The level place of grace

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Gospel: Luke 6: 17-26

(12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.)

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.

18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
   for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
   for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
   for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you [cast out your name as evil] on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
   for you have received your consolation.
25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
   for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
   for you will mourn and weep.

26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

 To undergo grace is not possess some untroubled existence— as though we could hold on to such a thing! It is to walk fearfully but with growing confidence into freedom and release. It is to touch the Christ and find that the healing of fear begins.

In 1988 we were about to starve. We were subsisting upon Commonwealth unemployment benefits, but did not have enough money to survive. I could see what was coming, and went to a state community welfare office. The social worker, whose name I still remember, said he could not help pay my electricity bill. There was no facility for that. However, he made sure I knew about rent relief, and helped me set that up. He checked we had enough to eat for the next few days. He made sure that I understood how to negotiate payment by instalment of utility bills like phone and power. And then he said,

This is how you survive: you will have enough money to pay the utility bills and your rent. That's all you need to pay. You can walk down here every day, if it comes to that, and I can give you money to buy food for the day.

He paused.

You blokes have been through hell. I suggest you should go through the motions of filling out your job search applications, but actually just sit down for at least six weeks and get healthy. Take a rest. You need it. We'll get you through this.

Those days are a distant memory in Australia, as anyone unfortunate enough to be in the clutches of that malaprop  Newstart well knows. Newstart is the misemployment of a word. To be on Newstart is not a sign of misfortune; it is a signal, and permission, for deserved punishment. Newstart payments have not increased in any real sense since 1994. If Newstart were increased merely to the Poverty Line— and that's no comfortable place, recipients would receive an immediate $150-per-week increase.

Since 1988, Australia has changed from a country with hardworking poor and with folk suffering misfortune, to become much more a nation which resents the ptôchoi, or accursed ones that we wish we could get rid of.

This observation lies within the heart of the gospel reading for this week, and I begin to explain this with an introduction to two words for poor in the New Testament. These are penês (πένης ) and ptôchos (πτωχός).

Jerome Neyrey says

Dictionaries translate penês as "the poor man" (e.g., BAGD 642), which misses the root meaning penomai, "to work hard." Penês refers to a person who does manual labor, and so is contrasted with plousios, a member of the landed class who does not work (Hauck 1967b: 887). [This article is worth reading!]

The poor referred to in Luke 6 are not penês (πένης). They are ptôchos (πτωχός). Neyrey says

A ptôchos, however, is a person reduced to begging, that is, someone who is destitute of all resources (Hauck 1967b: 886-87; Hands 62-63). One gives alms to a ptôchos. A penês, who has little wealth yet has "sufficiency," is not called "poor." In contrast, the ptôchos, who lacks sufficiency and most other things, such as social standing, is "poor" (see Aristophanes, Plutus 535-54).

Rich and poor is not only about money. It is about honour, connection, and all the other aspects of social standing. I note that people like Neyrey and also Malina and Rohrbaugh in their Social Science Commentary are careful to talk about the place of honour in Jesus' time, but when it comes to the place of money and poverty and honour, I am not sure that there is a so much difference between our cultures.

In the city, in Rundle Mall, we see the buskers, who are penês, and the artists and others who work for a pittance at some office job, or as a barista, and who barely survive. In the next street down, Grenfell Street where,  apparently, those same often penês business workers are more generous than the shoppers of Rundle Mall, we see the ptôchos, the beggars sitting in the doorways, reduced to begging, and with nowhere else to go. It could be, of course, that the Rundle Mall management makes sure the beggars are pushed out because they lower the tone of the place; that is, they give the lie to our claim to be an egalitarian and fair society. To be ptôchos is truly to be in an accursed place. Nowhere is safe: "I am sleeping through the day (used to work night shifts so that’s easy) so that I am awake at night and don’t get robbed or worse."

How do we describe a society in which this is happening? We live under a system of goodness. We are good Australians, or not, and this assumption underlies just about every social pronouncement governments make, especially when it comes to welfare. James Alison brings this into a frightening focus by quoting Paul in Galatians 3:10

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’

Paul is referring to the Mosaic law, of course, but the analysis is really of the law; that is, the ruling ethos, of any human culture, including ours, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) Here's how Alison explains Paul in detail.  I think he is showing us one of the central insights which allow us to live under grace and near to the kingdom of God.

[Paul] quotes [Galatians 3:10] so as to show that because it curses those who don't obey the law the text of the law itself shows that it is part of a system of goodness which divides between good and bad, and that's even those who uphold it, who are apparently blessed by it, are in fact dwelling in the sphere of a curse. In other words he is quoting the words in a way that stands back from them and says: 'Look at what this sentence gives away about the sort of system of which it is an integral part.' ...

This is a description of any cultural system:  a culture is a system "which divides between good and bad." He continues:

If the law curses somebody, then it creates a world of good and bad, and this means that the 'good' in that system is fatally dependent on the 'bad.' If I rely for my goodness, holding onto, and obeying, everything in the system, then that means my goodness is 'over against' someone else's badness, and thus, being dependent on it, is part of it.

We become like those we define ourselves over against; indeed, my own experience has been to find that, under the surface, I am often more like those I determined not to be like than I am different from them.

Furthermore it means that for as long as I am beholden to the system of goodness, I will never in fact be able to obey the commandment which all agree to be a simple summation of the whole law: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself', because the law as a system of goodness will prevent me from recognising the neighbour who is as myself and who needs loving, because often enough it will hide that neighbour under the veil of being a 'cursed other'. In other words, the lived anthropological effect of the system of goodness is, in practice, that of nullifying the goodness towards which the commandment points. (James Alison Undergoing God pp201)

No wonder some of the poorest and most marginalised within our community are so bitter towards aboriginal people, immigrants, and those who are unemployed, instead of finding common ground and making an alliance with them! They are frantically seeking to divert the finger of the crowd which seeks a scapegoat for our ills as a society, and which seeks to channel and diminish the rage we know to be building among us. If not Muslims, who shall we blame for the disaster which is coming upon us? What about the poor?

Let us bring this understanding of Galatians 3 to Luke and ask, "Who is a prophet?"  The prophet is not the one who does some magical foretelling of the future, but the one who sees clearly what is happening now, and where it is leading us. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be prophetic, like him, and to see what is happening. We are called to see where our way of being Australian and of being human, is leading us. And we are called to point to that other way he calls Kingdom of God, which is very similar to what John called Eternal Life, and very similar to what Paul would call living under Grace.

To prove to be a false prophet is to be in a truly terrible place.

In Luke 6, Jesus has come down from the mountain. (6:11) This is not an historical and geographical point. Luke is interested in meaning, not geography. It means Jesus comes from the place nearer to God, and the place where the disciples are chosen. It is a continuation of Luke's theme of showing Jesus' connection to God, a reading entirely suitable for the sixth Sunday of Epiphany. But it says he comes to a 'level place', so that this seems not to be the "sermon on the mount" which we call the somewhat similar teaching from Matthew. What does the description "a level place" signify? Steve Thomason suggests it is an image of God coming down from on high to be level with us. But he illustrates the page where he says this with images drawn from Isaiah, doodles of the rough places being made smooth, and the valleys being filled. These are the words John the Baptist used to introduce Jesus and his significance for the world.

4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’ (Luke 3:4-6)

Those images sketched out by Thomason suggest to me that Luke is saying, "This is Jesus teaching us the way, the culture, of the level place, the place made smooth and the paths made straight. This is the teaching to listen to."

And then we see a most interesting and sobering parallelism in the text of blessings and woes. Remember that Jesus is saying these words to his disciples, to us. The rich of the text are the rich us, not some convenient 'other' and 'bad' rich people.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said

‘Blessed are you who are poor, [πτωχοί] for yours is the kingdom of God.


24 ‘But woe to you who are rich, [οῖς πλουσίοις] for you have received your consolation.

 21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.    25 ‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
 ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.    ‘Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
 22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you [cast out your name as evil] on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven;    26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you,
 for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.    for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

He looks up:  Despite his standing on a level place, this phrase implies that the Rabbi is seated and teaching. Blessed are the ptôchoi, the ones who have nowhere to go, who have no connection. Are we ptôchos in our society, or are we numbered among οῖς πλουσίοις, the rich? Plousiois is where we get the word plutocrat, so of course we want to say we are not among them. But Jesus gives us only two options: plousios and ptôchos. In which direction are we travelling, and which way of being is our aspiration?

We see a great reversal of culture here. The ptôchos are blessed; theirs is the kingdom. The rich have already received all they will receive.

There is more implied in this opposition of blessings and woes:

Makarios [blessed] and ouai [woe], are part of the word field of "honor and shame."

In the social context of the time, as now, in Australia,

'poor' [ptôchos] means someone who cannot maintain his or her status and so suffers loss of honour as well as economic hardship... (Neyrey)

They become a beggar, a nobody. No wonder the disciples asked who sinned, the blind man or his parents, because to be ptôchos is an accursed place to be. (John 9)

But the level place, the place where the kingdom is coming true, or as Jesus often put it, is at hand, is where, in fact, the ptôchoi are the ones who are truly honoured. They are the ones who have connections. In society, to be ptôchoi and dishonoured meant to lose all the connections with society which make life liveable. It meant to be destitute, accursed, and... in-valid; look at the etymology obvious within this word which we still use for the sick.

Do you see that those who are with Jesus in the level— or should that be, levelled— place are the in-valid? Not merely the people who have a fever, like Peter's mother-in-law, although that is bad enough because she cannot fill her obligations within the house, but people who were troubled with unclean spirits. Unclean spirits are the description of the time for the scarring and trauma which comes simply from being human. Unclean spirits are the intractable kind illness.  I am still today occasionally completely undone by my childhood trauma, and even in my better times always needing to avoid being driven by it. But the levelled place is not only for my small scars, but for folk with BPD, for example, where the trauma is always more or less writ large, always close by, threatening to invalidate them all over again.

The levelled place is the place which welcomes and values and honours even the person with BPD, whereas the culture which invalidates them has only one use for them; blame and sacrifice. They become 'the bad.' Which, of course, means the whole culture is shaped by "intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety" (symptoms of BPD) because the culture works by being over against that which is bad, and is therefore always defined and limited by the 'bad!'

The levelled place is meant to be us, living as Jesus lived. It is not some notional, disembodied healing by Jesus. You are the place and the occasion of my healing, and I am the place and occasion of yours.

We will notice that it is not only our own (as it were) 'bad' folk who are at the level place. The "great multitude of people [come] from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon." (6:17) Tyre and Sidon are among the enemies who threaten the existence of the nation. In Jeremiah 47:4, they are listed with the Philistines. You use Tyre and Sidon when you mean to indicate even the inclusion of the enemy in the levelled place of the kingdom, but when  it becomes a geographically implausible story to have people coming from Babylon and Egypt to listen to Jesus.  

In the levelled place, all the people are healed, made valid, and given a place to live; a place in which they can be. As a society, we are becoming less level. The gap between plousios and ptôchos is increasing, and the middle class, the penês, are being squeezed down into the ptôchos place.

Alison's work suggests to me that rich and poor, and especially the distance between them, are a measure of the 'in' and 'out' and the 'good' and 'bad' in our cultural system of exclusion. In other words, our country is becoming a system of greater exclusion and greater cursing. He says

We all know what power looks like: it looks like being strong enough not to be the place of the curse, but rather to put others in the place of the curse. Power is to do with winning.  (Alison Undergoing God, pp206)

What poverty means is to be removed from life. It is to be moved towards a kind of non-being, towards being in-valid-ated. The very poor can no longer participate is society.

Alison goes on to say, and he is speaking of the actions of Jesus,

But the sense of power behind entering the place of the curse is power unimaginably stronger than that, since it is the power to be peaceful and creative in the midst of non-being, which is a power no human has. The power to 'lose' voluntarily is the power of someone who is so much stronger than the winner as not even to be in rivalry with them, not even at the same level in any way, not over against them at all. (Ibid)

I think that the levelled place is to enter a kind of 'nonbeing' in the eyes our society. It is to walk away from what measures us, and numbers us, among the good. Which is terrifying because it may make us destitute.

There is one last quotation to hear:

systems of goodness are especially dangerous in a less obvious sense to the 'good' guys as well , since the 'good guys' are unlikely to perceive that, far from worshipping God, becoming dependent on God and being given their identity by God, who is not over against anything at all, they are in fact been given their identity by that violent 'over against' by which they build themselves up.  In other words, they are the ones most prone to become violent nihilists, thinking themselves servants of God. (Ibid  pp202) 

There is no tidy and comfortable ending to this post. Luke suggests to us that the place of being, of becoming, and of grace— the place where the kingdom is ours, is the place society sees and needs to be non-being, accursed, and evil. I seek to walk, fearfully, into this place, towards it, at least, because if the riches of life begin and end with my smartphone and its crappy internet connection, that is a poor consolation indeed.

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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