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From Either-Or to Both-And

Guest essay by Deborah Core. Deborah Core is a professor in the English Department at Eastern Kentucky University. A Roman Catholic, she holds a degree from Lexington Theological Seminary and is the author of The Seminary Student Writes.

For Sunday February 11, 2007

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
           Jeremiah 17:5–10
           Psalm 1
           1 Corinthians 15:12–20
           Luke 6:17–26

The Beatitudes.
The Beatitudes.

           Studying introductory logic as a beginning college student many years ago, I learned to be suspicious of what was called the "either-or fallacy." Arguments, I learned, were best phrased with a nuanced sense of possibility of outcome. Small wonder, then, that today’s readings take me aback: all three present the hearer with those supposedly invalid, fallacious statements. It’s either-or, this or that, us or them!

           Jeremiah’s prophecies come at one of the hardest times in ancient Israel’s troubled story, just before and after the fall of the Southern Kingdom to Babylon, and the exile that followed. Jeremiah, unique among the prophets, is told not to marry or have children. He is put in a position of unique isolation, and the word he receives is for everything to be entirely centered on God: indeed, a curse is on those who trust mortals or lean for support on humankind (17:5)! On the one side is God’s way: following God, one is blessed, like a green tree bearing fruit (17:8). The dichotomy is stark and crystal clear. Jeremiah’s isolation comes about due to the sins of the people and the oncoming punishment. Thus his name becomes synonymous with a bitter rant, a "jeremiad." And indeed, what could be more bitter than isolating yourself, believing that the human heart is "deceitful above all things" (v. 9)?

           Our second reading, 1 Cor. 15:12–20, also speaks to separation. St. Paul eloquently reminds the Corinthians—whose hold on the gospel often seems so tentative—that they must believe in the resurrected Christ, the heart of the gospel. If they don’t, if they put themselves outside of this essential teaching, they (and all converts) are "utterly lost" (v. 18) and "most to be pitied" (v. 19). But, he argues as the letter continues, "Thanks be to God! He gives us victory through Our Lord Christ Jesus" (v. 57).

           In today’s reading from Luke, we hear the beloved Beatitudes. Early in Jesus’s ministry, the people have come to be "healed" (6:20); then they hear a sermon that begins a spiritual rather than a physical healing of four areas: need, hunger, grief, and shame. These are followed by the promise of "woe" to those who are now rich, well fed, laughing, and respected. As the Oxford Study Bible points out, the "warnings have been raised to an eschatological threat." It is Terror Level Orange, as our federal government might put it—time to be watchful, and make some changes for those who feel safe for the moment. How do we read these warnings and this sharp "have and have-not" division? And how can we best understand these statements as moral guides? Some of them seem to be out of our control—is it really that bad if I am "laughing" now? What does all this mean?

           Perhaps one answer lies in the context. As the first verse tells us, Jesus is a hot commodity at this stage of his ministry. He’s announced his mission to the whole synagogue (4:18–21: "Today in your hearing this text has come true"), escaped their wrath, and begun his ministry of healing: lepers, Peter’s mother-in-law, the paralytic, the man with the withered arm. No one is exempt from his scandalous love. Why wouldn’t the crowds press in on him? Everyone has an ache or a pain, a sore back, a frightening lump. And he cures them all.

           But he is more than a miraculous doctor. He calls sinners to repent, and calls them to break down the isolation of their individual status. Although the beatitudes appear to divide the world into two camps, the blessed and the woeful, in fact they do the opposite, reminding us that all conditions are only temporary—the now-woeful will be blessed, and the now-fortunate will eventually be woeful. In fact, we are one community of the human condition. To become followers of Jesus, to repent, the rich must—shocking!—not just share their good fortune, but become not-rich, take their place alongside the rest! The happy must erase the borders of their contentment and join the grieving. In other words, the true, deep listeners of the Christ must become one community. In fact, "either-or" becomes "both-and." For St. Paul, the breathless building of "if" statements must lead to the community’s rejection of wrong doctrine and to his ringing "Thanks be to God!"


           Jeremiah is harder. Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk describes the prophet as a "necessary other" who stands outside, and Jeremiah as a good voice responding to our violent world today—he is human and anguished. His writing strikes the apocalyptic note that comes only in the worst of times. We don’t want to hear his either-or, his anguish, his rejection of the human. After all, are we that bad? If so, why prophesy to us? Perhaps the answer to Jeremiah’s either-or lies in the very desperation of the times: how many of us, to tell the truth, pray most, or only, when all else seems lost, when the best of our human agency has left us bereft? When God only is left to us, we find out who God is for us, and for Jeremiah that God is utterly transformative, greening the deserts of our lives and making us fruitful in ways that no human comfort can.

           Like many people, I drive a car that has some extra "features" I don’t fully understand. One of them is a little screen over the rear-view mirror that gives me messages: "Car door open," or "Left rear tire low," or "Turn signal on" (the latter with a helpful diagram to show which signal is on). For the past few days, my little screen has said simply,"Perform Service." Now, I’ve quite recently had the oil changed, tires rotated, antifreeze replaced, brakes and alignment checked. What can the car want from me? "Perform service": maybe I should have a mass said in the front seat! But maybe the car is giving me a gentle reminder of what we’re all here for. As Wordsworth put it, those "little, unremembered acts of kindness and of love," acts that help me move from my blessedness into easing the woes of others, doing what I can to bring fruitfulness into others’ desert, living compassionately in the Kingdom.

For further reflection

*When in my life have I felt that my fellow human beings had "deceitful hearts?" How did God comfort and sustain me in this desert?
*Where in my life am I among those currently "blessed" with goods and personal joys? How am I being called to share those blessings?
*What does it mean to me to believe the gospel, the good news, that Christ was truly raised from the dead?
* For further reading see R. Alan Culpepper, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX; Loretta Dornisch, A Woman Reads the Gospel of Luke; and Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk.

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