Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 6:20-38) transports me to the Blockbuster movie rental store in the summer of 1990, in the D section of the alphabetized drama aisle. Some recent conversations about race relations in our church probably prompted me to rent two movies that spoke to the topic. I got my Goobers and Raisinettes and settled in for a double feature of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Morgan Freeman’s Driving Miss Daisy, both of which had been in theaters the year before. I don’t know if I could have found a more mismatched and discordant pair of movies in the Blockbuster. We started with the feel good Oscar-winner Driving Miss Daisy, and watched the racial tensions slowly ease between Hoke and Daisy and Boolie. We were wiping tears from our eyes in the last tender scene as Hoke fed Miss Daisy some pumpkin pie in the nursing home cafeteria. Then we moved from the genteel old south to the riot-threatened streets of New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, and watched the racial tensions quickly escalate between Mookie and Vito and Pino. It was no tear-jerker. Whereas the first movie was kid-friendly, getting by with a couple of damns in the dialogue, Spike Lee punctuated his offering with no less than 63 f-bombs and 27 shits to go along with a few damns and gds. The respective musical soundtracks didn’t leave us guessing how the film-makers wanted us to feel, either, with Dreamworks composer Hans Zimmer’s orchestra contrasting Radio Raheem’s boom box blaring out Public Enemy’s call to Fight the Power. At the end of the night, we had a clear understanding of the distance between the blessing of humanity’s capacity for reconciliation, and the cursing of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction.
Whereas it took us four hours or so to complete this cinematic cycle of blessing and cursing, it took Jesus only 7 short verses to make the same jolting journey. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ beatitudes and his woe-attitudes, his sets of blessings and cursings, are separated by 18 chapters. Luke decides to hear them all in one sitting. The hungry and hurt, the poor and persecuted, are among the blessed, while the full and the comfortable, the rich and powerful, are among the cursed. Note that Luke makes another change from Matthew here – it is not simply the poor in spirit who are blessed, but the poor. Jesus goes from a Dreamworks soundtrack designed to make the marginalized aware of God’s reconciling presence in their lives, to a shocking boom box blaring out fight the powers that be at the top of his lungs (the Greek word for woe, ouai, was onomatopoeiac, meant to sound like an eagle screeching in your ears, with at least as much effect as a full-throated f-bomb). Jesus’ cussing torpedoed the people’s hard-shelled sense of meritocracy, which said that rich folks must be rich because God has blessed their hard work, while poor people must be poor because God has cursed their laziness. Getting into Jeremiah Wright mode, Jesus begins yelling his contradictory understanding of God’s work in the world: God damn the rich (a fairly accurate paraphrase of ouai humin tois plousiois).
One of the recurring failures of the church at large, ever since Constantine institutionalized it as the imperial faith, has been to completely turn Jesus’ teaching on its head, to read his cursings as blessing and his blessing as cursing, to re-baptize the cultural values of meritocracy and retributive justice and a celebration of concentrated wealth. You are about as likely to see a dedicated deacon from the privileged classes sitting down with his family in front of the flat screen, Goobers and Raisinettes in hand, to enjoy an evening of Do the Right Thing, as you are having this same deacon instill in his children Jesus’ literal teaching that the wealthy of this world are cursed by God. Instead, the culture of civil religion has cursed Jesus’ teachings of redistributive economics with the dreaded label of socialism. It has cursed his teaching of transformative peacemaking in the face of violence with the dreaded label of weakness. It’s high time we get back to the basics of Jesus’ script and remember that the dreamworks of blessing are orchestrated on the margins of our world, among the poor, and that the real public enemy is found in the accursed addictions of materialism and greed.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.