All Saints' Day: Facing Death (Matthew 5:1-12)
by Greg Carey
"Administration officials have repeatedly assured Americans that they were prepared for Ebola. Less than two weeks ago here at the White House, they insisted they knew how to stop this virus in its tracks. But so far, the virus appears to be outrunning the government. "
So began Scott Horsley's report from the White House, one of three separate stories NPR's news show All Things Considered devoted to Ebola on Wednesday, October 16. According to yet another report, a recent Harvard School of Public Health survey finds that 40 percent of Americans feel "at risk" of contracting the disease.
We have Ebola on the brain.
_ Bishop Kevin Farrell comments on giving shelter to potential Ebola victims. _
Several of my friends expressed alarm when the first Ebola patient flew to the United States for treatment. Now we find that not one but two Dallas nurses have contracted Ebola, likely because their hospital did not adopt proper Ebola protocols. Americans know that their medical system is far better equipped to prevent an Ebola outbreak than are those in West Africa. We know our system is better prepared to offer effective treatment. But the appearance of multiple cases, one involving a nurse who took a commercial flight while possibly contagious, has people concerned. When a key public health expert says, "It's a learning process, and . . . our confidence in the hospitals was ill-founded," the rest of us might get a little nervous.
Amid so much anxiety, we turn to All Saints' Day in the church's calendar. All Saints' Day usually recalls our communion with of our spiritual ancestors throughout the centuries, celebrating our unity with saints as far away as North Africa in the fourth century and as close as our deceased relatives. But All Saints' Day also reminds us of our bond with all believers in the here and now. That includes many of the more than 4500 who have died from Ebola already outside the United States, and it includes the tens of thousands who soon will contract Ebola every week if the international community does not produce a more robust response. Jim Wallis reminds us that Ebola is "an inequality crisis," more deadly among the have-not nations than among the haves. How does All Saints' Day speak to our relationship to those who are more vulnerable than we are?
_ A look at what faith communities can do about best practices around Ebola. _
Enter Jesus to mess things up.
On All Saints' Day we read the Beatitudes, Jesus' declaration of blessing to his would-be disciples (Matthew 5:1-12). Blessing involves God's presence and favor.
These blessings begin with four groups of people no one wants to join. We remind ourselves that Jesus' audiences lived tough lives. Poverty was normal, and lives were short. The "poor in spirit" suffer destitution that grinds people down; "those who mourn" grieve because they encounter suffering at every turn; "the meek" are those without power, and people "hunger and thirst for righteousness" when true justice is scarce. While we in the United States are rallying to protect ourselves, Jesus announces that God is also at work in West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak has wrought grief and terror.
Jesus' next four blessings apply to people who live the values he proclaims: the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer persecution for the cause of justice. (The Greek and Hebrew words we often translate in terms of "righteousness" ordinarily refer to uprightness or justice.) God also dwells with persons who commit everything to the cause of mercy and peace. Think of the volunteers for Doctors Without Borders, whose personnel in West Africa has grown from 650 at the beginning of August to 3,000 right now: Jesus pronounces God's blessing upon them as well as upon the communities they serve.
According to sociologist Rodney Stark, early Christianity gained notoriety for its adherents' commitment to care for the sick during the devastating epidemics that ravaged the Roman Empire, on occasion decimating as much as a third of the population. By providing basic nursing care to one another, Stark speculates, the Christians achieved higher survival rates than did the general population. But Christians also earned a reputation for love and courage that won them both admiration and converts.
Our current Ebola scare confronts us with an ugly fact. In the United States we possess the world's richest resources for medical research. But Ebola hasn't been "our" problem until just now, and we haven't invested nearly as heavily in it as we have toward other medical concerns. The Beatitudes remind us that God's blessing dwells among those who suffer - and among those who offer help to the suffering. I am not suggesting that Ebola counts as a blessing: of course not! I am suggesting that God is present and active where and when people suffer. Moreover, God calls us to active involvement on behalf of those who suffer. The Beatitudes reject a selfish "America-first" response to Ebola. Instead, these blessings call us to extend our resources and join in the work God is already doing in West Africa.
Bible Study Questions
1. Many Christians have understood the Beatitudes as a set of moral requirements. This week's commentary treats them as an announcement of God's blessing. Which interpretation do you find more compelling?
2. This week's commentary emphasizes the importance of translation. This week's commentary understands terms like "poor in spirit," "those who mourn," "gentle," and "hunger and thirst for righteousness" in terms of social standing as much as spiritual disposition. Do you think Jesus was blessing people who possessed particular spiritual characteristics, or was he blessing people who live outside the protections of privilege?
3. In your opinion, what counts as true blessedness?
For Further Reading
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.
Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. New York: HarperOne, 1997.
Wallis, Jim. "Ebola is an Inequality Crisis." Huffington Post, October 10, 2014.
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