Brian MacArevey picked up on a comment I made about the relationship between suffering and prosperity in my post on sonship and suffering in Romans and wondered out loud what I would make of a piece he had written about ‘eschatological blessing’ – and you really have to ask yourself, How did we ever manage without hyperlinks?
This is how Brian explains the emphasis on suffering in the Beatitudes:
…first of all, the Beatitudes reflect the way in which God, from the beginning, had intended for His creation to operate.
Secondly, they also reveal the pattern of life which God was promising to restore to His creation through the mediation of Jesus, by means of both His life and teaching (which includes this “sermon”), as well as through His subsequent crucifixion and resurrection from the dead.
Third, although God has inaugurated, and will unquestionably consummate, the restoration of the created order, we (and more central to the current discussion, Jesus’ initial audience) are living in a time of eschatological tension, normally referred to as the “already” and the “not yet”.
Finally, included in the “blessing” itself is the promise that the Spirit of God will bring about the completion of His restorative work in the world (the reversal of the fallen “natural” order) through the cruciform suffering of those who trust in Jesus’ words, as they live in accordance with them, in this time of tension.
I think this is a powerful way of putting the matter and I resonate with the language and intention to a large degree; but I would tell the story rather differently. So, in response to Brian’s four points…
1. The Beatitudes presuppose a counter-narrative concerning the strong who are violent and unrighteous. This is clear internally: the poor and meek, etc., who are blessed are either victims of oppression or are presented as an alternative to the narrative of oppression. It is also confirmed by the Old Testament background: Jesus’ ‘manifesto’ draws on the language not of creational blessing but of eschatological transition (see my commentary on the Beatitudes). So I don’t really see how we can say that the Beatitudes reflect how God originally intended for his creation to operate. Rather they presuppose a situation in which creation has already broken down.
2. For the same reason I do not think that they ‘reveal the pattern of life which God was promising to restore to His creation’. What they reveal is a pattern of life for the community that must endure the afflictions and tribulation of eschatological transition in order that the people of God, in the first place, may arrive at a state of new creation. From Jesus’ perspective this would be the difficult path leading to life that his followers would have to walk, carrying their own crosses, in order that the people of God might survive the catastrophe which the Jews would bring upon themselves within a generation.
3. I think the ‘now and not yet’ argument is not without point, but is unhelpful in a couple of ways (I have made the case at some length elsewhere). The first is that what the New Testament focuses on is a much more immediate, historically relevant, ‘now and not yet’ – that what the emerging community was experiencing was an anticipation not of a final end-of-history dénouement but of decisive, politically and religiously transformative events in a foreseeable future: principally the destruction of Jerusalem and the conversion of the pagan world to Christianity.
Secondly, I think the emphasis should not be on some putative and rather abstract overlap of two ages but on the concrete calling of the people of God always to exist as a sign in the present of a future judgment or restoration or transformation or reconciliation or whatever. The early church – the community defined by the Beatitudes or Romans 8 or the letters to the seven churches – was a sign first to Judaism and then to the Greek-Roman world that YHWH was about to turn things upside down through the faithful, obedient testimony of a suffering community that associated itself more or less literally with the faithfulness of Jesus. Our own situation, further down the road of history, is somewhat different…
4. There is, nevertheless, an important ‘new creation’ part to this. First, as I have just said, Jesus calls a new community of Israel into existence, redefined not least by the Beatitudes as a community of the poor, meek, pure in heart, of those hungry to see a renewal of righteousness in Israel, who can expect to be persecuted for their commitment to him, for this specific purpose: that Israel might be made new, that the people of God might become a new creation, that they might recover something of the original creational blessing that was bestowed first on Adam and Eve, then on Noah, and then on Abraham and his descendants.
This is the point at which ‘prosperity’ becomes relevant again: prosperity or shalom is an aspect of and sign of God’s good creation. This prosperity ought to be evident in the life of the church – we ought to manifest in ourselves, at least potentially or prophetically or symbolically, the full goodness of what it means to be created. But we do so always under the conditions of corruption, evil, injustice, suffering, and death: they are in us and they are around us.
So here is the second part: the people of God that was delivered from historical destruction through the radical sacrificial faithfulness of a community defined by the Beatitudes, by Romans 8, by the letters to the seven churches, must still exist as a counter-narrative – not to unrighteousness in Israel but to unrighteousness in the world, not as a response to Israel’s eschatological crisis but as a response to a cosmic crisis, to the narrative of injustice and exploitation and godlessness and hopelessness and greed and depravity and folly that determines human existence.
This gives us reason to transpose the Beatitudes, if we wish to do so, from the key of Israel’s judgment and restoration to the key of creational renewal. Because there is still sin and oppression, we must remain a ‘cruciform’ people – which means we have arrived more or less at Brian’s conclusion, only by a somewhat different route. But the cruciform shape is given to a people that has come to know shalom – the full spiritual, material, relational, ecological goodness of being created. Our ‘prosperity’ is always under constraint, always under duress: on the one hand, we always invite opposition and hostility; on the other, we are always blessed in order to be a blessing.