by Mervin Boas
Soon after my post graduation in theology, I was appointed as a pastor by my diocese in a small village Church in 2004. 90 percent of the people in that place are Muslims. Normally, the post graduate pastors are appointed to big city parishes only. The diocese explained the reason for my appointment to a small rural parish.
The former pastor built a 1500 square foot foundation to build a parsonage. He could not start construction of the parsonage because the parish consists of only seventy families and most of them are daily workers. If they do not get work one day, they cannot feed their children. That is the real situation of the majority of the people in that parish. Most of them are landless and stay in small rented houses.
But the pastor wanted to stay in a beautiful parsonage among them. The estimate of that proposed parsonage was around 15,000,000 (fifteen hundred thousand Indian rupees). I was instructed by the diocese to build the parsonage by collecting money from those poor people. That was the main project assigned by the diocese.
It was very difficult for me to ask the poor people for money to build a luxurious parsonage while the majority of the parishioners live in huts. Six months passed without doing anything on the project. I was warned several times by the diocese.
After six months, in a general body, the people of the church decided to build the parsonage though I did not tell them anything about the construction of the parsonage. Every evening after their work the parishioners came to me to give me money from their wages. The parsonage was built within a year, miraculously. My diocesan executive committee, ministerial committee and finance committee appreciated me very much. The Bishop was invited to dedicate the newly constructed parsonage one Sunday.
On the morning of the day of dedication I was terribly shocked by reading news in the newspaper. There is a adivasi (aboriginal people of India) colony around 7 miles away from the church. In that colony a three year old boy died because his mom fed him mud three days continuously. She was not able to give him even a single loaf of bread. She ate mud a couple of days. The boy died. She became unconscious because of not eating food for several days. The news spread. Neighbors got together and she was hospitalized.
It was shocking news for me. I was engaging in building a luxurious house to live in while the boy was dying of hunger. My daughter Anagha was fed by wife Moly forcefully several times a day while the boy was dying of hunger.
I deeply regretted my institutionalized priesthood. I hated my cassock and my institutionalized ministry which does not have enough room for the poor and the needy outside of the church. During the time of the dedication of the parsonage the Bishop appreciated me a lot about my efficiency and announced that I am a wonderful minister while I was regretting my ministry of constructing buildings while people are dying on the street.
I visited that woman at the hospital. Should I have told her that she is much more blessed because of her poverty, hungry, and she was able to lose her child out of poverty because the kingdom of God is hers? Or Should I have given her and her child food to save the boy from death in time to share the experience of the kingdom of God?
I was living on the hill with all the benefits of the priesthood like the prophet Ezekiel. Therefore, I did not know that there was a valley of dry bones very near me. When the spirit came upon him, he was led to the valley of dry bones. If I committed myself to the spirit of God, I would have lived with the colony people to share their bitter experiences.
On the basis of this beatitude I cannot save myself from the irresponsible ministry I did. My understanding of the beatitude “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” does not convince me that poverty should be with the people in order to attain the kingdom of God. But I believe that I am called to wipe out the poverty in order to share the experience of the kingdom of God with people. Those who are hungry should be filled because there is no hunger in the kingdom of God. Those who are crying should be consoled because there is no cry in the kingdom of God. Those we are poor should experience the kingdom of God because there is no poverty in the kingdom God. Those who are exploited, excluded and marginalized should experience equality, freedom and justice because there is no exclusion and marginalization in the kingdom of God. I would like to interpret the beatitude in this way.
Please keep in mind that the beatitudes has been one of the most powerful texts of the wealthy in the West to oppress the poor. The bourgeois and the church, which was controlled by the landlords, interpreted that poverty is the blessed state constituted by God to attain the kingdom of God. Therefore, nobody has the right to come out from the poverty or struggle against the poverty. It is a sin against God. The state of weeping and mourning, hunger and marginalization are constituted by God and should not rise up against those blessed realities. Do not seek reward on earth because all the rewards will be yours in heaven. Suffer all the poverty, hunger, exploitation and marginalization and you are supposed to cry throughout life because all those are blessed states given by God. If you stand to gain more wages and try to come out from the hunger and poverty you will miss heaven.
Today we are not with this kind of exploitative interpretation of the beatitude theoretically, but it is true that our day to day practical life interprets the text in the same way interpreted by the wealthy. For example, my ministry in that rural poor parish. It is a very good example of an indirect way of interpreting the text practically to keep the poor in poverty forever.
As we heard last Monday, the father of my nation, Mahatma Gandhi was deeply influenced by the Sermon on the Mount because of its call for social justice. Luke gives us beatitudes with clear social and economic significance whereas Matthew tries to spiritualize the beatitudes. I strongly believe that the beatitudes is the text which demands a structural change for establishing a just society on the basis of the values of the kingdom of God.
Everybody likes the Good Samaritan because of doing charity service. Most of us want to be the Good Samaritan by doing charity work to get mental or spiritual satisfaction. Bonhoeffer, one of my favorite theologians, takes us to a different realm. He says, doing charity is not a complete solution to the problem. He gives an example. A man drives a car at 120 miles speed. He loses control and hits the pedestrians. A lot of pedestrians are becoming the victims of his illegal driving. Any church which has enough money and time can do charity service by picking up the victimized pedestrians and taking them to the hospital to provide enough medical treatment. But where is the solution to the real problem? Still the car is going forward and hitting pedestrians. Still the church is providing medical treatment to the victims. Both actions are still going on in a parallel manner. Where is the end? What is the church supposed to do is to stop the man who drives the car without any control? If that person is stopped, there is no need for charity work. Stopping that person is not as simple as doing charity work.
It needs courage to change the structure. We are called not only to humanize the victims of the injustice structures but to change the established evil structures also which keeps the people in starvation, poverty, cry and exploitation. The beatitudes call us for this ministry; both the ministry of charity and structural change. I believe in the kingdom of God which is already among us where there is no poverty, hunger, weeping and exclusion. Let us be the channels of the kingdom of God on earth which bring blessed states even to the least ones in our midst.
Who is a saint? I believe that a saint is a person who lives with the tears of the people and struggles to save the people from their tears. Let us be the saints of God.