Many, many people—including many church people—have this asinine idea that Jesus showed up on earth two thousand years ago and loosened everything up. You know, like everything was so boring and traditional and legalistic or whatever, and then God sent Jesus Christ to “Keep Jerusalem Weird” or something, like he’s formed some hippie commune for people with “Coexist” bumper stickers on their cars.
It’s not the just unbelieving world that thinks of Jesus that way; it’s a whole lot of people who identify as Christians too.
The problem with this perspective is evident when one actually reads the pages of the Gospels. In these pages we find Jesus equating lust with adultery and hatred with murder, promising to bring a sword instead of peace, commanding people to love those who are trying to kill them, telling a guy to skip his father’s funeral, calling men to quit their jobs, and cursing random fig trees. Most people understand that Jesus was shaking things up, but most people assume he was doing so to disrupt those people. (He had a few things to say about that kind of thinking too.)
There is virtually no part of Jesus’s life and ministry that isn’t vastly misunderstood. We have turned the Incarnation into a once-a-year precious moment, the parables into moralistic fables, the miracles into production values. We’ve managed to somehow turn the message of the cross into one of mere martyrdom, which scandalizes almost nobody, and the reality of the resurrection into a metaphor for turning over a new leaf, which convinces even less.
And then you come to the Sermon on the Mount. This is our Lord’s pièce de résistance, his monumental line in the sand for all humanity. This is the passage of Scripture from which fans of Jesus most often quote. “Don’t judge.” “Love your enemies.” “Turn the other cheek.”
All of which they’re quoting out of some lame self-interest. They think they’re being revolutionary when really they are only backing religious business as usual—using holy words for personal gain.
We are idiots when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount. And, in fact, the Sermon on the Mount makes us idiots. We come up against it and see what it makes of our striving, our ambition, our jockeying for position, and it puts us in our place. But rather than humble ourselves before it we try to co-opt it and spin it, turn it into a set of Christian fortune cookies.
No portion of the Sermon is more ripe for this thievery than the introductory announcement we have traditionally called the Beatitudes. In the Beatitudes, Jesus Christ makes a series of proclamations about the purpose and effect of his kingdom that is breaking into the world.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
Blessed, blessed, blessed. What is Jesus doing? He’s telling the losers that it’s their turn now—or, at least, that it will be soon.
I once read one of those self-helpy quasi-Christian leadership books for Type-A personalities where the author turned “Blessed are the meek” into law. Instead of being an announcement it became an action point. Being meek is how we get the blessing, he was saying, but in doing so he had to redefine everything else about the Sermon on the Mount, including turning Jesus’s promised blessings into success in our project or workplace—basically, anything that Jesus wasn’t referring to.
This writer also had to assure us stupid readers, as so many who teach on this passage do, that being meek was not about being weak; it’s instead about “power under control.” You know, because God forbid anybody admit they’re weak or deal with weakness or wrestle at all with Paul saying in 2 Corinthians 12 that strengths be damned, he’s going to boast in his weakness.
So set all that aside for a second, and I’ll tell you what really bugged me about this part of the book: this writer had done what too many of our disciplers do. He turned gospel into law; he took news and turned it into advice.
Jesus says, “I am bringing a blessing to the meek.” This guy is saying, “Become meek and you’ll get blessed.” It sort of makes sense, and of course the Bible does command us to humble ourselves, but Jesus seems to be speaking to people who are already meek in some way, who’ve perhaps been made meek in some way, by some circumstance or experience. This author was treating meekness as if it’s something we might put on, a position we might access to achieve particular results.
This is what troubles me most about the way evangelical leadership culture approaches humility—it always seems like an angle. “Humility” always seems like something we do in order to get what we want.
I don’t think this is what Jesus has in mind in the Beatitudes.
And I don’t think evangelical leadership culture has a very consistent reading of the Beatitudes when it comes to this stuff, because Jesus also says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” (Luke 6:20) but very few evangelical leadership gurus I know would advocate intentionally seeking poverty. (Though quite a few Christians I know might.)
No, the Beatitudes are not laws. They aren’t steps or tips. These blessings are good tidings! They are announcements of something happening, not instructions of things to do. The Beatitudes are beautiful entailments of the good news of God’s kingdom, which has come in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ—that is to say, they do not come in and through the strategies of therapeutic Christian moralizing.
We just don’t get the Sermon on the Mount, or Jesus’s ministry in general, like his immediate hearers did. Jesus wasn’t turning things upside down. He was turning them right side up.
This is why the good news is good news for those at the bottom. Think of every category of person spoken to in the Beatitudes:
The spiritually impoverished.
The emotionally devastated.
The psychologically weak.
The culturally oppressed.
The inwardly pure.
The relationally calm.
The physically abused.
The personally accused.
Culturally speaking, do we cherish these people? Are these the kinds of people we typically feature on magazine covers or in awards shows?
What about Christian culture? Do we buy these people’s books by the millions? Do we go to conferences to hear them? Do we podcast them? Do we listen to them on the radio?
No. We’re too busy being played by those who’ve learned to game the system. We don’t really care to hear from these people. They’re messy, a little weird, socially awkward, kind of needy, and not very put together. What can they teach us? I mean, what can they teach us about what we really want? They aren’t winners. We don’t want a word from them.
And we don’t typically have a word for them.
And yet these people are exactly the ones Jesus is speaking to. His words are especially designed for and specifically targeted at . . . well, losers.
Reading the Beatitudes as either hyper-spiritual law-deliverance or hippie-spiritual law-avoidance are equally adventures in missing the point. The Beatitudes are instead a shot across the bow at worldly and traditional cultural values.
The Beatitudes are a shot right into the side of these cultural values, a heat-seeking missile into the rusty hull of that worn old battleship, the SS Works Righteousness. They are an alien invasion, a monolith dropped right out of the other dimension like the thing in 2001 that drove all the apes crazy. Some got smarter, some got meaner, but they all got different because the landscape of reality had been changed. That’s what the Beatitudes do. They change reality.
And this cannot be good news for those who are, spiritually speaking, sitting at the head of the conference table. It cannot be good news for those who are, you know, feeling their own way through life by following the positive energy, man. This cannot be good news for those churches whose offices resemble Glengarry Glen Ross. This cannot be good news for those clinking wine glasses over burnt steaks while making a deal on the vivisected corpses of babies. It cannot be good news for those trying to game the system.
But isn’t it good news for those of us hunkered down in the caves?
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