Deuteronomy 17:14-20 Hymns: 363
Luke 14:1-11 *131
Responsive Reading #3, p. 133 **286
Heaven and Hell 218
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ." So begins the statement of the causes that impelled our forefathers in their quest for independence. The words are so familiar that we are likely to take them for granted, but in fact they were highly controversial in their own time and probably should be even now. It takes only a moment's reflection to realize that it really is far from "self-evident" that we are all created equal, even in this country, after more than two centuries of the pursuit of this ideal. In England there is still a monarchy, still a House of Commons and House of Lords, and only recently has the ancient custom of hereditary titles been subjected to serious questioning. In India, the effects of the caste system are still evident. Any parents who have had more than one child know that children are different from the moment of birth, with different gifts; and it is certainly not "self-evident" that children born with Down's syndrome are "created equal" to others.
It is not self-evident, that is, as long as we look at such factors as physical and mental strength, quickness, and coordination. If we look a bit deeper, though, we actually do find a highly significant kind of equality. That is, time after time we find that Down's syndrome children are just as dear to their parents as their more gifted siblings are. In the scales of affection, they are of equal weight-which in a way is jumping ahead to the conclusion of this sermon.
In contemporary mainstream theology, the issue of equality is front and center. "Patriarchy" and "hierarchy" are bad, "liberation," "equality," and "empowerment" are good. It is believed, with the support of considerable evidence, that the Bible has been interpreted by people in power to justify their positions. In Swedenborg's time, the principle of "the divine right of kings" was still taken largely for granted. Even in our own times, British coins say that Elizabeth is queen "by the grace of God"-though they say in very discreetly, in abbreviated Latin. Until very recent times, it was openly taught that the black people were under a biblical curse; and white supremacists still claim that they are following the teaching of Scripture.
On the other hand, there are many passages in the Bible that speak out in favor of the poor and level harsh criticisms against the rich and powerful. The prophet Amos is a current favorite:
Hear this, you who trample the needy and bring ruin on the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be past so that we can sell our grain, and the Sabbath so that we can sell our wheat? We will make the bushel small and the shekel great and deceive people with false scales, to buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals" (Amos 8:4-6).
This has led some people to take voluntary vows of poverty, to choose to be "unequal" in the economic world. In a sense, this represents a belief that money itself corrupts, and that world of money is therefore beyond redemption-a far cry from current efforts to bring about greater economic justice.
The factors that militate against economic justice are certainly very real and formidable. Different people do have different gifts and different goals. If you take one individual of high intelligence and energy and a strong determination to become wealthy, and another with less intelligence, less energy, and, say, a consuming interest in organic gardening, the odds are that the first will wind up with a lot more money than the second. We live in a society that pays a very few athletes far more than it pays its thousands upon thousands of teachers, far more than it could conceivably afford to pay them, in fact. We live in a country that consumes a vastly disproportionate percentage of the world's resources; and when you get right down to it, there is not much we can do about it. When the Lord said "You always have the poor with you," (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7), it seems that he was not being callous. He was simply stating a matter of fact.
More than that, Scripture itself offers models of inequality. The parable of the talents tells of servants being given unequal gifts and closes by saying that more will be given to those who have more, and that those who have less will lose even what they have (Matthew 25:14-30). If this is a model of economic justice, then our notions of justice need some very careful attention.
The parable suggests that we should not confuse equity with equality. The same chapter in Luke that advises the little flock to sell its possessions and give alms tells us that much will be required of everyone to whom much has been given, and more will be demanded of those to whom more has been entrusted (Luke 12:48). This is equity, not equality, and it is hard not to agree that equality in this case would be inequity. Perhaps the problem with our society is not that some are paid far more than others, but that the differences are based on false values.
This is certainly supported by the picture we are given of the spiritual world. It is described as very definitely hierarchical, with three levels of heaven, one above the other. I suspect most Swedenborgians have at some point felt as though they would be falling short of they did not attain the highest heaven. We are assured, though, that we wind up exactly where we are most at home, most comfortable. In Divine Providence 254, Swedenborg offers a rather homely comparison:
It is like a farmer and a king. A farmer can have his highest joy when he is dressed in new clothes of plain wool and settles down at a table where there is some pork, a joint of beef, some cheese, and some beer and mulled wine. He would be completely on edge if he were dressed up like a king in purple, silk, gold, and silver and confronted with a table where there was a feast of all kinds of rich delicacies and fine wine.
Our third reading gets at the essential rationale of the inequality in heaven. The people who are in higher positions are "the people who more than others enjoy love and wisdom and who therefore, out of that love, wish well to everyone and out of that wisdom know now to make sure it happens" (Heaven and Hell 218).
It may help to shift the image a bit. These individuals "live in the center of their communities, loftier than others." That is, the people who are "highest" from one point of view can also be seen simply as closest to the center; and they are closest to the center because their hearts are open to a wider circle. That is why, as the passage continues, "People like this do not control and command but minister and serve, for doing good for others out of a love for what is good is serving, and making sure that it happens is ministering." Any special privileges they are granted are granted and valued solely because they are helpful to the service and ministry. To translate this into our own economic terms, it would be like getting paid in order to do the job we love instead of getting paid for doing it.
The inequalities in our own societal system, then, are not inequities simply because they are inequalities. They are inequities essentially because power is sought and exercised for its own sake and not for the sake of service. The enemy is not patriarchy or hierarchy, it is that old familiar demon, the love of dominion for the sake of self.
I was offered a vivid illustration of this by one of our Korean students. In Korean culture, the teacher is an unquestioned authority, and the student's task is to learn and accept whatever the teacher says. The closer a Korean student was to this culture, the harder it was for her or him to adjust to the interactive model we are accustomed to, the harder it was for her or him to come out with personal, independent opinions. However, as I eventually learned, if students discover that a teacher does not have their welfare first in mind, that teacher's authority is utterly destroyed. This comes across as a complete betrayal: "We trusted you completely, and now we find that you cannot be trusted."
In that sense, to aspire to a higher heaven is to aspire to care more deeply about more people. Surely one reason Down's syndrome children are so dear is that they are so trusting and affectionate. In their presence there is no need to pretend or pose, no wondering what they are really thinking about us, no status game to play. It is simply a matter of being human.
If we want to move toward greater economic justice, then, we need to look at both the inequalities and the inequities in our society. What kinds of behavior are rewarded? What attitudes tend to bring people to positions of greater power and wealth, and what attitudes militate against this kind of advancement? We do not have to look very hard to see abuses of power among the poor as well as the rich; and it may be that the current emphasis on "human rights" needs to be balanced by an equal emphasis on "human responsibilities" and it should become taken for granted that much is required of those to whom much has been given.
For ourselves, whether we have much or little seems largely to depend on our standards of comparison. Compared to the people in the headlines, we have little. Compared to most of the rest of the world, we have much. We are where we are, though, and it does seem that both Scripture and doctrine are sending us the same message. How much we have is ultimately less important than what we do with it. If we would be ambitious, let it be "to enjoy love and wisdom more than others," and out of that love and wisdom to minister and serve.
Heaven and Hell 218
We may conclude from this what [heaven's] officials are like-namely, that they are the people who more than others enjoy love and wisdom and who therefore, out of that love, wish well to everyone and out of that wisdom know how to make sure it happens. People like this do not control and command but minister and serve, for doing good for others out of a love for what is good is serving, and making sure that it happens is ministering. They do not make themselves more important than other people but less so, for they put the welfare of the community and of their neighbor first and their own later. What is first is more important, and what is later is less.
They do have respect and renown, though. They live in the center of their communities, loftier than others, and in splendid mansions as well; and they accept this renown and respect. However, they do so not on their own account but for the sake of obedience. They all know that this respect and this renown are gifts from the Lord, so that they may be obeyed.