Doan and I have been in California for a family wedding, and in keeping with personal tradition, one of the first things I did upon landing at LAX was listen to that old punk classic, California Uber Alles,(California Over All) the Dead Kennedy’s cry against Governor Jerry Brown in 1979. It must blow Jello Biafra’s mind that Jerry Brown is governor again, thirty-seven years later.
Anyway, that reminded me of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, the Beyond Man, the Superman, which he posited in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “Nietzsche introduces the concept of the Übermensch in contrast to his understanding of the other-worldliness of Christianity: Zarathustra proclaims the Übermensch to be the meaning of the earth and admonishes his audience to ignore those who promise other-worldly hopes in order to draw them away from the earth. The turn away from the earth is prompted, he says, by a dissatisfaction with life—a dissatisfaction that causes one to create another world in which those who made one unhappy in this life are tormented.1
You can see the connection to today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, the Beatitudes. “Nietzsche scoffed at the Beatitudes as prescriptions for sheep and slaves. He knew what a devastating challenge Christ was to his visions of the “superman.” It was only fitting, then, that when old Nietzsche titled his last howl of power and aggression, he called it the Anti-Christ. Still, Nietzsche saw the revolutionary import of Christ’s teachings,”2 he saw through the veneer of niceness we tack onto the Beatitudes.
Nietzsche was quite the philosopher, and he was very wise in the ways of the world. We are reminded today by Jesus and St.Paul that such wisdom is not bad to have, but that it’s just incomplete at best, wrong-headed sometimes, and counter to the ways of God at worst. Jesus seems to seek out the opposite of what Nietzsche prized: those who are “not necessarily wise, as humans account wisdom, nor vastly influential, nor well born, but surely counter-cultural in the way they address the secular order. “God chose those whom the world considers absurd to shame the wise. He singled out the weak to shame the strong. He chose the low and despised, who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something; so that mankind can do no boasting before God.
“It is Christ who is our justice, our redemption, our sanctification, our wisdom. This confounds any mentality which seeks self-justification or pursues fulfillment through earthly goods. To such a mind-set, Christ’s wisdom is unrealistic, even foolhardy. It certainly contradicts our way of imagining human happiness. Just look at the Sermon on the Mount to get a sense of Jesus’ radical reversal of our common sense. We want abundance, control, and authority to conquer the kingdoms of the earth. His wisdom affirms that only the poor in spirit can achieve the reign of God.
“We want more than all else to avoid pain and suffering. In fact most of our operating ethical systems rest upon the principle of maximizing pleasure. Yet Jesus says that those who open themselves to sorrow will find ultimate consolation. We scavenge to inflate ourselves with things, projects, people; but the Sermon on the Mount counsels us to abide in our hunger for holiness, to live with a thirst for justice. And peacemakers? Those do-gooders, those bleeding hearts? See how far that will get them in this “real” world. Most often they are held in contempt, even by Christians. Perhaps that is why Jesus thinks his followers will be persecuted for holiness’ sake. His wisdom is such an insult to natural cleverness, the Sermon on the Mount will be ridiculed as “wimpdom,” not wisdom.”3
Not long ago Doan and I attended a funeral at a Ukrainian Orthodox church, which is a truly transportive experience. The entire service is chanted; the important parts are repeated time and again. One of the best things they do in the liturgy, though, is before any part of Scripture is read, they pause, and then the celebrant chants “Wisdom. Let us be attentive.” Today (this weekend) is an especially good time to look for wisdom and be attentive to it. Our annual Parish Meeting sets out what we have done, what we are doing, and what we hope to accomplish for Christ in little part of His Kingdom He has entrusted to us. The wisdom we seek comes from Holy Scripture, from the teachings of the Church, and from you. How will we seek to become a community that looks more like the Beatitudes than the Superman? Come hear how we’ve tried, and come share your wisdom.
2John Kavanaugh, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/4OrdA012917/theword_embodied.html