I probably shouldn’t admit how much I like Halloween. I’m too much of a slug to deck out my house, I rarely wear a costume, and I haven’t been to a wild party in years, but I love the excitement children bring to the whole process. Then again, there’s the classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown – what’s better than that? I’m pretty much a sucker for Halloween.
I was already an adult when I learned how we came upon Halloween. All Hallows’ Eve marks the night before All Hallows’ Day, or All Saints’ Day, when Christians celebrate those who have preceded us in the faith. Some churches honor great heroes of the faith, the “saints” of our past. Other churches emphasize that all believers are “saints,” not because we are especially virtuous but because we are made holy simply by God’s will. In some churches, the label “saints” joins us not only to our deceased forebears but also to our living sisters and brothers scattered around the world. (Still other churches simply don’t observe the day at all.)
In Luke 6:20-31, Jesus directs a word to his disciples that bears implications for how they relate to their neighbors. Many people are more familiar with Matthew’s presentation of the same material, called The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12, 39-47), but Luke’s version deserves attention of its own. The passage begins with declarations of God’s blessing: God blesses those who are poor, hungry, sad, and even those whom society reviles on account of their faith. (In many churches, All Saints’ Day especially commemorates the martyrs.) Then Jesus surprises us, lamenting those who are rich, full, laughing, and well regarded. Dare we believe that God blesses the poor and the sad but curses the rich and the happy? Finally Jesus presents his disciples with a series of directions: love, bless, and pray for your enemies; give freely to beggars, and treat others as you wish to be treated. That’s a lot of content in just twelve verses — a lot of controversy too.
Some might try to translate Jesus’ teaching into a set of guidelines, as if they amount to a “to-do” list for disciples. I don’t find that approach particularly helpful. In the Bible, blessings and curses are not “how-to” instructions. Instead, blessings and curses create a set of values, an ethos that shapes how people are to understand God, themselves, and the world. It doesn’t make sense to hear, “Blessed are you who weep now,” and then find ways to make ourselves sad. It does make sense to ask, “In what kind of world does God’s blessing seek out those who are hurting?”
Jesus’ teaching invites us to stretch our imaginations concerning the saints, those persons who are blessed by God. The “saints” include not only those spiritual superstars who attain exceptional virtue. The saints include people who are vulnerable, those society routinely forgets about – or worse, takes advantage of. Woe to those who keep their riches, their fullness, and their laughter to themselves.
As I reflect on this passage, one group of saints immediately comes to mind: our neglected elderly. While fewer elderly persons live in poverty than do other adults, in 2012 alone extreme poverty among elderly women shot up by 18 percent — that is, in just one year 133,000 elderly women moved into the category of persons who live on $458 a month or less. As we grow older, we leave our places of employment, and our ability to access transportation declines, lending itself to a sense of isolation. Many elderly persons crave simple gifts such as the touch of another person. Meanwhile, we inhabit a society that tells us we should prevent our own aging through dietary supplements, skin creams, and exercise: to what degree do we fear growing old due to the influence of our advertising and entertainment industries? And to what degree does this fear create boundaries that alienate us from these saints?
But of course, it’s all about how you look at things. Many elderly people celebrate the gifts that come with aging: time to do the things they love most, a wisdom worn smooth by lots of surprises, freedom from the need to please other people. We might be afraid of aging, but as Jesus points out, God’s blessing shows up where conventional wisdom fails to look. Shaine Claiborne relates how he encountered a woman as she struggled through a crowd to get a meal from a late-night food van. Asked if the meal was worth the effort, she replied, “Oh yes, but I don’t eat them myself. I get them for another homeless lady, an elderly woman around the corner who can’t fight for a meal.” Angels where we least expect them, Claiborne suggests.
Jesus’ words don’t create a set of policies for looking after our elders. Nor do they amount to a list of demands that his followers must obey. Instead, Jesus’ words shape our values and our imaginations. Where we may see poverty, infirmity, or loneliness, Jesus pronounces God’s blessing and presence. Where we keep accounts regarding who deserves assistance, Jesus seeks disciples who would do for others what we desire done for us. Jesus sees a world in which God is present everywhere, building communities of care and support. It’s a joyful, blessed world, and we’re invited to inhabit it.
Questions for Reflection
1. Does your church celebrate All Saints’ Day? If so, how does your church commemorate the day? If not, how does your faith tradition remind you that you are united with countless other people through history and around the world?
2. When you read Luke 6:20-31, do you see a list of behavioral guidelines or a more general outlook on life and the world? What is the difference between guidelines and principles? Does this distinction matter?
3. Can you recall a time when you entered a situation fearful of how things might go but found God’s presence there instead?
For Further Reading
Claibore, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
Martin, James. My Life with the Saints. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2007.
Saucer, Bobby Joe, and Jean Alicia Elster. Our Hope in Ages Past: The Black Church’s Ministry Among the Elderly. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2005.
Greg Carey is the Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, Pa. His most recent book, Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, pursues the role of transgression in early Christian identity.
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Image: Candles illuminate a cemetary on All Saints' Day, wawritto / Shutterstock.com