In 1994 Janine Geske was elected to a ten-year term as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. Four years later this widely known, widely respected justice decided to resign. A wife and mother of two, Janine was forty-nine years old and making more that $100,000 a year. She said her decision had not come easily, and that “it will be difficult for some lawyers and judges to understand.” But “prestige and stature and money are not what drives me. I want to do more. . . After seventeen years as a judge, the time has come for me to change directions.”
Her decision came as a result of spending a week living among the poor in the Dominican Republic. The hospitality of Janine Geske’s hosts moved her deeply. “I could see daylight through the boards that make up the walls”, she said. “I thought of my crowded closets, drawers, attic, basement and garage back home. Why did I need all that stuff? Why is my life so complicated, busy, and noisy?” Janine had asked herself. “Are my children being raised in an environment that is better than this quiet, simple, faith-filled place? Would I be as generous and kind to a stranger as this impoverished family is to me?
On returning home, Janine made a list of the reasons why she should remain on the Supreme Court. The list included money and power. “Those things are not what I want to live my life for,” she decided. This was truly a conversion moment for Janine. She saw through the emptiness of power and wealth and was moving steadily towards a spirituality of the Beatitudes. She opted for downward mobility.
In today’s cut and thrust world, Janine’s decision is unusual. By and large the world out there is still dedicated to upward mobility. Everybody wants to be somebody and nobody wants to be nobody. Since the dawn of history, human beings have been trying to move up the scale of importance. The clincher used by the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve was “when you eat of [the tree of good and evil], your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Ever since then the long painful history of the world, and indeed the church, is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. This is a theme running through the Bible, through human history and through our own psyche. It is still with us today. Most of the characters and celebrities highlighted in the media seem to be motivated by self-interest and self-assertion. Sadly, this same theme is at the root of so much misery, strife and the endless wars that continue unabated throughout our world today.
Upward mobility was never a concern for Jesus. Instead, by emptying himself to become like us, he chose the path of downward mobility. The Beatitudes speak of a very different kind of world. Furthermore, he not only spoke them; he lived them. Leaving Nazareth to enter his public life was like living daily on a wing and a prayer. He was God’s pilgrim on this earth. He was in daily contact with his Father, trusted his Father completely and saw the finger of God just about everywhere. When it came to people, and he was very much a people’s person, it was the human person in relation to God that energised him. Therefore, he hungered for God’s world and that God’s kingdom would reign in the hearts of all God’s people. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well” (Mt 6:33).
For Jesus, the Beatitudes were an entry into this new world of love, harmony and peace. The core of these eight striking sentences is total reliance on, and commitment to a loving God. They portray the marvellous freedom that a believer can enjoy. They are not a law nor do they lay a yoke on the disciple’s shoulders. Jesus speaks from experience, because he lived the Beatitudes in his own life, and it is only by living them ourselves that we can discover how true they are – something that Janine discovered for herself.
The problem with material possessions and wealth is the temptation to put our trust in them and they can quickly clutter up our lives and blind us from our dependence on God. Pope Francis in his apostolic Exhortation, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, warns against the danger of consumerism and greed. “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”
‘Many fall prey to it.’ In the first reading Zephaniah focusses not on the many, but the few who take seriously the words of the prophets and put them into action. “I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall take refuge in the name of the Lord.” In today’s world, gung-ho as it is on upward mobility, we are called to be that humble folk, perhaps small in number, who take refuge in the name of the Lord. The Beatitudes are our freedom charter enabling us to be free for God as well as helping us to live simply so that others can simply live.
Sunday, 29th January 2017