I suspect that all of us have been profoundly disturbed by the images and film footage emerging from Afghanistan in recent days – especially the appalling and frightening situation at Kabul airport. Such images of the profound helplessness and despair of whole families, their small children with them, have been heartrending – and have inspired many to look for ways in which they can try and give help and support to the refugees from that tortured land that are coming to the UK.
A few nights ago, the news coverage of the crisis included a piece about a community group in the UK that was fundraising and gathering resources for Afghan immigrants. What I found particularly interesting about this specific news item was that the group in question was Jewish. One of their representatives was very clear about why they felt a duty to offer help and support – I don’t have her exact words, but the essence of what she said was this: ‘We are Jews. We have been here ourselves.’ Many of them had not forgotten the Kindertransport during WWII, that had rescued a previous generation of their families, and was the very reason for their existence. And I find that this response has been replicated in Jewish communities across America, too.
What struck me very forcefully about their generous and compassionate response is that, of course around 99% of Afghanis are Muslim. There are times when the walls that in the normal course of events separate us from one another in profound and definitive ways, suddenly cease to matter – when catastrophe – whether natural or man-made – forces us to face the fact that ultimately, we are all human beings. In the end, there will always be far more that unites us than divides us.
If only we could manage to remember that during the rest of the time – when imminent crisis and humanitarian disaster doesn’t suddenly demand that we do.
But I want to stick with the story of the Jewish nation for a moment, because in different ways, it is relevant, not only to our present circumstances, but to our readings this evening.
In our first reading, from the Book of Exodus, we heard how the Israelites, enslaved in Egypt, were protected from certain destruction, by remaining indoors and anointing the lintels of their houses with sacrificial blood, so that ‘the destroyer’ (as our passage names it) passes over them – which is, of course, the origin of the Passover.
The story of the Jewish people is a repeated story of survival against all the odds; a story of systematic and savage persecution; but also of liberation and rescue, sometimes against all the odds. Their history has undoubtedly left its scars on an entire nation. I have a wonderful edition of the Passover Haggadah, which includes the following commentary on the text from Deuteronomy 26 that begins ‘A wandering Aramean was my father’. It goes like this:
We were strangers in Egypt and Kiev, we were foreigners in Babylon and Berlin,
We were outsiders and wanderers in Spain, and Poland, and France.
We looked at the citizens of those lands with the dark, pleading eyes of the alien.
Our hearts beat the hesitant beat of men without rights, fearful and uncertain.
We pray Thee, help us to remember the heart of the stranger when we walk in freedom.
Help us to be fair and upright in all our dealings with every man.
Oh, burn and brand the lesson of all the years and all the lands on our hearts.
Lord, make us forever strangers to discrimination and injustice.
And so to our second reading this evening – which includes the famous passage from St Matthew’s Gospel traditionally called ‘The Beatitudes’. Some of you may be aware that this particular series of sayings by Jesus are also to be found in St Luke’s Gospel, where, if anything, they are even punchier and more challenging. In Luke we find: ‘Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled.’
By comparison, Matthew seems to tweak those words, as if in an attempt to soften them:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
But it has always seemed to me rather important that these key sayings are preserved in both forms – my personal response to them is this:
In Luke’s version, Jesus is addressing directly the poorest and most marginalised and deprived in human society, and giving them words of hope – this is very much in line with the main concerns of Luke’s gospel – very much a gospel for the poor and the vulnerable.
In St Matthew’s version, I find a set of challenges for those of us who do not fall into those categories, which offer another kind of message of hope.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven …
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
What on earth does Matthew mean by the phrase ‘poor in spirit’? Sure he can’t mean the spiritually impoverished? – that would make no sense at all! But it seems to me that perhaps what he is talking about is those who, regardless of their material situation, in spiritual terms come to God with open hands; who come with nothing, but who are nevertheless desperate to receive God’s love and grace and forgiveness. That makes perfect sense to me – just as the notion that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness – those who are in a position to make a difference and who act on that – they too are blessed by God.
Whichever version of the Beatitudes we read, there is a message for us all in there somewhere. Hope for those who are suffering and have nothing; challenge for those who are comfortable and have much.
It is our task to attend to those words and perhaps decide how they are speaking to us now, as disciples, and as human beings, in a world so very full of suffering.