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God's foolishness

God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. -- 1 Corinthians 1:25

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. {4} "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. {5} "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. -- Matthew 5:3-5

It is only human, is it not, to wish to be strong and successful, to be wise, to have qualifications, a good reputation, even a successful family and a good job? We admire success, especially if it comes to people who are otherwise attractive, perhaps like the handsome young tennis players many of us in Australia have been watching on TV. Their wealth adds to the image of success. The poor, the ugly, and the defeated are less appealing. We also know it is true that in our culture we tend to have some feeling for the underdog. That feeling might have some distant foundation in Christian beliefs, and in Australia perhaps also in our convict origins; but even then we like our underdogs to be successful in the end.

There is a more serious concern. So much of popular psychology is concerned with self esteem. It tends to be taken as an aim in education to raise the self esteem of each of the students. Self confidence and self assertion are encouraged generally and many community groups are prepared to offer special training in assertiveness. If that is good how could Jesus have said Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth? It seems the meek are simply trodden upon and need to be helped to overcome their handicap so that they can have a full part of life.

Indeed I think that humility is even despised today -- more so than it was when I was young. I would not expect courses in humility to sell very well! Yet, at the same time, while I must raise a question about the values which dominate in discussions of self-esteem, I would want to affirm the value of our young people being able to speak up and participate more effectively than used to be the case; and there is no doubt that the changing roles of women with their greater participation in public life and paid work and their more positive image of themselves does represent a real gain for many people. It cannot be contrary to God's intention for any people to be fully accepted, to take a full part and to enjoy life. These are indeed signs of liberation and blessing. Was Jesus then talking about something different? No, I don't think so. In those days it is true that people lived differently, the status of women was less and children were expected to be more definitely under authority, but when Jesus said that people who did not enjoy the things that society valued most they would still be blessed, indeed greatly blessed, he was saying something just as strange to them. Perhaps it was even more strange than it is for us, for something still remains in our culture from previous generations valuing what he taught.

The promotion of power, status and wealth as good things to be encouraged, especially for people who might be disadvantaged in some way, tends to reinforce still further the negative view of the poor and the meek. Those who don't make it and remain unrewarded are seen even more than before to be missing out -- not in fact to be blessed. So the words of Jesus blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, become still more significant. We need to understand why it is that they, the poor and the meek, are blessed.

It is in the nature of God to seek and save the lost: salvation depends on knowing our own vulnerability sufficiently to be open to his reaching out to us. Above all it depends on our "seeking first the kingdom of God" then, perhaps, we might recall that all these [other] things may be yours as well -- but what really counts; what is worth the great price? What is the value of the field in which the treasure is hidden, or the pearl of great price?

So with the Sermon on the Mount:

In another translation

Note that when Luke records this teaching he says simply the `poor' rather than the `poor in spirit'. The interpretations seems to be that the poor who are gentle in spirit, and really humble people, are those who will be blessed. But in the old scriptures to which Jesus referred, they were not expected to be happy with their lot. They were those who cried out for deliverance from oppression, and they would be blessed by the Lord who would restore to them the blessings of the land they lived in [eg Psalm 37]. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, the blessing is greater than one's own land, it is the Kingdom of God.

Jesus had the old expectation of blessing as a well known background when he chose to read a passage from Isaiah 61:1-3 when he return to the synagogue in his home town:

As we have recalled recently in regard to his relationship to John the Baptist, Jesus taught people to value those who were poor:

The early church remembered this and learned to appreciate the value of having the poor amongst them.

Poverty goes hand in hand with the `spiritual childhood' required to enter the kingdom of God:

The great value of that humility in our relationship with God was dramatically illustrated by Jesus:

There is, however, a far greater sign, of an even greater value, in the death of Jesus.

The stigma of a criminal's death

There is in normal human thinking no greater defeat than death; and in past generations there was scarcely anything more shameful than to have in the family a criminal who suffered the death penalty. People who write family histories sometimes have to be careful what they include so as not to offend the sensibilities of people who are still living. Certainly to the Jews of the time of Jesus it was a shameful thing to die hanging on a tree; and their scriptures said so [Deuteronomy 21:23] as Paul quoted:

It was a difficult thing for people to accept that one so cursed could be the Messiah, God's holy one, special messenger, king and servant.

Jews demand signs: It was not simply that the cross was a sign of defeat in a human sense, when the Messiah should have been successful. The Jews were awaiting a conclusive demonstration of divine power and what they saw in his death was a sign that this man was lacking in the favour of God. How could he have been blessed by God? His crucifixion was a stumbling block to belief.

... and Greeks desire wisdom: Paul was writing to both Jews and Greeks who were in the church at Corinth, and he seems to have been more concerned with the Greeks. To the Greeks without the same expectations of God's power in the Messiah, it was foolishness, lacking in wisdom. What sense did it make in the common philosophical search for wisdom which would chart the way to God? Many of Greek Christians would have heard some of the teaching, which was then highly regarded, on the value of wisdom in Greek philosophy. Such teaching was not very different from what is commonly heard today speculating on how one can through some spiritual formula or special knowledge discover one's own path to God. It was a special kind of human effort and cleverness in which it would be foolish to expect the teacher to die, or for his death to have any effect on the relationship of others to God. Surely this death on a cross was not the way of wisdom?



Paul had reason on other occasions to counter such teaching about wisdom. For example:

Accepting the gospel requires that we make a radical revision of our understanding of wisdom, the acknowledgment that God's ways are not our ways. Paul saw this in the prophecy of Isaiah:

In its historical context this word of God through Isaiah referred to Jerusalem being saved from the might of the Assyrian empire, by the power of God apart from all political calculations and alliances which the wisdom of man might have favoured. It came to be applied later to the "shocking and amazing" things that would be done by God, for all people, through Christ.

The great reversal

It was a reversal of the same kind as was promised by Jeremiah:

Paul in a later letter quoted from this passage: 2 Corinthians 10:17

In the cross God has acted in a way that transcends all human calculation and insight, and introduced a wisdom of an entirely new order. It follows that if we are to take to ourselves the wisdom of God revealed in the cross, we must first acknowledge that what once was thought to be wisdom has been sheer folly. That is just as much applicable today as it was when Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. The competitive self-promotion of present day success and self esteem is as destructive as it ever was. Such human vanity still stands under the judgment of the cross.

The foolishness of God in so blessing the meek through the death of their saviour has always been despised even mocked by the worldly wise. When the message was spreading in the early centuries through the Roman empire and in Rome itself it was both mocked and hated. Among the ruins of the Palatine Hill in Rome there was found a crude drawing of a slave bowing down to a crucified figure with an ass's head. Underneath are the words "Alexander worships his god"!

I wonder how long it will be before the destructive fruits of the worldly wisdom of this age, with all its self-seeking and increasing scorn for the losers, will be borne on the scaffolds of self promotion that people are building for themselves: how long before the economic bottom line turns to a punishing negative, and how long before those who chase that other form of irresponsible self-seeking in distorted personal morality wake up to its bitter consequences?

Yet for those who receive the good news in faith, for all its seeming weakness the cross is stronger than the strongest men and women and what they count as power. The bruised and battered one, the one despised, the rejected servant-lord, remains the channel of unlimited forgiving love and strangely of ultimate power. For all the worst that they could do they never destroyed his true character of love, which was the revelation of the nature of God. And in the end we had the greatest sign of all. He who accepted the suffering was raised up by God to a new life, the first born of a new creation.

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