Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reading "Reading Jesus"

I have just finished reading Mary Gordon's new book Reading Jesus. As Mary Gordon describes it, her book is the result of a realization that while she had been hearing passages from the gospels in church all her life, she had not actually read the four gospels straight through.

The first section of her book takes up ten readings which she quotes from one or more gospels. The tenth reading is the the beatitudes from Matthew 5: 3-10. When I read Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, I expected to turn the page and read Luke's version, Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, but no, Mary Gordon does not give us Luke in this case.

She writes
For many days, I write and rewrite these words [the whole passage, Matt. 5:3-20] by hand and then I am paralyzed. Struck dumb. Afraid to write. Silenced by the depth of my attachment to them, silenced at the example of sheer moral greatness and the sense that after these wrods there is, perhaps should be, nothing to say.

What kind of life, what kind of living is suggested by the Beatitudes? Perhps equally important, what virtues are not mentioned...elided, simply left out?

Most striking: the bourgeois virtues. There is nothing about onesty. keeping your word, paying your debts, placing yourself in the right place in relation to authority or hierarchy. Mercy, peacemaking, poverty of spirit, purity of heart (the body is not metioned here). The sexually well-behaved are not given a place.
And a little later:

When I complained to a wise friend that it was impossible to live up to all the Beatitudes -- how can you be both meek and hungering for justice -- she told me no one was meant to live up to all of them, that was the glory of them.
I myself don't take the Beatitudes as a list of virtues to live up to. Rather they are are a list of priorities. And they are paradoxical, taken in the complete context of the gospel. Blessed are the poor, but we are called to relieve their poverty. Blessed are the hungry, but we are called to feed them.

To return to "Blessed are the poor...," in The Historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan gives two other versions besides those cited above from Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20: Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. [Gospel of Thomas 54] Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? [James 2:5]

Crossan writes:

The basic problem is not just Matthew's gloss "in spirit," although that certainly diverts attention and interpretation from material to spiritual, from economic to religious poverty. Even when that is left aside as a Matthean addition, there is still a serious problem with the word poor itself.
Crossan then goes on for three more pages to demonstrate that the Greek word ptochoi means "not the poor but the destitute, not poverty but beggary."

In The Essential Jesus, Crossan renders this saying as "Only the destitute are innocent."

Mary Gordon grapples honestly with the text of the gospels -- but she grapples with the texts only as they are translated, even to the point of prefering one translation to another not for the accuracy of the translation but for its resonances. And she grapples with the text without a glance at question of when or how the gospels were written -- especially the synoptics.

Mary Gordon's treatment is not fully satisfying to me. Many parts of her book, however, do resonate with me. For example, she asks the question (page 176) "What is lost if we give up the idea that Jesus is God incarnate?" Part of her answer is "If the experience of birth, friendship, suffering, and death was shared by the divine, a relationship of intimacy, and a refusal of dualism, is necessitated. And this, to me, is a pearl of great price."


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