Lectionary Readings for Dec. 15, 3rd Advent. Isaiah 35:1-10, Ps 146: 5-10, or Luke 1: 47-55, James 5:7-10, Matt. 11:2-11
Yesterday Nelson Mandela died. Today, on CBC radio, the morning was dedicated to reviewing his life and talking with people who knew him and his work. By all accounts, he was an extraordinary man, a great inspiration to many ordinary people.
I've thought about him in the context of these passages, and wondered what his life has to say to the questions they raised for me. All the passages speak out of a context of oppression. Isaiah prophecies to a captive people, encouraging them to hope in God. Psalm 146 and Luke 1 are about food for the hungry and justice for the down trodden. James calls for patient hope to endure suffering. Matthew, through an imprisoned John, affirms that Jesus brings healing to the hurt and good news to the poor.
How do we as First World people hear these words? We are free and fed and individualistic in outlook, so how should we hear this? How do we hear words of hope originally preached for groups of oppressed people when we are rich? What part of the message of hope are we called to?
This is where Mandela's story is interesting, because he lived both points of view. He knew what it was to be part of an oppressed people. He also rose to the highest pinnacle of power in South Africa. and knew what it was like to hold the reins of power and prestige. Mandela could speak from the side of the poor and oppressed, and also from the side of the rich and powerful. When apartheid was in full swing, Mandela used his skills and position for the good of others, trying to bring about justice. When he was finally released from jail and apartheid dismantled, he still tried to use his skills and positions for the good of others. Wealth and power did not make him a bystander, they were just new tools to use in tackling injustice.
Most of us haven't lived the life of the captive, the racially oppressed, or the desperately poor. We especially haven't lived that way as part of a whole segregated society. We also haven't lived the life of a president or the super wealthy. We do, however, live lives of relative ease, warm and fed and educated among a population that is generally very well off. I think we become satisfied bystanders, content to look inward to our individual pleasures and convinced that problems that do exist are too big for us anyway, so we don't get involved. Mandela's example is fantastic. When he was poor, he did what he could. When he had power, he still worked for others. What do we do with our power?
It was helpful today, to hear some of the interviewees say Mandela was not a saint and that he would have been among the first to admit it. He was an ordinary man who used what he had for others. Now he seems so much bigger than life, but the interviews reminded me that he was surrounded by people who shared his causes, helped him, and suffered alongside him. That he was a family man, and there were failings and pains for him there too, like there are for ordinary people. That once Mandela was president, issues became more complex, and it was more obvious that he wasn't perfect. He had to deal with economic chaos, political corruption around him, and the difficulties of international issues. He had contradictions in his views on non-violence and the use of force.There are people who call him a communist and accuse him of terrorism. But the fact remains, he led the charge to get rid of apartheid, and he did it well.
The scripture passages call us to think about hope in terms of changing things for the better for all of God's people. They come from places of pain, they speak to peoples who need hope. They speak to the powerful and the ordinary too. We are all part of the people, how do we hear and implement this hope for others? How do we take our ordinary and put the extra in front of it?