John Bennison Words and Ways | Playing Favorites: The Problem with Blessings and Curses

Playing Favorites: The Problem with Blessings and Curses

Synopsis: “Have a blest day?” What in this world does that mean? Better luck or good karma, instead of bad?In the ancient world, denoting someone as “blest” was a way of expressing a deity’s special favor towards that person. If that sounds quaint, there are still plenty of people today who believe they can curry favor or improve the odds of achieving more blessings than curses; while politicians routinely conclude their speeches by invoking the Almighty to bless the good ‘ol USA. There’s just one problem. It doesn’t work.  A pdf copy of the commentary below can also be read or printed  here.

 

“Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet.”
      Quote attributed to Roger Miller, Bob Dylan and/or Bob Marley

 

Preface

Exchanging perfunctory pleasantries with a bank teller the other day, he ended our conversation and transaction by telling me to “have a blest day.” He might have said, “Enjoy your day,” or the ubiquitous “Have a good one;” which always leaves me wondering “one” what? But being the word merchant that I am, who’s prone to dissect the meaning of the phrases we use, I walked away wondering what in the world he really meant!

 

Blessings & Curses

Paula White, a prosperity gospel preacher who is part of Donald Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council says God has laid claim to the “first fruits” of your life and mine. “When you honor this principle,” she says, “it provides the foundation and structure for God’s blessings and promises in your life. When you apply this, everything comes in divine alignment for His plan and promises for you. When you don’t honor it, whether through ignorance or direct disobedience, there are consequences.” Uh-oh.

Nowadays, of course, the first fruits come in the form of cold, hard cash. And Paula urges it be sent to the Almighty diviner of your life in care of Paula White Ministries. You’ve heard this before, right?

Earlier this month, in the star-studded Santa Barbara suburb of Montecito, mudslides destroyed multi-million dollar estates and buried 16 people; including a toddler and a teen who are missing and presumed dead. It was in that affluent community that I actually got my first official paid gig in the ministry, serving a posh parish over forty years ago. I wonder if I failed to mention in my early preaching days the providential warning Paula White now peddles. I further wonder if those who recently perished there withheld the first fruits of their riches?

Almost simultaneous to the natural disaster in SoCal, but on the other side of the world in Manila, the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of religious devotees took part in an annual procession lasting 22 hours; carrying a centuries-old life size icon of a dark-skinned Jesus through the streets. The ebony statue was originally crafted in Mexico, and then brought to the Philippines in 1606.

Each year, barefoot worshippers frantically climb over each other to kiss, touch, or rub bits of cloth on the statue. Known as the Black Nazarene. It is believed to have miraculous healing powers; capable of bestowing special blessings on countless throngs of the poor for whom life has not been very favorable.

The scene seemed reminiscent of a passage in Luke’s gospel that’s the set-up line for what is commonly referred to as Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, and the delivery of that version of the blessed-are “beatitudes.”

And everyone in the crowd tried to touch him since power would flow out from him and heal them all.” [Luke 6:19]

This time, I wonder what might happen if a giant rabbits foot were strapped to the cross to rub; instead of an image of a Jesus who – by all historical accounts – wasn’t black, and hasn’t been around for nearly two millennia.

And finally in this same month, in Washington, DC, the current occupant of the White House predictably concluded his State of the Union address with all the presidential authority he could muster, by invoking God’s blessing on these United States of America; which he – Donald J. Trump, that is – is making great again.

The dissonance in the last two examples, regarding the dispensation of blessings could not be more stark; with Trump being the living, breathing embodiment of everything that is wholly anathema to the teachings and life-example of that 1st century CE Galilean spirit-sage known as Jesus of Nazareth.

So, have a blest day? What in this world does that mean? Better luck or good karma, instead of bad?

 

Currying Favor

If life is a mixed bag of taking the bad along with the good things that happen, human beings still seem to have a penchant for a perpetual search to explain why the bad things have to happen at all. Why? Because if we think we can find the elusive answers to the reasons why, then it is hoped that such an explanation might provide a proscription; so that in the future those bad things might never happen again. Instead, only manifold blessings will descend like manna from heaven.

Meanwhile, we live in a kind of mild terror that we still can’t control what happens, let alone explain it. So maybe it’s a good idea to hedge our bets, and curry favor where we can find it, or contrive it.

The late American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, said every religion starts with the word “help.” That may be so, but I would quickly add we often then proceed to ask what kind of a supernatural being might exist to intercede on our behalf to forestall or save us from the natural, but unfortunate, order of things.

So here’s the question: What is there – if anything – out there that can bestow such blessings and withhold such curses? What is there — besides you and me, and the space that exists between us — that could bring us as close as the com-union with one another on the one hand. Or, on the other hand, create a gulf between us and our would-be good fortune that, Lord knows, these days is as wide as the Grand Canyon?

We know from human experience that between us there can be love or hate; empathy and compassion, or mild indifference or disdain; judgment and condemnation, or the charity and grace of unmerited and unconditional acceptance; and the chance for forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal. These are all those virtuous or not so virtuous attributes one might accord an unknown, imagined deity; from which such blessings or curses might presumably flow. But in truth, such a doxology actually reflects all the aspects of our own human experience. It’s little wonder then how we came to end up with the idea of a whole pantheon of gods that reflect such attributes; or at least one that represents the whole ball of wax.

That’s why I’ve come to realize more than ever that the inscrutable question of why there is good and evil in the world is so often answered in a neat and tidy package by the irascible types who are all too happy to provide an explanation that is wholly inadequate in the end. This can range from the con artists and charlatans like Paula White to those formulating catechisms of long-established dogmas and doctrines that represent the vast bulk of orthodox belief systems.

You may ask, why are there so many people willing to fall for it, accept or believe what is not in the least bit credible? Perhaps it’s because folks just don’t seem to like the alternative that there is no answer. So get used to it, and get over it.

 

Blessings from whom, and for whom?

In the canonical gospels of the Christian faith tradition, Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the familiar “blessed are …” beatitudes. The first few beatitudes that refer to those who are poor, hungry and weeping are considered by many biblical scholars to likely be as close to the “voice print” of the historical Jesus as we can probably get.

Congratulations (blest be) to the poor in spirit!
Heaven’s domain belongs to them.
Congratulations (blest be) to those who grieve!
They will be consoled …
Congratulations (blest be) to those who hunger and thirst for justice!
They will have a feast. (Mt. 5:3-4,6)

In the ancient world, denoting someone as “blest” was a way of expressing a deity’s special favor. The Jesus Seminar scholar’s translation above replaces this traditional word, derived from Latin, with its modern equivalent: “Congratulations!” But congratulating those who would otherwise be regarded as accursed runs contrary to the common assumption that it is those who enjoy wealth, prosperity and happiness that are the blest, right?

As such, such congratulatory proclamations to those presumed cursed represent the paradoxical reversal so often found in the teachings of Jesus. And, in so doing, it nullifies the conventional notion of favoritism, and the futility of doing whatever we do in our vain attempts to curry favor.

Congratulatory proclamations to those presumed cursed represent the paradoxical reversal so often found in the teachings of Jesus. And, in so doing, it nullifies the conventional notion of favoritism, and the futility of doing whatever we do in our vain attempts to curry favor.

Luke’s version of the beatitudes not only adds the set-up about those crushing crowds straining to receive a favorable miracle, but goes on to include the addition of the opposite “curses”

Damn (curse be) you rich!
You already have your consolation.
Damn (curse be) you who are well fed now!
Damn (curse be) you who laugh now!
You will learn to weep and grieve. (Luke 6:24-26)

The addition of the curses are the work of the early faith community living in the hope of a future that would set right those inequities that are still clearly apparent. But the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel gives us only blessings. And they are blessings bestowed upon those who are already more than sufficiently cursed.

Alongside so much of Jesus’ teaching that included constant references contrasting the way things are to the way things out to be — or would be in some restorative future age often referred to as the “reign of God – it seems there has also always been the Lukan tradition and interpretation of the blest and the cursed, the sheep and goats; between those who may have it good now, but will pay for it in the end; when those who are persecuted now will get their just reward, and the persecutors will get their just desserts.

Ironically enough, the obvious delay of such a final reckoning (parousia) has certainly tested the patience of the faithful; to the extent that there have always been throngs willing to clamor and claw their way past each other to curry favor and have another heaping of blessings; and with the fervent hope of fewer curses.

 

A Personal Reflection

For a number of years, I spent much of my professional working life as a preacher, parish priest and pastor. Whether I had more sheep than goats amidst the flock, I could not tell. But as an ordained person, I was given authority by the power of the established ecclesiastical hierarchy to be an intermediary; to bestow (or withhold) blessings that were presumably from “God.” Some folks wouldn’t miss a Sunday, and a Sunday wouldn’t be complete for some folks without receiving a blessing.

One Summer, many years ago now, while I was vacationing in that same southern California community that was so recently devastated by mudslides, I got an emergency phone call. The teenage son of a family who was loosely affiliated with the parish had been thrown from a speeding car on a dangerous road in our community and killed.

I raced home the same day, and arrived at the local mortuary at dusk to find the father sitting stone-faced and tearful in front of an open casket with the body that was already cold and stiff. The apple of his eye was gone. As I sat down beside him, Joe turned to me and said, “I know we haven’t been very good churchgoers.”

Holding back my own tears, I immediately replied, “But you know that’s not the reason Kevin is dead.”

Whenever I made the sign of the cross with the swipe of my hand, I never likened the gesture to warding off some evil curse, or something akin to rubbing a rabbit’s foot. Because, if that had been the intention and assumption of either the one pronouncing it or the congregant receiving it, it frankly hadn’t worked very well. Collectively, the flock continued to live lives that seemed equally blest and cursed.

Instead, the blessing gesture was a reminder of the imprimatur, the stamp of a cross first imposed in an initiatory rite intended to lay out before the candidate a certain way of life to be lived amidst all the blessings and curses that come our way. And to do so without some supernatural power playing favorites. It was meant to impress upon the recipient the shared gospel truths enumerated in those beatitudes about the poor, hungry and weeping who were both blest and cursed.

The blessing gesture was a reminder of a certain way of life to be lived amidst all the blessings and curses that come our way. And to do so without some supernatural power playing favorites.

Conclusion, for now …

The other day, I dropped by an elderly neighbor’s house. I’ve been helping her coordinate some needed maintenance repairs on the home she’s lived in for the last sixty years. In the course of my visits, our brief chats have digressed into discussing politics, the news of the day, and the cursed state of affairs. On several occasions, she’s also volunteered her thoughts and disbeliefs about conventional religion, the existence of God, and the like. Because she was previously unaware I’d spent many years evolving in my own thinking on such matters, I offered to share a few of my own written thoughts on the subject.

So, it happened to be chilly, damp and raining a few days ago when I knocked on her door again to drop off printed copies of some commentaries I’d written this last year. “Damn,” I said, as she let me in. “It’s COLD out there!”

Bundled in layers of clothes but still shivering, Barbara thanked me profusely for the gift I’d brought her. She then went on to explain how drafty her house still was; even after all the things that’d been done to try to warm it up. We briefly discussed a long list of possible options.

Then she paused, gave a big sigh, and simply said, “You know, at ninety-five, I just feel so blessed to have a roof over my head.”

“And on top of that,” I replied, with a wink and a smile, “a roof that doesn’t leak when it rains!”

As someone once put it, “Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet.”

 

© 2018 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

1 Comment

  1. “Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet” And some like Gene Kelly sing and dance in the rain. Celebrating the weather and seasons as they are. Quite difficult in times when there are extreme weather patterns, such as hurricanes, and floods. Do we attribute this to a “God” of blessings and cursing, reward and punishment? Or maybe wake up to the “inconvenient truth” that our collective way of living may be contributing to these disasters. That we may be significantly responsible for the ecological imbalance, disasters, and so called “acts of God” Do we really believe that “God” wills these destructive, violent, conditions? Perhaps it is us and our disrespect for the wholeness, sacredness, and “shalom” of creation?
    Maybe “God” is in the proverbial song and dance movements of creation, destruction and new creation? Ever present, and still emerging to bring more life into being. Maybe in living this mystery of perceived “blessing and cursing”of joy and suffering, gift and loss, love and heartbreak, presence and absence, comfort and grief..
    that we may learn to become more human in all our relationships and learn to value and intrinsic goodness of creation and continuing creation. And maybe through accepting these adversities and challenges we experience a glimpse or whisper of what is most essential and enduring? Hearts of Love, peace, compassion, wisdom … A deeper relationship with the “will and spirit” beyond, within, among and through the “rain/reign”, song and dance of Life’s mysteries.

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