Friday, January 9, 2015

Replacing The American Dream With the Kingdom of God

    Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
-Matthew 5:3-6 (NIV)

Every student who applies for entrance to Chicago’s best public high schools has to take an entrance exam, among other requirements. Parents and students are aware of the scores needed to get in to each school from year to year. But they also have to be aware of something else — where they live.
    That’s because, depending upon where in Chicago he or she lives, a student might not need to do as well on the entrance requirements as another student. The Chicago Public School system recognizes that just living in certain neighborhoods in the city gives a student an advantage over his or her peers, and so they’ve divided the city into “tiers” that take into account factors like the education levels of a student’s parents, how likely those parents are to speak English as a first language, and whether they’re likely to have the financial resources to contribute to their kids’ primary schools or provide them extracurricular educational opportunities. Recognizing that lack of access to opportunities might negatively affect the scores of good students, the school system has tried to tweak the admissions process to give those students access to some of the city’s better schools.
    There is, of course, resistance to this system. (Especially if you perceive your child might have lost out on a seat as his or her first choice of school because of it!) It kind of seems un-American. It flies in the face of the notion that the “American Dream” is available to anyone who works hard enough, that a person in a free society like ours can pull himself up and better himself. It seems unfair. People who are more privileged don’t like to think of themselves as such, and people who are less privileged often don’t care for the implication that they can’t make it without help.
    The fact is that the bootstrap mentality of the American Dream was probably always a half-truth, at best. Many factors make us the people we are and give us the opportunities we have. Some of those factors have to do with hard work, of course. But some also have to do with accidents of birth and history and circumstances that we have little to do with.
    Jesus, you might have noticed, was not interested at all in equality. He was very interested in “righteousness,” which sometimes the church has conveniently made a synonym for moral and ethical purity, or something along those lines. In that line of thinking, “righteousness” primarily has to do with being good.
    Most of the time, though, Jesus seemed to use the word in a way that’s better translated for us as “justice.” Mary’s song in Luke 1, for example, interprets God’s work through the child growing inside her as “scattering” the proud, bringing down rulers while lifting those in humble circumstances, and filling the hungry while sending the rich away empty. In Luke 4, Jesus reads Isaiah as a mandate for his work: that the Spirit has anointed him for the proclamation of good news, God’s “year of…favor”, to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. He famously warned his followers that in the end times, those who care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, and prisoner would be the ones welcomed into their inheritance in God’s kingdom.
    Contrary to what seems like common sense, Jesus called “blessed” those who had few resources of their own, those who grieved loss, those who had no standing to assert themselves and gain possessions for themselves, and those who were starving for justice. He called them blessed because he knew God as a God of special care for those who were out of resources, options, and advocates. He promised that, if they could find it in themselves to trust in him, they would be comforted and filled as they received their inheritance in the Kingdom that he had come to announce.
    Consistently, Jesus demanded that his followers imitate him in his concern for those who are on the margins, those who can’t make it on their own. He expects that in our actions, words, priorities, and values, we will communicate God’s special grace for those who can’t make it on their own. In God’s kingdom, those who have resources and opportunities don’t hoard them for their own well-being, but share them with those who have less, not out of a sense of superiority or paternalism, but because God wishes to share his blessings with them through us.
    There are plenty of such folks in our neighborhoods, schools, churches, and homes. There are plenty of such folks in the world. They shop with us, work with us, learn with us, and worship with us. They rub elbows with us every day, and often we don’t notice them — sometimes because they don’t want us to. But their hopes are dying, their faith is crumbling, their dreams withering on the vine. They don’t have a lot of expectation that their situations will approve. They get little help or notice from the powerful and influential.
    They are the people to whom Jesus came with a message of hope and promise. If the messages we bring to folks like them don’t carry with them hope and promise, then it is not the gospel of Jesus that we bring. The gospel isn’t to be spiritualized down to metaphors. It’s a message for real, hurting people in need of righteousness, yes, but also justice — a message for the hungry, the weary, the broken, the sick, the dying, the homeless, the lonely, the forsaken — a message that both righteousness and justice are found in Jesus Christ.
    Our words and actions should be loaded with the good news of the coming Kingdom of God, in which those who hunger and thirst will be filled. Our words and actions should be signs of that coming Kingdom, conveying the love, care, and grace of God poured out in Jesus Christ.
    May we be found faithful.

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