GOD IS ON OUR SIDE
At dawn it rained in Galilee. Dark clouds from Lebanon cloaked Esdraelon’s plains. Lightning, like arrows of fire, flashed through the sky and struck the crown of palm trees. Those were summer storms.... We were confined to our houses and patched the roof holes as we awaited the end of the interminable torrent....
It rained the whole morning. The drenched earth could no longer soak up anymore water. The clouds were all the more dispersed and posed greater fury...
A Man: I’ll be damned! Hailstones! Hailstones!
It was noontime when it cleared up. The marine crows reappeared and fluttered about the ash-colored lake.... All of us fishermen hastily went to shake the wet sails of our boats and stretch the dripping nets. As we left, we heard screams from the fields.... The women were running like crazy, lamenting and pulling out their hair. The men followed behind with bowed heads.
Man: What happened? Why are the women weeping? Who died?
A Woman: The wheat! The wheat is destroyed!
The farmers left their houses and rushed to the fields where the storm had destroyed the wheat due for harvest. The grain had been battered by the violent storm and was scattered on the ground.
A Woman: The wheat’s destroyed! The wheat’s destroyed!
Another Woman: There won’t be any bread for the poor this year!
The whole of Capernaum lamented the crop’s loss as though they were mourning a child’s death. The artisans, traders, fishermen and even prostitutes in Jasmine Street all sympathized with the farmers in the fields. If there was no harvest then no one would have anything to eat...
A Man: Damn this rain! What will become of us now?
A Woman: We shall all starve again and be at the mercy of the usurers, or beg on the streets!
Another Woman: Perhaps, even sell our souls to the devil!
Peter, James, Jesus and I were getting drenched among the ruined crops in the midst of those screams... Gradually, we managed to move away from the city. The farmers climbed the hill of the seven fountains and from there gazed at the vast flooded field that could pass for the lake of Tiberias...
A Woman: Ay, what sin have we committed to deserve such misfortune?
Another Woman: It’s gotta be the sins of many taken together, because if it’s not the rain it’s the drought, otherwise it’s the increase in taxes or a child getting sick... Be that as it may, we’re always the losers!
A Man: Look at the result of my labor for these past few months... everything’s lost... all ravaged...
Dammit... they can bury me on this land, land which is not even mine!
Old Woman: We die with the wheat crops... Oh God... help us!
Another Man: Why do you have to call on God for help? Leave Him alone in heaven ’cuz He’s too busy counting the stars.... God doesn’t care!
Woman: Let’s just accept our fate, my friend... Nothing can be done about it...
Man: Yes, let’s be resigned to our fate... But what if my children cry again for bread tomorrow?
Shall I tell them to accept this as our fate?
Old Woman: This is life, my son; the life of the poor. We simply bow our heads to accept everything that comes our way...
Man: Well, I can’t take this anymore – I’ve suffered all my life, do you hear? Year after year it’s always like this... Until when will this last?...
Jesus: Hey guys, look above you! Look up!
At that moment a rainbow appeared in the sky... Jesus was the first to see it....
Jesus: That is the Lord’s arch!... It is the sign of peace after the deluge!
Woman: Will you stop that silly talk, stranger!... There might be peace in heaven but on earth, all is hunger! Where there is starvation, there are tears and damnation!
Jesus: No, woman. The rain has ceased and so have the tears. Nothing can be solved by weeping and pulling one’s hair.
Old Woman: And what else can we do, huh? Before, we had very little; now, we’ve got nothing. Nothing’s left for us to do but weep!
Jesus: No, grandmother, we’ve got eyes to see the Messiah!
Man: Who’d you say it was? The Messiah? Ha! And where has this young man been hiding, that he doesn’t even show his face? Tell the Messiah to hurry up, because, with the way things have been goin’ for us, we might all be dead when we’re supposed to welcome him!
Jesus: But he’s comin’ soon! Look at the rainbow, brothers and sisters, God is coming down through it!... Our liberation is near!
The people were milling around us. Jesus was beside me, his naked feet were sunk deep in the mud and his beard was dripping wet...Up above, the rainbow crossed the purified air, bridging heaven and earth....
Jesus: Listen to me, my sisters and brothers: It rained so hard the whole night and day that we thought it would never cease.... This was what Noah thought after forty days of heavy rain. But it stopped, and he came out of the Ark. Likewise, this was what our ancestors in Egypt thought after four hundred years of suffering and subjugation, but they crossed the Red Sea and were freed. We have also spent four hundred years of oppression. The pharaohs have always crushed us to death like these wheat grains. We were ground into small bits and the flour that came out of our own sweat was made into bread that they ate. All this is over. God will wait no longer, and neither shall we!
Man: Hey, what is this idiot sayin’?..... Look, you... are you crazy or what?
Jesus: Neighbors! We have reason to rejoice, in spite of everything!
Old Woman: Are you mad, young man? Why the hell should we rejoice when we’ve lost everything?
Jesus: We have the Lord, grandmother. We still have Him. He’s on your side! He’s offered his Kingdom to us, understand? To us, who are starving, downtrodden, the losers; to all of us!
The people kept on shoving one another in order to hear what Jesus was saying. The women stopped weeping, squeezing their mud-stained and rain-drenched skirts to dry. The men shook their heads, cynical and sarcastic, but also drew closer to listen to Jesus....
Jesus: Yes, indeed, we have reason to rejoice! Happy are we, the poor, for ours is the Kingdom of God!
An old man wistfully supported his chin with his cane....
Old Man: I think you are playing a joke on us, young man. It’s misfortune and not joy to be poor. No one ever goes to the wake to congratulate the dead.
Jesus: Please listen to me, old man. God doesn’t commend you for being poor. He will commend you though, because you will cease to be such. This includes you and everyone else. A new world is about to begin! The Kingdom of God has come! For us who lament to see our sick and undernourished children, for us who wet the earth with our tears.... God’s joy shall be for us! Now, we hunger; but on the day of liberation, no one will be wanting in bread or wine. We shall soon eat and drink in His Kingdom... and that will be very soon... We, the hungry, shall receive God’s justice!
Woman: “Soon, soon”.... When will that be? ...In heaven perhaps... Yes, in the other life, because we shall all have perished of starvation!
Jesus: No, we shall have no need for food in the other life. This is for our time on earth... The Kingdom of God is coming to this world!...
Jesus leaned over and picked up some wet mounds of earth... His eyes sparkled as if he were holding a treasure in his hand...
Jesus: This earth belongs to us... the land, the wheat and the wine are God’s legacy to us, the humble!
Old Woman: Say whatever you like, my son. I’m eighty years old now and have yet to see a hairy frog or a poor person defeating a rich one.
Jesus: That we shall see, old woman; with our own eyes! Have faith. Happy are those whose eyes are pure, for they shall see the coming of the Kingdom on earth!
Some of the men squatted to hear him better. The sun began peeping behind the clouds and was reflected in the pools from the typhoon. Despite the havoc done to the crops, it seemed to us that not everything was lost....
Jesus: The Messiah is coming to level the earth. No longer will there be hills nor ravines. Nothing shall be high nor low. All shall be equal and be brothers and sisters. No one shall have more than the other. Happy are those who share what they have: God will share His Kingdom with them!
Woman: That’s what I have always been saying. Goodness!... If we were only less selfish we would have lived in peace and without such extreme anguish!
But that small group believes the world is all their own and we are what we are now, fighting for a handful of wheat grains while their barns are filled to the brim. Do you think this is right, stranger? Tell me.
Jesus: That’s why there can never be peace: because the wealthy’s barns are not shared with those who are always in need. Many talk of peace: their lips utter sweet and beautiful words yet they steal and kill with their own hands. They talk of peace yet are children of war. God commends not them but the true artisans of peace: those who work for justice, the children of God!
All: Good! Good!
Jesus: The rich are blind. The blind can’t see the rainbow’s radiance, much less our sufferings, simply because they refuse to see. What ambitious people!.... They shall be ruined when the time comes. Soon we shall hear them scream just as we have wailed now. They may be laughing now, but soon they shall weep and grieve in excruciating pain when the Lord empties their chests; the Messiah strips them of their rings and robes, starves them and swipes their money the way they did to their workers.... Yes, my companions, things will change, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
All: Good, that’s the way to speak!...
John: Beware, Jesus. There are so many people here. There will always be a squealer around. We will be accused of troublemaking and....
Jesus: Let them do what they want, John. My friends, when the powerful hate us, when they persecute us in every town and drag us to courts, ...we must rejoice too! That is always the fate of those who seek justice. Elijah and all the prophets were persecuted and that is why John is still in prison. This doesn’t matter though. God commends those who fearlessly speak and risk their lives to defend others. Yes my friends, let us proclaim all this to the world, for the peasants of Chorazim to hear, for Bethsaida’s artisans, for Tiberias’ fishermen and for the prostitutes of Magdala. Let the news spread throughout the valley for everyone to hear, from the fount of Dan to the arid lands of Beer-sheba. God is on our side! He is with us, the poor people; God is fighting on our side!
Jesus said this on the Mount of the Seven Fountains that faces the lakes near Capernaum.
The Beatitudes – one of the best known parts and adopted from the Gospel – best summarize the fundamental preachings and activities of Jesus: the proclamation of the Good News to the poor. The Beatitudes are not a collection of conduct norms (such as “we must” be poor, “we must” be merciful…). They are joyful news intended for the poor, the losers and the oppressed. In order to highlight this aspect of the Good News – which is very concrete – and not to reduce the Beatitudes into mere moralizing and abstraction, Jesus in this episode discourses on the Beatitudes in the concrete situation of hopelessness and pain, and that was when the peasants of Capernaum lost all their harvest.
The so-called “Mount of Beatitudes” or “the Mount of the Seven Fountains” is situated about three kilometers from Capernaum. Although it is of low altitude – about 100 meters – one can see the whole of Lake Galilee from its peak in an exceptionally breathtaking view. The Church of the Beatitudes was constructed there in 1937. It has eight walls in memory of the Eight Beatitudes as cited in the Gospel of Matthew. On various occasions they were adopted as a formula for consolation. Those who weep and suffer from hunger should not despair. God will wipe their tears, feed them and fill their hearts with joy.... up to the world beyond. If everything has been bleak for them on earth then their fate will change in the afterlife. Such adulteration of the Gospel departs from the false interpretation that the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaims to the poor is equivalent to the Kingdom of “the heavens,” as a kind of promise for the other life. The Gospel, however, is an historical message. If Jesus calls the poor blessed and tells them to rejoice, it is because they will cease to be poor when the Kingdom of Justice comes on earth. The Beatitudes are already an indication of God’s intervention. Hope is proclaimed that a change in history in favor of the oppressed is now under way. The Gospel is not a kind of resignation or consolation for the less privileged but a catalyst for commitment, a call to “hold high one’s head with the coming of the day of liberation.” (Lk 21:28).
Instead of saying: “Happy are you, the poor,” Jesus says: “Happy are we, the poor.” “We who weep, we who hunger...”. Jesus was poor, as poor and oppressed as the people of Capernaum to whom he addressed the Beatitudes. This is too easily forgotten, making Jesus some kind of a religious guru who “makes himself poor,” disguises himself, so that the poor will understand him better. This is his apostolate and gesture of divine condescension with the suffering people. Having this in mind, we distort not only a portion but the very essence of the Gospel. We misrepresent God’s plan who wished to reveal Himself concretely in the person of a humble peasant of Nazareth. In fact, up to this day, He continues to manifest Himself in the life and struggle of the poor.
There have been speculations on who these poor people were to whom Jesus addressed the Beatitudes. So much has been said about the “poor in spirit.” In Luke it says: happy are the poor, while in Matthew, it is: the poor in spirit. (In other translations, we have: Those who know how to be poor, those who opt to be poor). Surely, Luke’s tradition is the most original. Jesus addresses himself to those who actually have nothing, those who suffer hunger. This “spirit” which Matthew added later on is in line with the preachings of the prophets of the Old Testament, who often discoursed on the “humble in spirit,” the “downcast in spirit,” the “anawim” (the poor). The word “anawim,” a key word in biblical texts, corresponds with the unfortunate, the oppressed, the helpless, the hopeless men and women who rely on God’s mercy because they are rejected by the rich and powerful. Luke stresses the fact of the poor’s external oppression. Matthew, on the other hand, focuses on their spiritual need (which is always present in people suffering from external oppression). Matthew and Luke wrote for different readers. The Church addressed by Luke was generally composed of oppressed men and women within the powerful structure of the Roman empire: slaves and urban people of various social orientation exploited by the harsh conditions of life... Matthew catered to the Jewish Church which was still easy prey to influential thinking of the pharisees, like: Decent people are good and obey moral laws, etc. His “poor in spirit” are those who lack morality, the sinners, people of ill-repute... Notwithstanding this difference in nuances, Luke and Matthew successfully get across the prophetic message of Jesus: The Kingdom of God is His gift to the poor of this world. Although Matthew presents us eight Beatitudes and Luke only four (including his lamentations against the rich), the texts should not be misunderstood as an index handed to us by two different types of people. Both evangelists speak of one and the same reality: “Happy are the poor” and this sums up all the Beatitudes. Everything boils down to this prescription: Happy are the poor because God is on their side and they cease to be poor. They are not happy because of “their good comportment,” but because “they are poor.” The situation they are in, oppression and exploitation, has earned for themselves God’s sympathy. God prefers the poor not because they are “good” but because they are poor. This message of Jesus is absolutely revolutionary. Aside from saying that moral norms as criteria for God’s benevolence do not count, the message further states that God puts Himself in the context of historical conflicts: the side of people on the bottom of the ladder.
The meaning of “poverty” can be erroneous. In the Bible, poverty as a state of oppression is a scandalous condition because it is anti-life. Therefore it is against the will of God. Poverty must be rejected, fought against and eliminated. It is not fate but the consequence of human abuse of others. Christian attitude towards poverty must be that of God: reject it and show a preference for the poor. It is an option which does not end in mere denunciation and words of condemnation. The old Mosaic Laws were not mere words; they were social laws intended to avoid poverty and defend the poor. Every effort to fight and suppress poverty is therefore a step toward promoting the Kingdom of God even if those who are involved in it do not believe in God nor in Jesus.
Therefore, poverty should not be introduced as a Christian ideal. To opt for poverty – in present-day situations of injustice being experienced by various countries – becomes a Christian preference only when it is in solidarity with the poor in their struggle against poverty. Taken in another light, poverty shall be understood as “infancy” before the Lord: such as the attitude of humility, with no power, with no aspirations. This “poverty-infancy” tandem is in line with this biblical interpretation. However, it is obvious that a person who accumulates wealth and privilege at the expense of others shall never be poor in this sense if he or she does not first rid self of wealth and power.
(Mt 5:1-12; Lk 6:20-26)