All for the Best: In the shadow of the mount of the beatitudes
Growing up, one of my favorite parts of the Bible was the beatitudes. You know, the famous scene from the New Testament where Jesus gives His sermon on the mount. He doesn’t call a press conference for all of the political news channels to broadcast. He doesn’t whiten His teeth, tease His hair, and do stupid crap on YouTube. Instead, He is followed up to the top of a large hill near the Sea of Galilea where He uses the power vested in Him by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe to grant blessings on the undesirables of the time. The people that the rest of the world wouldn’t even give a second glance are not only admired by Jesus but blessed. This kind of stuff drove the empire mad. The chief priests, the tax collectors, and anyone else with power were all wetting themselves and no one so much as lifted a sword in rebellion. None of them needed swords because of what Jesus instilled in them: Hope.
Author Mitri Raheb brilliantly describes hope in his book Faith in the Face of Empire when he writes, “Hope is putting what we see into action today. Hope is the power to keep focusing on the larger vision while taking small, often undramatic, steps toward the future […] Hope doesn’t wait for vision to appear. Hope is vision in action today.” Jesus doesn’t say anyone will be blessed. Rather, he says they are blessed right there in that moment. This is the kind of Hope that people who are overpowered and abused by an empire need.
Some of my friends and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing the implications of the beatitudes. Specifically, we discussed the idea of the blessings being conditional. That one needs to be meek, poor in spirit, a peacemaker, one who mourns, pure, or persecuted to receive these blessings. The general consensus was an interesting one. After a considerably long discussion, we decided that the point Jesus was making was that all are blessed regardless of things like religious beliefs, social standing, ethnicity, gender, vocation, etc. We also understand those blessings to be unconditional, requiring no effort on our part. But that definitely doesn’t mean He was calling for complacency.
I had skipped maybe a handful of stones in my life. Before arriving at the sea of Galilea, I really hadn’t taken serious time to just wade and throw. Somehow, the still waters of the sea (or pretty big lake as it should rightfully be known) welcomed stone skipping more than any other I had seen. Maybe it was the numerous black, volcanic choices that had washed up before our feet as we waded knee deep. These smooth, black stones were so perfect for skipping. It was as if the lake was begging us to throw them. I had never known peace and tranquility quite like when I launched stone after stone across the surface of the Galilea.
My YAGM cohort and I noticed stones in many places during our week-long retreat after Thanksgiving. First, at the ancient city of Caesarea where Herod laid them high in the forms of an amphitheater, aqueduct, harbor, and many other structures consistent with Roman cities of the time. We then saw them in the city of Nazareth, where they were stacked to staggering heights in commemoration of Mother Mary. The Basilica of the Annunciation was a spectacular sight to see. The cold surface of the stone beneath our feet was matched by the bitter silence of spectators and worshipers from every corner of the world.
Each day during our retreat was filled with discussions and sightseeing as well as ample time for reflection. I am grateful for what I saw and heard. It gave me the chance to reflect upon stones and what they mean to us as people. Walls were built with stone. But the stone crumbled. I saw direct evidence of this very fact in Caesarea and again at Nimrod, the castle on the hill in the Golan Heights. Walls are built with concrete today. The impermanence of stone and concrete is visible in this place. You can see much more of the landscape over a fallen wall than a standing one.
I will long remember the moments I shared with the other volunteers in my cohort a couple weeks ago. I will remember how we stood, pants rolled up past the knees, skipping stones across the Lake of Galilea. We could see the sun set as we hung out on the shore. There was something deeply comforting about the whole experience. While we had all spent time viewing locations of former and current ideological unrest, the water remained calming. I wonder what the water was like to the people in the time of Jesus. Was it just as smooth and reflective as it is today? Did Roman soldiers pal around between patrols, splashing in the water? Did the disciples skip stones like us? Did Jesus? I know how ridiculous that may sound. Yet, at the same time, why wouldn’t they?