Warm boulders and other blessings

So I’m back! I’ve spent the last two weeks travelling in Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and I’m full to brimming with the sights, sounds, scents, conversations and reflections I absorbed there. It was a wonderful experience, which I suspect will thrum behind much that I say and do over the next few years. There were many moving moments: sailing on a wooden boat on the Sea of Galilee; seeing the hideous wall blockading Bethlehem; being shown through the Holocaust Museum by a man whose entire extended family was murdered by the Nazis; thinking about the meaning of peace for Israel and Palestine; and singing with friends in a stone tomb in Petra. I fell in love with Jerusalem, that lively, colourful, historic, contested and conflicted city; and again and again Psalm 122 came to mind; although as for how Jerusalem will find peace, like so many others I do not know.

One memorable afternoon, our group picked its way through a stony thorny field on the Mount of Beatitudes. Halfway down, at an outcrop of boulders, we stopped. People found a perch and, with the Sea of Galilee glinting behind them, I spoke Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. I used my own translation, wrestled with over the years and constantly evolving. Like every translation, it’s a paraphrase, for many of the Greek words do not have direct correlations in English, and in any case meaning is deeply affected by culture and context.

In Jesus’ time, the word ‘makarios’, which we usually translate as ‘blessed’, meant those people whom the gods clearly favour; in other words, those who are healthy, rich, successful and powerful. This way of thinking is still prevalent in our society, including in churches which preach the prosperity doctrine, also known as health and wealth teaching. At its core, the prosperity doctrine is the aberrant and heretical idea that God rewards the faithful with money, health, power and the absence of suffering, and at its worst teaches the corresponding implication that those who suffer lack faith and are not truly favoured by God.

Why is this doctrine heretical? To find out, trek down the mountain with me, watching for stones and prickles. Find a warm boulder, sit down, make yourself comfortable, and listen:

According to Luke, Jesus taught them, saying:
Fortunate are you who are poor, for yours is the culture of God.
Fortunate are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Fortunate are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Fortunate are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, verbally abuse you, and drag your name through the mud on account of the Human One. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
But there’s trouble ahead for you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
There’s trouble ahead for you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
There’s trouble ahead for you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
There’s trouble ahead when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you … (Luke 6:22-28)

And according to Matthew, Jesus taught them, saying:
Fortunate are those who know they don’t have all the answers, for theirs is the culture of God.
Fortunate are those who do not shy away from grief but enter into it, for they shall be comforted.
Fortunate are the humble, for they shall inherit the land.
Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.
Fortunate are the forgiving, for they shall receive forgiveness.
Fortunate are those with no guile in their hearts, for they shall see God.
Fortunate are the peacemakers, for they shall be called God’s children.
Fortunate are those who are persecuted for their pursuit of justice, for theirs is the culture of heaven.
Fortunate are you when people verbally abuse you, and persecute you, and drag your name through the mud on my account. Rejoice and be happy, for this is how they persecuted the prophets who went before you.
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes bland, how can its tang be restored? It is useless, and thrown out, and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:3-16)

These two versions of the Beatitudes have different emphases. But they both challenge the world as we know it, for they set out Jesus’ topsy-turvy way, a way in which those who suffer are honoured; those who reject violence are honoured; those who are poor are honoured; those who are humble receive good gifts; those who are rich are in danger; those who are self-protective and work only for their own benefit commit slow soul suicide; and those who give of themselves for the sake of the gospel experience full and flourishing life.

This topsy-turvy way feels urgently necessary in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, where countless layers of history and story and gospel and land and empire and violence are inextricably woven together; it’s also urgently necessary, of course, here in Gunditjmara country. Although with no military checkpoints and no young soldiers hefting machine guns and no minefields and no rocket launchers and no fighter jets and no fleets of Americans in tour buses shattering the silence, I must say home is feeling pretty peaceful right now!

Thank you to all who made this trip possible, whether by leading services, preparing reflections, or writing the newsletter, or whether by doing the largely invisible but necessary tasks which keep everything going. I feel deeply blessed and humbled to have had this opportunity and hope only that it will give further glory to God, whether through the stories which will emerge, through any learning I can pass on, or through the gifts which have been revealed among you while I was away.


Image credit: Grace Wall, MTA, our awesome travel agent who came on the tour. Also, I gather Whitley is already collecting expressions of interest for a 2019 tour; if you’re interested, email whitley [at] whitley.edu.au.

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