Text: Luke 6: 17-26 (the beatitudes and woes)
Why do we value truth? Doesn’t lying help one gain power, fame, and fortune?
Lying sometimes plays a part in politics, and racism provides an illustration. Most of us believe that no one race is better than any other, and many of us are aware of the science that says there is no biological reality to the so-called races.
Unfortunately, after 500 years of European colonialism, the racial hatred that justified slavery and conquest and that saw European settler states achieve wealth at the expense of those they conquered and enslaved has left us with some deep-seated and unconscious ideas that are racist and untrue.
The ability of racist lies to yield political success is prominent in the career of the current U.S President. Last week, Republican representatives reacted angrily to the statement by the President’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, that Donald Trump was a racist despite the fact that Cohen’s negative judgement of Trump is backed by hundreds of statements and actions by the U.S. President.
Donald Trump raised his profile as a political commentator in 2011 by spreading the false claim that President Obama had been born in Kenya and not in Hawaii and therefore was ineligible to be President. It was a racist lie. But it was a lie that allowed Donald Trump to gain attention, support, and ultimately enough votes to be elected President himself. So why should we bother with the truth?
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus lists a series of blessings and woes that turn common wisdom on its head. He says the poor, the hungry, and those who are hated and excluded are blessed. In contrast, he says it is the rich, the well-fed, and those who win praise who face ruin.
But do we accept these statements as the truth? The list of blessings in Luke is different from a similar list found in Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed, not the poor; those who hunger for righteousness are blessed and not the hungry; and the meek are blessed and not the hated and excluded. Matthew’s version also does not include Luke’s list of woes. If Luke and Matthew can’t even agree on what Jesus said, how can we be sure of the truth behind Jesus’ startling claims?
I appreciate both versions of the blessings. As to whether they are true, I find in them spiritual truth that is deeper than the superficial success people sometimes gain by peddling hurtful lies.
In this world of exploitation and violence, it is sometimes healthier to be poor, hungry, and excluded than to be rich, well-fed, and praised. Until the realm of God becomes a reality not just in our hearts but also in human society, marginal and oppressed people may be better positioned to stumble into Love’s blessings than the rich and comfortable, who may struggle.
This is so, I believe, despite the temporary success that falsehood and division can yield. Life is about more than material wealth and power. At its heart, it is about waking up to beauty and love despite the inequalities and injustice that still mar social reality. Eternal love is available to us at any moment; and it can become more readily available when we turn away from power in favour of sacred values.
In a commentary by David Brooks in the New York Times on Thursday about Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress, Brooks quoted some lines from John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden.” I close by quoting them as well:
Steinbeck writes: “Humans are caught — in our lives and thoughts, in our hungers and ambitions, in our avarice and cruelty, and also in our kindness and generosity — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were the warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last … After one has brushed off the dust and chips of one’s life, we will have left only the hard clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”
As followers of Jesus, we promote honesty and truth not just because they make social life more peaceful, but also because they help us stumble into realities that are more valuable than wealth and power – things like peace of mind, a clear space in which to experience beauty, and a life in closer alignment with the Ground of Being, which we call Love.
May it be so. Amen.