Do You See this Woman?
As I hope many of you will remember, a few years ago an off-duty police officer named Amber Guyger stumbled into her apartment to find a young black man named Botham Jean sitting on her couch. She panicked, drew her weapon and shot him, killing him on the spot. Only to realize with terror that she had stumbled not into her own apartment but into his. She had found him sitting not her couch, but his own. At her trial, after (rightly) being found guilty of murder, the judge allowed Botham's 18 year old brother Brandt to offer a statement of the impact of the loss.
You can look it up on YouTube. He sits there with no notes, stumbling a little:
I don't want to say twice or for the hundredth time what you or how much you've taken from us. I think you know that. But I just... I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past. Each and every one of us may have done something that we're not supposed to do. If you truly are sorry...I don't speak for anyone else... I can speak for myself: I forgive you.
And I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you... I love you, just like anyone else. I'm not going to say I hope you rot and die just like my brother did. I personally want the best for you... I want the best for you. Because I know that's exactly what Botham would want... And the best would be give your life to Christ. I'm not going to say anything else. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing... that Botham would want you to do.
Again, I love you as a person, and I don't wish anything bad on you. I don't know if this is possible, but [here he turned to the judge] can I give her a hug please? Please?
And he embraced her.
How does one live the good life? We all want the good life, we pursue the good life and can't help but pursue some vision of it. But what makes the good life? Brandt Jean repeatedly says, "I want the best for you." The good life. But to say it in that moment required a way of seeing the world that was, I'll confess, not always appreciated by some of the commentary on that scene. The judge in the room, herself a Christian and black woman, was asked by Ms. Guyger after everything was over, "Do you think God will forgive me?" And she said "yes," giving her a Bible and an embrace as well.
Some (especially on that noble forum of honorable debate called social media) despised the move. It betrayed Botham's life, betrayed the suffering of being black in America, betrayed many things. And I see the complexity: the role of the black man or woman is to forgive the aggression or violence of the white man or woman. Still, I can't help but note the strangeness of a day when some will scorn a young Christian man forgiving those who wronged him (like Jesus says here). But maybe it is helpful to see this, too, as counter-cultural.
I was drawn to these moments while thinking on this first lengthy teaching of Jesus in Luke's Gospel. Like he did with John the Baptist earlier in the book, Luke gives a kind of summary, condensing and summarizing much of Jesus' teaching. You can find another form of the same kinds of things in Matthew's telling of the story of Jesus. Jesus was a traveling teacher and preacher, and if anything has ever been true of traveling teachers in any era, it is that they repeat themselves. Often a lot. And for good reason: the message could not be heard if you did not say it again in the various places. Jesus traveled all over Israel, in synagogues and fields, hills and plains. And everywhere he went he taught. Luke gives us a summary.
And that summary is all about the good life: I want what is best for you. We have the word "blessed are the poor," but "blessed" is a part of that dialect of pious English, living there with words like "fellowship," or "holy," "gospel," or even "sin." They are great words, but you probably won't hear them much outside of Christian circles. The word "blessed" stands out because usually we think of it in terms of a kind of prosperity. God has made me to prosper. You know the #blessed idea: look how wonderful my family is, how beautiful and successful my children, the great new car, the new job, the nice vacation... #blessed. I'm being a little harsh; there is some truth in that. But I have some personal animosity towards the idea because we have lived through a lot of deep darkness and to imagine that kind of stuff (good as it might be sometimes) to constitute being "blessed" left us far outside the circle.
Jesus is talking about the good life here—that's what "blessed" here really means. Those who participate in the good life. So the question: who is living the good life? And you can see that we don't really believe Jesus. All the things that tend to be associated with the good life, whether in commercials or in the #blessed posts seems very nearly to be what Jesus calls "woe"—a way of condemning, of being excluded from the good life. Did you notice how Jesus says the opposite of the #blessed trend: woe to the rich; woe to the laughing; woe to the satisfied, or those who have a good reputation or social honor.
Jesus inverts what we have all experienced. We all know the cool kids motif from junior high; some of us are maybe experiencing it now: you have the the socially powerful circle, the popular, the happy, the honored. Most of us were left out of those circles in junior high or high school; or I imagine you knew, even when part of them, how passing it was and the constant fear of losing that place. We know how fleeting and unfulfilling, yet that's the good life we still strive to grasp as adults.
Even churches, regardless of Jesus' sayings, sometimes construe the good life in just the ways that Jesus describes the "woes." We can project the good life: God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and self-sufficient. We project it even when we don't mean to, I think.
Jesus wants us to live the good life. "I want the best for you," like Brandt Jean said. But we have a hard time believing him because look at who he says is living the good life:
The poor. He doesn't mean "those who know their sin, their spiritual poverty." Not primarily, at least. He means the poor. Those without many options in the world; the neglected or marginalized. Those who face the world and know themselves impotent, at the mercy of others. He means the poor. They are living the good life.
The weeping. He doesn't mean "weeping over their sin in secret." He means those who are living in the kind of darkness many of us have known. The one who longs for comfort, and we long for it only when we don't have it. That is the moment he's speaking, the moment (or days, or years) before finding the comfort. They are living the good life.
The hated, the excluded (those kicked out of the synagogue, but more widely too). Those who have their reputations dragged through the mud because they are following Jesus. It was not (and now again is no longer) a socially honorable thing to follow Jesus. In the first century it meant you were, depending on the circles, unenlightened, anti-intellectual, prudish, or even bigotted. In our day it can mean... well, a lot of the same things.
Luke knew firsthand that it cost a lot in that world to follow Jesus. I imagine he had his friend Paul much on his mind when he started putting this teaching into this story. Paul had lost everything, from social honor to his health. Imprisoned, excluded, reviled, hated, often hungry. It was hard to live following Jesus. And because God exists and cares for his children, it was the good life.
As so often, an artist might be able to help us here. A contemporary American, Laura James, painted a large canvas of the more famous set of "blesseds" from Matthew's Gospel. Each line of those who are blessed, those living the good life, receives one portrait, all the way around the painting with the centerpiece a large image of Jesus preaching. But in James' painting she has used classic Ethiopian styles of Christian icons to paint scenes of the experiences of slavery in the American south. Each picture all the way around: the terror and impotence in the journey of a slaveship: "blessed are the poor... for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The next scene: a lynching with other slaves looking on helpless. "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
A slave mother with children and an empty table: "Blessed are they who hunger..."
And at the center we see Jesus preaching, but surrounded by a large number of slaves standing in groups in their slavery, listening to him, every one of them with their eyes fixed on Jesus as he tells them, "Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven. You are the salt of the earth.... You are the light of the world..."
Tell me: in those years and the midst of all those terrors, who really participated in the good life? The wealthy who made their money on such things? The ones whose tables were full? The ones with social honor? Or those who were the poor, hungry, and weeping, eyes fixed on Jesus? I think Jesus wants us to see the world like Laura James paints it. And to see ourselves that way. (She calls the painting, "A Sermon to Our Ancestors"—and is right.)
If the life we see is all that matters, then nothing of what Jesus says is true. One problem with so much of the materialist view of the world—where the stuff around us, the matter of the universe, is all that exists—is that it provides me no good reason to dismiss Laura James (and Jesus) on this point. Why not say that actually the slaveowners did live the good life. All of their use of religion to justify their own power and abuses, the buying and selling of other humans allowed them to flourish. They were wealthier, had full tables, had good reputations in their own lifetimes.
And the notion that I should care one whit for what people think of me after I die (on this view of the world) is, to me at least, a hard sell. I won't exist, so literally I could not care less. But I think we all know that's not right. We at least want what Jesus says here to be true; we want those slaves in the painting to be the ones to whom Jesus' words came.
God caring for his children; our living (even hungry, poor, or weeping) as safe in God's hands. That is the good life.
Why can Brandt Jean, speaking only for himself, offer forgiveness to the killer of his own dear brother? Because he sees more in the world than the pursuit of money, laughter, and honor. He sees God, and all things in relation to God. He does not have to enter judgment; does not need to condemn. He quite literally blessed the one who cursed him; gave to one who took from him, with no expectation of getting anything back. He loved his enemy. And knew himself, for all the weeping, to be living the good life. The good life now, which will be seen and enjoyed at its full at the end, when God pulls back the curtain and sets the world right.
This is a hard teaching, I know. I fear it sometimes. Forgiveness is hard; not living in judgment of others is hard; not condemning others is hard. We like to wrap ourselves in the cozy warmth of judging others. Jesus doesn't say it's easy. He doesn't pretend forgiveness is like a light switch and you just have to walk over and turn it on. Forgiveness is hard, and can come with a lot of weeping, and a lot of anger, and a lot of "wash, rinse, repeat."
It's hard with our money. So much of our love of money, of piling up food and resources, of protecting our reputations rises out of fear. "Then I'll finally be safe." How awful to be told at the end of all our chasing, "You have received your reward in full." It is hard to believe that we are safe in the hands of God, that we do not need to fear poverty, hunger, or sorrows. We're going to meet a wealthy young ruler, a man perfectly described by the "woes" that we pursue ourselves, who could have treasure in heaven if he sold the things of this world for the poor. And he couldn't do it. We all know why. I don't believe that I will be safe in God's hands without these things.
But Jesus is one of those rare teachers whose life matched his teaching. If you are skeptical about Christianity because we sometimes don't believe Jesus, you are right about that. We want to; we try; and we sometimes don't. But being a Christian is not following us, it is following Jesus Christ. If you're skeptical about all this stuff, then look through all the stories of Jesus and you will find he lived his life this way. He was poor, living off the charity of others; he wept; he was disgraced, hated, and wronged. He was condemned, abused, and even killed. And he forgave. He gave entirely, without expectation of getting back.
Jesus asks his disciples to walk a hard, long road; a road he walked and knows it is hard and long. I don't know how to do it sometimes. There are always ways of complicating decisions, and always temptations to complicate it for my benefit. But I know when I look at Laura James' painting that I really do believe Jesus about the good life; I just need him to help my unbelief.
One last thing: it also means our community (our church) should be shaped by this. You who are poor (and I think there are some here), who sometimes know hunger; those of you who weep and long to be comforted (I know there are some here): Jesus is preaching to you. "A sermon for our ancestors" also gets to be for us. We don't have to pretend to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. We can afford to be poor, hungry, weeping; we can afford to honor the poor, hungry, and weeping among us. We don't have to be pretty, put together, healthy, wealthy, or even wise. We can be a mess. We know something more of the good life than these things. At least, at our best we know something more.
People used to talk more openly about deathbeds, and the common advice was to live now the way you will wish you had lived when you are at that moment. I don't think many die (I've not seen it) trying to grasp more money or power, though some maybe try to grasp social standing even at the end, I don't know. I appreciate that way of remembering the good life, though it's not quite what Jesus is saying here. What Jesus is saying here is not live how you will wish you had done, true as that is. But live (and live together) as those who see the world differently now; as those who know that God cares for his people, and know the freedom it gives. Free to forgive, however hard; free to let God judge and condemn if that need be; free to be poor, to be hungry, to give ourselves away. Free to be like Jesus.