Praise and thanksgiving pervaded Jesusí life. The poet Denise Levertov writes that without a passionate love of life and the poetry of praise we do not have the energy to help our world. So "sing awe," she urges. "Breathe out praise."2 William Morris once wrote: "I am tired of the fine art of unhappiness." In contrast, Jesus sang awe, breathed out praise.
There was his fourfold action which was his blessing at mealtime. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. The same fourfold action happened as he ate with friends, as he fed the multitude, at his last Passover meal with disciples, and in his resurrection appearances with disciples.
Do you remember his appearing Easter evening incognito to the two disciples along the road to Emmaus? They did not recognize him by his appearance, or as he explained scripture to them. But that night as they sat at table, he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them; and their eyes were opened and they knew who he was. Known by his gratitude.
"I thank you, Abba" was the systole and diastole of his heart. He gave thanks for the sun and the rain graciously given by God to all. He gave thanks for good food and the company of friends, for flying birds with their songs God stamped in their throats, for the wildflowers strewn across Galilean hillsides. "I thank you, God, Lord of the universe," he prayed as a good Jew, for the wheat which springs green from the earth and makes this bread, for the grapes full and sweet in the vine which provide wine to gladden our hearts.
We have been given too ascetic a picture of Jesus; he was not life-denying but life-affirming. Once he was chastised because he did not teach his disciples to fast as did John the Baptist and the Pharisees. Jesus said, "You donít fast when the bridegroom is present." Which means, " Yes, there is a time to fast, in time of sorrow and mourning, but now is a time to feast." He was called "a glutton and drunkard, friend of tax-collectors and sinners." A holy man should not enjoy the company of sinners; a holy man should not enjoy anything! This man is too happy! When the wedding feast ran out of wine and the host was miserable with embarrassment, Jesus turned water into wine, 180 gallons or so. We have no stingy God.
Jesus had his mission to save, but praise, too, was his mission. E. B. White once wrote:
Jesus came not just to save the world but also to savor it. If you do not love the world, and savor it, why would it be worth saving?
What is extraordinary about the prayer for today from Matthew 11 -- and I think it is as clear a glimpse we have of Jesus in the gospels -- is that it is a prayer of thanksgiving prayed in face of a baffling and crushing reversal of expectations.
Jesus had come to renew and reform his beloved Jewish faith, not to replace it:
Even at age twelve he was in the temple of Jerusalem astounding the teachers of Israel with "his understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:47).
Jesus might well have expected and hoped for the teachers and leaders of his nation to hear and join him in his renewal movement. But such did not happen. This prayer was prayed when what was happening was becoming obvious and humanly irreversible. The wise and learned were saying No, and the little ones of his day were saying Yes.
Jesus preached the drawing near of Godís kingdom, but such preaching was a threat to the religious, social and political status quo. As it is today. St. Augustine once prayed: "O God, make me chaste, but not yet!" -- a prayer with which we might identify. We are inclined to pray: O God, bring your kingdom -- your kingdom come -- but not yet!
We should not read into Jesusí prophetic program of renewal an anti-Jewish tone. What we have is the prophetic bias against established religion which hoards the blessings of God and turns the grace of God into sacraments to be carefully dispensed.
Jesus preached what John Dominic Crossan has termed in his arresting phrase "an unbrokered kingdom." The blessings of God are given freely to all people, good and bad, religious and nonreligious, a grace unbrokered by priest, temple, mosque or church who sometimes act as if they have Godís exclusive franchise of grace.
The religious leaders were threatened by Jesusí teaching of an unbrokered kingdom. The political leaders saw his teaching and popular following as destabilizing to the order of things. So the wise and learned were saying No to Jesus, blinded by their position, their privilege, their power. A Harvard degree, a seminary doctorate, a Stanford Ph.D. do not guarantee a good soul; nor do they automatically produce wisdom, compassion and good sense.
But simultaneously, there was this joyous Yes coming from those Jesus called the nepioi, the infants, babes, little ones. The Greek word sometimes refers to infants, other times to "little ones" in a broader sense: The weak, the poor, the simple, the unlearned, the needy.4
In the surprising ways of God, God was using nepioi to carry the gospel!
Jesus saw the unexpected turn: the No of the wise and powerful, the Yes of the poor and weak. He had to know what this meant - - his rejection and probable death. But he prays
Eudokia is a beautiful word which means good pleasure, or gracious will .Eudokia does not mean that everything that happens is willed and orchestrated by God. It means that God somehow uses everything for Godís good purpose, the healing of our lives and the healing of the nations. Jesus says unequivocally in Matthew: "It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish" (Matthew 18:14).
Paul describes the eudokia of God revealed in Jesus Christ to be this: "To unite all things . . . everything in heaven, everything in earth" (Ephesians 1:9-10). This is the will of God, the purpose of God, the good pleasure of God -- and when we are in synch with this purpose of God we feel Godís pleasure. Even when we go through very difficult times.
When Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, there was a theological basis for this command that we often miss:
Reinhold Niebuhr described this character of God as the "impartial goodness [of God] beyond good and evil."5 The philosopher Berdyaev called forgiveness "the morality beyond morality," for it at the same time fulfills and transcends our human concepts of justice. So the providence of God, shown in the sun and the rain itself, demonstrates a morality beyond morality. The impartial goodness of God pours out blessings on all people with no special favors. And I would add with no special immunity from harm for the good. I wish I could see it otherwise. If you remember, from last weekís study of the temptations, it was the devil who offered Jesus special immunity from harm.
We are commanded to love our enemies because God does too -- and God shows it by pouring out the blessings of life upon all.
But I cannot stop there. As people of faith, we trust, however difficult at times, in the moral basis of the universe, where justice, love and peace will prevail over violence, cruelty and injustice.
Martin Luther King, Jr., used to reassure his African-American community in their fight for justice by saying that the arc of Godís justice bends slowly toward earth -- but it does bend toward earth! Godís justice is at work though not necessarily by our means nor according to our timetable.
"Infinite justice," the present name of our national military operation, cannot be finally achieved by anyone but the Infinite God. So we put our final trust in God for a justice beyond any human justice we can achieve. I like very much our Presidentís phrase Thursday night: "We will meet violence with patient justice." It is impatient justice that gets us in trouble as persons, communities and nations.
These are fearful times for us but we need not be driven by fear. Faith helps us overcome fear.
What we say today about our lives - emotional, economic, political, spiritual -- is this: Things are beyond our control but are not out of control. There is One guiding us and our world through the turns and travail of our days toward the eudokia of God: The uniting of all things in heaven and on earth. Our lives may not go as we plan, or as we hope, but we pray with Jesus as he himself faced reversal of expectation:
We may walk through difficult times for awhile, but we will walk together. Jesusí prayer reminded me this week of the prayer I heard quoted by Max Cleland, then head of the Veterans Administration under President Carter. Cleland is a Vietnam veteran, a triple amputee, and an extraordinary man. The prayer he quoted was attributed to an injured Civil War soldier:
"I thank you, Abba," Jesus prayed as the tide turned against him; for he had glimpsed . . . the ocean.
1. Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus 1.7 trans. David Young (Hanover, N.H.:
Wesleyan University Press, 1987), p. 15. Young's translation goes: Praising, that's it.
Praise was his mission.
2. "Poetry, Prophecy, Survival," in New and Selected Essays (New York: New Directories, 1992), p. 144.
3. Cited in Dorothy Millar, Seeds for the Morrow.
4. Gerhard Kittle, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. R. Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 917-923.
5. Reinhold Niebuhr, Justice and Mercy (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), p. 15.