Thursday, November 2, 2017

"With the 'failures' and 'losers' of this world, I choose to cast my lot." (Reflections on the Beatitudes, on the Solemnity of All Saints, November 1st, Matthew 5:1-12)


I was once asked a very interesting question by one very ‘perplexed’ student in a theology class at university a number of years ago.  We were analyzing the structure of the Beatitudes where Jesus pronounced those who are poor, meek, humble, and persecuted to be blessed and proclaimed woe on the proud, vain, arrogant, and mighty, one of my students raised his hands and asked: “Father, do you think anyone who takes Jesus’ advice seriously can survive in the world?” 

Consider the wording of the Beatitudes:

 "Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are they who mourn,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed are the clean of heart,
Blessed are the peacemakers,
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you."

My student wasn’t asking a trick question; nor was he simply trying to be argumentative. It was a sincere question. Could anyone seriously follow the prescriptions of the Beatitudes? Can anyone survive this life if he did? 

Even I, had to pause and consider my answer—as I somehow recalled something the Renaissance thinker Niccolo Machiavelli said as a word of advice to would-be rulers: “It isn’t necessary to be good and righteous, in fact it can actually work against you; what is necessary is to act as if you were (to give people the impression that you are), but to always be willing and ready to act otherwise if that becomes necessary”.

Still, before I managed to reply to my student's question, he followed up with a statement: “Good guys finish last, Father. Good guys finish last. The bad boy always gets the girl”. Everyone began to laugh.

Do we think that’s true? Do good guys really finish last? Before we answer, perhaps we need to consider that in society, most often than not, those who are cunning, devious, and clever, are the ones who do seem to succeed. Even the psalms, written thousands of years ago, make that observation: “Why, O Lord, do the evil prosper?”

Does the bad guy really win? That would make good guys losers, wouldn’t it? People like Socrates, unjustly condemned to drink poison, Sir Thomas More, beheaded for standing firm in his principles, Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated for his unyielding stand for peace, Sister Dorothy Stang, 73-year old American nun from Ohio, shot in the face in Peru, just a few years ago, for her defense of poor farmers, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who defended the rights of the poor in El Salvador, felled by bullets while celebrating Mass, a number of Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus; the list goes on and on, and it would certainly include the men and women commemorated in today’s Solemnity of All Saints.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes who had a rather dark and negative view of human nature is known to have said, homo homini lupus, “man is a wolf to other men”. And so we either aggressively assert ourselves and grab what we want, before others beat us to it.

In a dog-eat-dog world, where the rule is “survival of the fittest”, “big fish eat little fish”, and where the basic law of evolution is “natural selection” in which the strong survive and the weak die, it would indeed seem that “the good guy finishes last”.

But is there any other way? “Nature does not care for the individual”, one of my philosophy professors in Louvain used to say. “Nature cares only for the species, for its survival; and it does this by favoring the strong”.

The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche would agree. This is part of the reason he called Christianity, with its commandment to love and care for “the least” in this world, a “disease”. If all were to obey the commandments of Christ, Nietzsche argued, humanity would eventually be wiped out. Nature demands the survival of the fittest. Natural selection dictates that the strong must overcome the weak; the weak must be weeded out so that the strong may increase in number. 

If you have any doubts about this, just observe a litter of puppies or kittens, and notice how the runt fares. Already the smallest and weakest, and therefore the one needing nourishment most, it’s very smallness and weakness almost guarantees that it won’t get what it needs unless someone intervenes. But why protect the runt, when by doing so, one only guarantees that the undesirable genes will be passed on to the next generation? Nature, left on its own, will see to it that the weak are not allowed to go on; it is our humanity, our compassion, that somehow "thwarts" it.

Yet, Machiavelli writes in The Prince:

“Human persons are contemptible, simple-minded and so dominated by their present needs, that one who deceives will always find one who will allow himself to be deceived... Since men are a contemptible lot and would not keep their promises to you, you too need not keep yours to them”.

A number of years ago, a lady whom I knew since my seminary days was given an award by a Catholic Foundation for her work with the poor and needy. She shared the award and the substantial sum that came with it, with another person. Now she herself was poor. In fact, we would every once in a while help her out with her finances. When she received the check, we encouraged her to save some for herself, for her future health needs, and just to make sure she’ll have something for a rainy day. Instead, she went to archbishop, told him she was giving him the money and that she wanted it to go to charity. All of it!

We would probably call that noble. The world would call it stupid, crazy, irresponsible, impractical, and ridiculous. When we asked why she gave all the money away and didn’t even think of keeping some so that she’d have something to use if she got sick, her answer nearly brought me to tears: “That’s why I have you guys, right. You’ve been very good to me. I take care of other people. I’m sure there will be people who will take care of me. My life has always been in God’s hands”. Even I struggle to have that kind of faith.

[When she passed away about two years ago, having suffered tremendously from cancer, I came to celebrate one of the Masses in her memory. In the homily, I spoke of how I and many other priests - whom she knew as seminary students years before - were inspired by her simplicity, faith, and generosity to likewise seek to give ourselves completely to the vocation of serving God's People. At the end of the Mass, as I greeted the people leaving, one lady came up and thanked me for my "kind words". She introduced herself as one of the relatives of the deceased, and then she said: "You know she would've had a little more money to spend on herself when she got sick, if she didn't give away all that award money years ago. She was such a devout woman, but that just wasn't very smart". I was stunned; though somehow I understood the sentiment.]

Do good guys really finish last? Are they really losers? In the gospel account of Jesus’ Transfiguration, Jesus is shown in his glory together with Moses (who symbolized the fulfillment of the Law) and Elijah (who symbolized the fulfillment of the Prophets). His clothes become dazzling white and the voice of God the Father is heard saying: “This is my beloved Son. My Chosen One. Listen to him”. The apostles are dazzled and amazed.

Before this particular passage though, comes Jesus’ words to his disciples, telling them the cost of following him. “If anyone wishes to be my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me… What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” These were very hard and difficult words for the disciples to accept. They all wanted a powerful Savior and Messiah, not a suffering one who would be killed. They wanted glory and power.

In the very same chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel, Peter proclaims Jesus to be the “Messiah, the Son of God”. The gospel of Matthew says that when Jesus tells Peter that he is going to suffer, Peter rebukes him. “God forbid that you suffer”, Peter tells Jesus. To which Jesus responds: “Get thee behind me Satan. Your thoughts are not God’s thoughts, but the thoughts of man”.

Even for the disciples, it was hard to understand and accept the way of Jesus. The way of the world, the way of power, wealth, and glory, was more attractive. Why suffer when you can be powerful and strong? Why do it the hard way when there’s an easier way? Why be the good guy who loses? Why can’t we be the bad guy who wins?

In this view, Jesus would be the world’s greatest loser. But so would the countless men and women whose feast is celebrated today—the numberless, often faceless and anonymous band of persons who sought with all their might, and against this world’s judgment, to live lives rooted deeply in Christ; they would all be losers in the face of the world.

And who would be the winners? Stalin, Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot of Cambodia, the Duvaliers of Haiti, the dictator Marcos, the bigshots at Enron who robbed people of their hard earned money, Bernard Madoff who stole from thousands of people in the largest pyramid scam in history, the greedy people at the big banks, at Wall Street?

If these are the kinds of people the world judges to be winners, then I’d rather have my name on the list of “losers”. I’d rather cast my lot with those the world would judge its “losers” and “failures”. 

Not only because, as the Beatitudes in the gospel proclaim, a great reversal is due in which those who are judged successful in this world are to be the failures in the next, but because these men and women stood for something that lasts, something that transcends the fleeting character of the good and pleasant things of this world, something that “rust cannot corrode, moths cannot eat, and thieves cannot steal”, something that lasts unto eternity. 

Now that is real wealth; that is true success; that is genuine treasure

In the gospels, the Father confirms Jesus in his mission—one that in the eyes of the world will be nothing but a failure—“You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased”. But it wasn’t only a confirmation of his task, it was also an affirmation, a way of strengthening his Son for the difficult task that lay ahead. It was Father’s way of telling Jesus (and all those who seek to follow him): “Be strong. You have chosen to follow my way and not the way of the world. And because of that I will remain with you, forever”.

We can choose the way of the world. We can take our chances and say, “Oh, I can have both. I’ll follow Jesus, but there’s nothing wrong with being worldly from time to time, right?” As long as we realize that our choices have consequences, we are free to do and choose what we want. But we must always bear in mind that for Jesus, there is no “middle ground”. We either choose him, or we choose the world. We either cast our lot with the men and women whose heroism and resolve, we commemorate today; or we ally ourselves with those the Machiavelli's, Hobbes', and Nietzsche's of this world proclaim champions. Shall it be Christ, or Machiavelli? We just can't have both. 

If we choose Christ's way, the world will probably judge us losers—just as it has most likely judged the band of holy men and women we commemorate today. And that can be very hard. 

If we choose the way of Jesus, our only reward will be this: when we finally come face to face with the God who shall judge us, we shall hear him speak to us in the words he spoke to Jesus, his Son: “You are my beloved child. You are my chosen one. In you, I am well pleased”. On that day, it’s the world (and its Machiavelli's, Hobbes' and Nietzsche's ) that will be judged the loser, not us.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are they who mourn,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed are the clean of heart,
Blessed are the peacemakers,
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you.
Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven.”

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)