals laid out in this resolution, one reason to rejoice is found in the acknowledgement of the need to be in constant partnership with those who have been on the underside of poverty and environmental racism. Referred to as “frontline and vulnerable communities,” their input and consent is sought every step of the way. Those who have traditionally been marginalized are to be on the frontlines of renewing and healing our nation.
A nation built on the backs of the poor is to be rebuilt at their hands. This is appropriate, because it is the poor who are building the Kingdom of God. God is in solidarity with the poor, and through God, through Love, the poor are the rebuilding of the world not on the crumbling foundations of exclusion but on the sturdy rock of inclusion and cooperation. We who are not poor must accept that we do not own the kingdom in the same way. It is a kingdom created on inclusion, and it is not so much us including the poor as the poor inviting us in.
Blessed are the poor, and they are a blessing to us all. Amen.