Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Labels


Since the shift in my blog, I find that I have been labelled or called by others as a "liberal," "progressive," and even "Socialist" among other less polite names. It's funny to me since I don't consider myself any of these things but simply strive to live a more compassionate and caring life. I don't like to be labelled because it is an easy way for someone to dismiss someone else. If we are unsure, uncertain or even disagree with someone, it is too simple to just label them something so that we can put them in a box and we can go back to our safe and sure life. It closes the discourse.

Whenever I am asked how this change or shift occurred, I point them to my continual reading and rereading and rereading of Christ's Sermon on the Mount, as well as a study of the prophets (all of whom I have grown to deeply love). As I have said and written previously, the Beatitudes are the Ten Commandments amped up with high octane.  If it was hard enough living up to the commandments, Jesus cut right to the heart, to our motivations and past the surface of things. 


During a conversation with another Christian, he began to talk to me about my recent blog posts and ask why I wrote what I did. When I explained that my writing had been and continues to be shaped by my study of the Beatitudes, he said to me, "I don't think we're supposed to take the Sermon on the Mount literally." Really? I must have missed the disclaimer on that.

Where did Jesus preface his sermon that we weren't to take them literally?

Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelica

I know that the Beatitudes cuts a sharp path as to what the Christian character is, what it takes to follow him, how the kingdom of heaven operates, and will not be seen by society or the world as "practical" or "realistic" because it is the nature of people to try to find a loophole or a way out. This sermon is beyond mere ethics to that which transcends our earthly sense of right and wrong. It does not allow us to judge ourselves by others but only by Christ, of whom we fall short. The Sermon on the Mount makes people see that they cannot be like Christ without Christ, that it is impossible with man but not with God.  

I approach the Beatitudes with great humility, knowing that I am so far from it and that I cannot even begin to attempt to live this out without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I am insufficient, but He is not. This is beyond my reach and Jesus knows this. He knows my frailty and my weaknesses but that I have to admit my insufficiency to even begin.

Byzantine Sermon on the Mount

The Beatitudes are not comforting.
They are precise, piercing and disquieting.
They are meant to unsettle us, to wake us up from our spiritual stupor.


Christ puts no stock in appearances. He is interested only in the heart: the core of our being and formation. Because of this, the ego balks at Jesus' words. It is threatened by them because they cut deep below the surface of things. Jesus sees the protective masks and self-serving fictions we create for ourselves, for others to see and perceive as us. 

Truth is deeper than intellect and ego. The Beatitudes are truth. Not to just be comprehended but to be lived out in our very being. This "sermon" brings light to the shadows where we try to hide. We hide behind our strengths and our virtues, but Christ goes to the root of our shamefulness, our failures, our mistakes, our lusts, our inadequacies, our loneliness and all that we would prefer to hide from the world and, often, from ourselves. Because of this, we live with divided selves filled with contradictions and self-deceptions. But Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is offering a way of transformation of wholeness.  

Sermon on the Mount by Karoly Ferenczy

At the beginning of the Sermon of the Mount found in the book of Matthew, Jesus begins with "Blessed are ..." In studying the Hebrew, I learned that "blessed" is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew word ashrei, which is so difficult to translate and is not a concept we use in modern English. It is more of an interjection such as "How happy!" or "Good for you!"  Ashrei is a noun that comes from a word that means gladness or contentment. To translate literally, the Beatitudes should begin, "Oh, the gladness of . . ." This is something they would have said to someone who has come out of a time of suffering and the person has not seen the good that has come from that time of hardship. An example of this in Judaism is the prayer from the Psalms, "Ashrei yoshvei veitecha, od y’hallelucha, selah!" (Happy are they who dwell in Your house: they will praise You, always!) In this context,the "Blessed are" then are not ways of expressing a conditional statement but as a expression of present reality.

Sermon on the Mount by Laura James

The Sermon on the Mount is more than mere moral reflection but a contrasting of the kingdom of heaven with the way we believe things on earth should be, but Jesus is putting it in context of the here and now and not some future heaven. Christ showed that what the world values is not what God values. This teaching would be reiterated by Paul when he wrote, "For the foolishness of God is wiser then men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1st Corinthians 1:25).  Pride caused the fall of man, but in this sermon, Christ is showing us the redemptive path of humility. He will present how his followers would practise and live out a sacrificial love. How startling must it have been for those who gathered to see and hear a "Messiah" who was instructing not in the overthrow of Rome, of returning Israel to greatness, but in servant hood and in "The last shall be first . . ." There are biblical scholars who think that it was after hearing this sermon that Judas became disillusioned by Christ.

Sermon on the Mount by Vasiliy Myazin

It must have been shocking to hear Jesus speaking of the blessedness of brokenness. How many, like us today, fail to understand that it first takes brokenness to begin the path to wholeness?  When he speaks of the "poor" the Hebrew word he used was derived from the one that meant to "crouch as a helpless beggar." This is abject poverty. A beggar. Someone who cannot pull himself up in the world. Someone who is painfully aware of their lowly stature and dependence on the generosity of others. And this is the starting point for Christ. It implies our spiritual bankruptcy and total reliance on the grace of God.  All are welcome at the table, but we bring nothing to it but ourselves. All else is supplied by Christ. This goes back to Psalm 34:18, "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."


How do we approach this? 

Christ is showing us that we are not to climb the ladder upward towards wealth and achievement but the downward climb to those who are poor in spirit, those who are in mourning, the meek (translated in Hebrew anavim "lowly ones" or anavah "humility), the humble . . . There are many who would read this today and say, "Nope. I'm out. This is not practical." And in this culture of self-assertiveness, aggressiveness, self-entitlement and a desire to be first the words of Jesus do not ring true. Doesn't he get that success often takes manipulation and deception? Sometimes you have to step on others to get ahead in life. Better them than me. 

We live in a culture in which people are constantly declaring their "rights." It is all spiritual pride. It is a focus on self. We are like selfish children who repeatedly yell, "MINE!"

The beginning of the Sermon of the Mount already goes counter culturally against what comes naturally to us, it shakes up the status quo. Whenever we are under the illusion of being basically "good" people, Christ shows us just how far from the truth that really is. He is directly going against the ego. 

It's interesting that psychologists and sociologists see this self-centered shift occurring in our culture today. Two years ago, in Psychology Today, they wrote about a group of academics who used the Google research engine to study writing from the 1500's to the present day. Then they mapped out the words most frequently used. What they discovered was that people had drifted away from using more community-oriented language to individualistically based terms. This should come as no surprise when we live in the age of selfies. Researchers also found that the lyrics in music has also become more narcissistic with "I" and "me" showing up more than "we" or "us." Our culture has moved from self-esteem to self adoration, which is emphasized by our 24/7 social media which often venerates and encourages narcissism. This is not a culture that embraces Jesus' statement, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24).

I'll admit, reading those first "Blessed are the ..." and I want to throw up my hands and say, "I'm out! I can't do that!" And the further I read, the more I think, "Jesus, that's ridiculous. Do you really mean all of this?" Like W. C. Fields, I want to look for a loophole, an out. Like my friend, I think, "Maybe Jesus doesn't mean all of this literally..." It's passages like the Beatitudes that made G. K. Chesterton say, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried." Jesus knows this. That's why again and again, he asks those who claim to want to follow him, "What do you want of me?" or "Who do you say I am?" He understood and understands that those who think they want to be his followers probably have no real understanding or concept of what is expected of them. Most do not want to give up, so they give up. It's a longing to hold onto the world and to Jesus and hope that he doesn't mind. Can't we have our culture with our Christ?  But the Beatitudes shows us how these two things are not even possible. He is telling us, "Choose one."

Sermon on the Mount by Horton Young


To emphasize this point, Jesus continues with, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled." Here the Hebrew word used in this passage for "hunger" is related to not just being hungry but literally in terms of starvation. This goes beyond craving to surviving. And the Hebrew word used for "thirst" means that one has to have water to stay alive.

Am I this way about righteousness?

I'll be honest, most days, I'm not. At all. Not like that. Far from it. 

Do I hunger after the Bread of Life and the Living Waters in the way that someone who is near death from wandering lost in the desert is? Am I ravenous for righteousness? Do I truly believe that God and God alone can meet my need? 

Jesus strongly words his statement on purpose. He's not trying to build a mega church or amass a huge following on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. He's not trying to sell a lot of books or get on TV. Christ does not look to the crowd to gauge their response so that he can change what he says accordingly. He is bluntly saying that we must be so impoverished of spirit that we either find God or die. He is calling us to Teshuvah (return). As the prophet Amost wrote of God's call to, "Seek me and live" (5:4).

The Beatitudes by Mafa

Next Jesus goes after the Roman world. Rome was a culture that despised the weak, taking pity, or showing mercy to anyone. Even the Pharisees, who saw suffering as relating to a person's sin, Jesus warned, "Woe to you, teachers or the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! . . .you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness" (Matthew 23:23). So those who heard him announce, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" understood his meaning in the context of their religious and political environment.  Yet there are many in our modern age who would also take issue with Christ over this. Whether it stems from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche or Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory of survival of the fittest or even Ayn Rand's belief that each person should be out for themselves and views Christ and Christianity as "a sign of psychological weakness." For her, like many today, she saw personal achievement as the highest and most important goal and that the moral duty is to oneself, irrespective of the harm it does to others. 

Christ's use of the word "mercy" stems from the Hebrew word rechem, which means "womb." He is connecting the mercy of God to being a baby inside the mother's womb. The mercy of God is that which gives us life, nourishes us and gives us protection just like the womb does an unborn child. What a tender image Christ is offering of his Father. One who understood this deeply was Simone Weil, who wrote with honesty, "God is rich in mercy. I know this wealth of his with the certainty of experience, I have touched it." When we are the recipients of God's mercy, we find ourselves not only grateful but willing to extend this mercy to others. 


"Blessed are the pure in heart" is based in the Hebraic tradition that the heart is the root of the being. From the heart comes the inner life of a person. We are what we love. The heart is the epicenter of man and that's why scripture warns, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it" (Proverbs 4:23).  Jesus is stating that we should have singleness of heart, that our main love should be for God and then His love will flow from us to others.  He is calling us to be pure. This is something firmly rooted in Judaism with its strict laws regarding the pure (taharah) and impure (tumah). Christ is referring to an internal or spiritual purity (something he will address in greater depth when he speaks about murder and adultery later in the sermon and both are connected to the heart with hatred and lust). As long as our hearts desire God and something else, we are divided. This division causes a restlessness in ourselves. That is why Saint Augustine was right when he wrote, "My heart is restless until it finds rest in thee." 

I cannot help but think of a song off my favorite Amy Grant album Lead Me On from back in 1988. It was entitled "Faithless Heart" in which she sings about not only her struggling in her marriage to her husband at the time, Gary Chapman, but also with God. It was a brutally honest song with its chorus of:

Oh, faithless heart
Be far away from me.
Playin' games inside my head
That no one else can see.
You tempt me to the core,
But you can't have a hold on me
So don't come around anymore.

I loved this album because of her bravery to be spiritually honest about what she was wrestling with. How many of us are willing to be so bold and to even tell another brother or sister in the faith that we are struggling with infidelity of the heart (whether it be sexual or spiritual)? Purity of heart means that we have to be honest with ourselves and to face the darkness that is often there. If we don't, our faith is an empty ritual. Purity of heart is facing the reality of our desires and giving them to God in order to make Him the sole focus of our innermost longings. 

Sermon on the Mount  by Cosimo Rosselli

Christ keeps building on to the previous statement with each following statement. One is connected to the other and one cannot separate them. There is no cherry-picking which of the Beatitudes we like it is some sort of spiritual buffet table. Jesus is telling us that this is a progressive order and that each prepares us for the next one. It is the path of spiritual growth. If you are poor in spirit, then you will mourn over your sinfulness. If you have the humility of meekness, then you will hunger and thirst after righteousness. Mercy leads to purity and purity leads to peace. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God." Wow, our sonship and daughterhood are tied to being peacemakers. Jesus is extolling redifat shalom or "seeking peace." This is a peace that is wholeness, completeness, harmony. It is healing. This goes beyond just ending strife. Like all of the other beatitudes, this is an issue of the heart. To make peace, one must first be at peace.  To be at peace, one cannot be divided. Peace is reconciliation. First with God, then with man. We cannot begin to work towards an earthly peace so long as we do not have it with our Creator first and foremost. To be a peacemaker is to be at one with the Father. That is why Jesus tells those listening that they will be called the children of God. Does this mean we all have to be pacifists? Is this a call to walk the path of nonviolence like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. did?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "The followers of Jesus have been called to peace. When he called them they found their peace, for he is their peace. But now they are told that they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult." 

More easily said and written than done. Even among and within churches. 

This is a peace that requires a divine working. Man cannot achieve peace on his own. It means we have to let go of our desire to retaliate against those who hurt us. We can no longer desire the destruction of our enemies and "nuke 'em" as I have heard people say of those in Isis and of countries that harbor them. This is not the way of Christ. As Jim Forest wrote in his book The Ladder of the Beatitudes, "No one was ever converted by violence." 

It is because of statements like "Blessed are the peacemakers" that no elected official ever suggests that the Beatitudes be erected in marble in front of our courthouses or the Pentagon (to paraphrase the hilariously insightful Kurt Vonnegut ). 

Lord, that's hard. We prefer the Old Testament "an eye for an eye" but you tell us this is not the way of God. In fact, you tell us not to resist an evil person and to love our enemies. But Lord that killed you. When you told us to take up our cross, did you mean literally? I know you modeled this on the cross, but really? Love and pray for our enemies? This is not sound public policy. The Department of Defense will not get on board with this plan. Don't you see what this world is like? There are terrorists out there who want to wipe us from the face of the earth.

Jesus, no wonder so many people didn't like you. No wonder they shouted, "Crucify him!" They would do the same to me if I spoke out like you. Do you really mean this literally? What happened to the tribalistic God who called for the slaughter of Israel's enemies and the same for their women and children and even animals. Animals? What did they do? I mean, the Psalmist even wrote this dark line, "Happy is the one who seizes your (the enemies') infants and dashes them against the rocks" (137:9). How do I reconcile that to "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God?"

 Sermon on the Mount by James Tissot

And yet you go one step further. You push us past our limits, past our boundaries. You go to the utmost of bizarre lengths to see if we will truly follow you, Lord. You say, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This is frightening, Lord. I feel timid before such a faith. Am I willing to suffer persecution for your sake? Am I willing to let my family suffer as well? How can you say that is "blessed?" Are you being sarcastic with all of these things? Certainly your prophets suffered such fates. God, you allowed your only Son to suffer even worse. And his disciples . . . Where is the health and wealth and prosperity gospel in all of this? I know that there are those around the world who know this daily. I know that there are Christians in Syria who have lost their lives violently, even at the hands of their own families, for their belief in you. I saw those martyrs lose their heads.  

Jesus, I have a hard time with this. I am a person who wants to please others and to have them like me. This whole revile thing, well . . . "Rejoice and be glad?" There are days when I can't even do that just getting up to go to work, but now you're telling me to do that in the face of persecution and suffering? And for what? Leshem shamayim (the sake of heaven).  Isn't this all a bit irrational?

Sermon on the Mount  by Bryan Ahn

So I struggle. I wrestle. These words do not calm or comfort me. They confront me. They show me my weakness and my selfishness. My duplicitous heart is put under the microscope. 

Whenever Jesus says a beatitude, I can also hear him asking, as he once asked Peter, "Do you love me?"

"You know I do, Lord," I answer, ashamed of my often being as cowardly as Peter in my own daily walk with Christ. How many times have I abandoned you, Lord? Denied you? Dismissed you? Like Thomas Jefferson, I have wanted to cut and paste my own Bible so that I could take out the parts that gave me discomfort. I want the Sunday school Jesus who holds lambs and children. 

Lord, don't you know what people will label me if I do these things? 

 Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch 

No comments:

Post a Comment