Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
13th of February 2022
On the day on which I wrote this Reflection, Victoria announced another sixteen deaths by covid19, bringing the total of covid19 deaths announced so far in 2022 in this state to 717. This means that as far as we can tell the number of lives lost to covid19 so far this year has exceeded the number of lives lost by suicide in all of 2020. If you can remember back that far, in this pandemic that seems to have been happening for decades, you might remember that in 2020 some politicians and media opposed to the Victorian lockdowns argued that there was a ‘shadow pandemic’ of suicides happening that would ultimately take more lives than would the actual pandemic. Instead, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that fewer Australians died in 2020 than in 2019 (161,300 in 2020, as opposed to 169,301 in 2019). Even with the covid19 outbreaks here, there were fewer deaths in Victoria in 2020 (41,093) than in 2019 (43,944), and, as far as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare can tell, fewer deaths by suicide in Victoria in 2020 (694) than in 2019 (717).
As someone who lives with depression I should be glad that mental illness has become such a hot topic during the pandemic, but I have a sneaky suspicion that many of the people who talk about it most loudly do not in fact really care about those of us living with it. I suspect that the discussion about a ‘shadow pandemic’ was actually about what a few media commentators said explicitly: the young, fit and healthy should not have to have their freedoms restricted by a lockdown to protect the old, frail and vulnerable; some Australian lives should be treated as more valuable than others. We seem to be seeing this now in another form, with the constant reassurance in the media that those dying of Omicron have pre-existing conditions, or are elderly, as though that means that their deaths are less tragic. I hope that that is not why people are using terms like ‘pre-existing conditions’ and ‘pre-palliative care’ but, as I said, I am suspicious.
Valuing the lives of some people over others is something we all do. We value our own life and the lives of those we love over those of strangers, but we also value the lives of some strangers over others. We tend to care more about people like us, those in whose shoes we can imagine ourselves walking, than about those who are not like us. Christianity, however, tries to widen our sympathies by reminding us that every single human being is made in the image of God. It does not matter our age, sex, nationality, whether we are healthy or sick, intelligent or stupid, young or old, rich or poor. We are all equally important in the eyes of God. We sometimes forget how unusual is this understanding of the significance of human life. It is radical of Christianity to insist that every life is of equal value, and to encourage us to live out that truth.
Jesus taught his disciples in a world in which it was taken for granted that the rich were more important than the poor. Wealth was considered a sign of God’s favour and poverty a sign of God’s displeasure. It was the rich who were blessed, members of the wealthy upper class, people with many possessions. But Jesus took this understanding and turned it upside down: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled … woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry’. So radical was this sermon that Matthew immediately spiritualised it, quoting Jesus as saying that it is the ‘poor in spirit’ and ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ who will be blessed, not the literally poor and hungry. (Matthew 5:1-12) The church may have made us more familiar with Matthew’s version of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ than with Luke’s version of the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ simply because Matthew’s version is longer and goes into more detail, but I suspect it is also because Luke’s version is more radical.
Immediately before today’s reading begins Jesus has spent a night on the mountain in prayer. After praying, he chose twelve of the disciples to be apostles. In today’s reading he comes down from the mountain with the twelve, to a level place. On the mountain Jesus had been with God. Now on the level place Jesus is with humanity, teaching and healing. As so often we are reminded of the amazing inclusivity of Jesus’ concern; the people around him include the apostles, the other disciples, and a great crowd including both Jews from Judea and Jerusalem and Gentiles from Tyre and Sidon. Today’s reading also emphasizes how successful Jesus’ ministry is. Everyone is coming to see Jesus, to hear him, and to be healed by him, and Jesus does heal them all. But amid this scene of success Jesus preaches a sermon which completely overturns worldly understandings of triumph. Jesus looks at the crowd around him, the multitude of people trying to touch him, and warns, ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets’.
It is the poor, not the wealthy, who are blessed; the sad, not the happy; those excluded and reviled, not those of whom everyone speaks well. They are blessed because God has welcomed them into the kingdom in which the hungry will be fed and those who weep will laugh. This is not because the poor are worthy and deserving and so will be rewarded in heaven. Instead the poor are blessed not because of who they are but because of who God is. As the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez wrote:
God has a preferential love for the poor not because they are necessarily better than others, morally and religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves, but in God, in the graciousness and universality of God’s agapeic love.
The Gospel according to Luke is the gospel about and for the poor. The beatitudes as Luke records them are extremely material; they speak to the immediate concerns of daily life. They are also scandalous. They overturn every conventional expectation – but then Jesus’ entire ministry was scandalous. He associated with society’s outcasts and pronounced God’s blessing on them. He revealed the true nature of the reign of God, as good news for those most despised.
Is it also good news for the rich? ‘Then who can be saved?’ asked those around Jesus, after he had told a certain ruler about the impossibility of camels going through the eyes of needles. Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God,’ and those of us rich, full, and happy may be reassured by that. In the meantime, as the Russian philosopher and theologian Nickolai Berdyaev said, ‘My daily bread is a material concern; the daily bread of my neighbour is a spiritual concern.’
In Luke’s telling of this sermon there is a moment that does not occur in the Gospel according to Matthew: Jesus ‘looked up at his disciples’. Not only do the disciples see God in Jesus, by being seen by Jesus they are being seen by God. Imagine if we saw ourselves, and the multitude of people around us, with the eyes of God. What would that tell us about the worth of ourselves and of others? As we see by the Sermon on the Plain, God’s values are not those of the society which surrounds us. We live in a world in which the lives of some are considered to be worth more than the lives of others. We are seeing that clearly in this time of pandemic, with those arguments that the convenience of the young and healthy is more important than the lives of the elderly and vulnerable. In the eyes of God, however, every human life is equally important. To God, our lives are without price, so valuable that in Jesus God was willing to die for us. And the same is true of every other person: those we love; those we know: those we will never meet. From God’s perspective, we are all equal and we are, all of us, priceless.