Here’s What Jesus Really Taught

Matthew 5:1-11

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain and sat down. They all gathered around, and Jesus taught them.

Rise up and take action, you who are poor in spirit, heaven is yours!
Rise up and take action, you mourners, comfort will come to you!
Rise up and take action, you meek, the world is your inheritance!
Rise up and take action, you who hunger and thirst for justice, you will be satisfied!
Rise up and take action, you who are merciful, and mercy shall be yours!
Rise up and take action, you who are pure in heart, and see God!
Rise up and take action, you peacemakers, you are God’s children!
Rise up and take action, you who are persecuted for doing right, heaven is yours!
Rise up, when people curse you, persecute you, and slander you because you follow me. Laugh it off and keep going, heaven is yours! They persecuted the prophets before you, too.

The following reflection on the Beatitudes comes from Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian, in We Belong to the Land (pp 143 – 144).

Knowing Aramaic, the language of Jesus, has greatly enriched my understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Because the Bible as we know it is a translation of a translation, we sometimes get a wrong impression. For example, we are used to hearing the Beatitudes expressed passively:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

“Blessed” is the translation of the word makarioi, used in the Greek New Testament. However, when I look further back to Jesus’ Aramaic, I find that the original word was ashray, from the verb yashar. Ashray does not have this passive quality to it at all. Instead, it means “to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, repent; to become straight or righteous.”

How could I go to a persecuted young man in a Palestinian refugee camp, for instance, and say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” or “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven?” That man would revile me, say neither I nor my God understood his plight, and he would be right.

When I understand Jesus’ words in the Aramaic, I translate like this:

Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice,  for you shall be satisfied.
Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.

To me this reflects Jesus’ words and teachings much more accurately. I can hear him saying, “Get your hands dirty to build a human society for human beings; otherwise, others will torture and murder the poor, the voiceless, and the powerless.” Christianity is not passive but active, energetic, alive, going beyond despair.

One day two bats fell into a pot of milk. The pessimistic bat said, “What can I do? Will I struggle and sink, and die so very tired? I will not die tired.” He sank and drowned immediately. The optimistic bat said, “I will strive to the end, and at least they will say I tried everything.” She struggled and struggled, trying to fly, until she fainted. Later she awakened and found herself resting safely on a big roll of butter. This is not giving in to despair, but going beyond despair.

“Get up, go ahead, do something, move,” Jesus said to his disciples.

And now we know why Jesus was executed as a revolutionary… He was one.

The Care and Feeding of Multitudes

Feeding the multitudes
Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish, 1620-23

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
– Matthew 14:13-21

This scene depicts the beginning of a people’s revolution. If, among those crowds that day, there had been anyone from the press, they would have reported it as such.

First off, notice the connection to John the Baptist. Herod did. In Luke’s version (Luke 9:7ff), the lead-up to the story shows Herod wondering how the guy he executed for gathering crowds in the wilderness could still be out there. Matthew says Jesus goes to the wilderness (“a deserted place”) after being told the John the Baptist was dead. In the wilderness following the first meeting with John, Jesus had been tempted to turn rocks into bread for his own benefit. This time, following John’s scene, Jesus is back in the wilderness and he does make bread – for the benefit of the people.

So the first question about this scene has got to be (thanks to Simon Harak): Where did all the people come from? Think about it. How can there be 5000 men, plus women and children with the kind of leisure time to take a couple days off for a wilderness trek? And the answer is that they are unemployed. They are imperial flotsam. Then and now imperial economic systems need to maintain a certain rate of unemployment. Modern economists call it the NAIRU: the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment. And they say that ideally, depending on other economic factors, this ideal unemployment figure should usually be over four percent, and as high as ten or more percent. In parts of the world under occupation, the rate is much higher: it’s easier to control people if they haven’t got an excuse to go anywhere or the means to do anything meaningful. Currently, for example, in Palestine unemployment in the West Bank is 16.5% and 40% in Gaza. In Iraq, the unemployment rate in 2009 according to the CIA’s World Fact Book  was 15.3%. In Afghanistan, it’s 35%. But unemployment isn’t just an ideal fact in an imperial war economy. Currently the US employment rate as it tries to maintain two major wars and maintain footholds throughout the known world is (as of the end of June) 9.2%. These 5000 are the ones who have been intentionally left destitute.

Second, it stands to reason that in any crowd of unemployed people, there are bound to be a lot of them sick. They can’t afford adequate nutrition. They can’t afford going to the doctor. They can’t afford medicine. And, think about it, if you’re sick or if you have a sick kid, you’re main worry is going to be about getting better. So occupations go better when there are lots of sick people. People don’t have the time or energy to resist. So the crowds gather and the first thing Jesus does is “he cured their sick.” Remember what they were saying about Obama when he was talking about the possibility of free universal health care? What do you think the establishment was saying about Jesus?

Third, notice that the disciples want Jesus to “send the crowds away.” It’s not hard to see the disciples as a representation of the church. And, even in the first generation of Matthew’s community, there is a tension between Jesus and the church. Then and now, the first response of the church in dealing with marginalized, unemployed, sick, hungry people is to send them away, Jesus’ constant response is let them come, and you take care of them.

So Jesus instructs the disciples to have the people sit down on the grass – wait, what grass? This was supposed to be the desert. So now, the scene is not just a people’s revolution: it has now become a living instance of Psalm 23 – “He leadeth me in green pastures, and feedeth me beside the still waters” (how else is there grass-in desert, the wilderness, the valley of the shadow of death?).

All ate and were filled – not just ate, were filled. So, says Harak, “He’s healed all the people the empire wants sick, and he’s fed all the people the empire wants hungry. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?” In fact, where there were once a crowd of sick hungry no-accounts, there are now 5000 healthy, well-fed men here. It’s a number big enough to be of imperial significance, since a Roman legion was a group of between 5000 and 6000 healthy well-fed Roman citizens. Jesus is leading five thousand healthy, well-fed men who he’s symbolically named citizens of God’s kingdom: he has legion now. How long do you think they’re going to let him live?

Finally, about the twelve baskets left over. Twelve tribes of Israel: the leftovers, the broken pieces. Jesus collects the broken pieces to be the new Israel. Think about it. The care and feeding of multitudes is just that revolutionary.