(Disclaimer: This isn’t a short blog entry and usually I’d split in two and put the second part on a later date, but that was not going to be the case with this one. Sometimes blog entries of this kind prove not to be everyone’s cup of tea. This is all OK with me. I feel the whole deal needs to be published as it’s come and I’m comfortable with people not reading it or reading it and not understanding it or reading it and violently disagreeing with it.
Either way in the light of the Word I read, I knew I couldn’t accept some ways of viewing the Word in the safe and ‘spiritual’ confines in which it’s left. By ‘spiritual’ what is often implied is a personal, private experience that leaves a warm fuzzy feeling inside but has little bearing on anything else. Jesus’ words here was definitely not designed to leave anyone with a fuzzy feeling inside. So I write as inspired and will take whatever happens in response.)
The problem with some bible studies is that they can become rather academic. Almost like you’re reading a good book and find a really good part in there, you talk about it with others and write something on it, but that’s it. It may be much heated conversation with emotions raised, but little lasting impact in life.
God’s Word is not there for academic study. If these are the reactions to discovering what He is saying to us here,we have truly missed the point of why He has sent it to us in the first place. As if that’s not bad enough, we can compartmentalise the Word. It is applicable for this area of life. In fact there is a danger of sanitising the word and making it a regular part of the private, noble expressions of faith. It is safe and inoffensive for it does not dare to impose itself on anyone.
One particular are that is in great risk of being sanitised is the so-called Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5-7. Yet we dare to do such a thing at the cost of messing about with one of the most incendiary, explosive parts of the scripture. For example take the first thing that Jesus says,
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Now some people just get on with looking at what does it mean to be poor in spirit, where others pick up on the blessed bit and search for its meaning and then others join the dots and look at the incentive, look at the reward for those who fit the bill. Nothing wrong with these as such, but consider the consequences of such a statement. Consider what would happen to our world if Christians could truly be counted in this category.
For example certain countries often boast of their Judaeo-Christian heritage and foundation and refer to how they are heavily influenced by biblical ideas and principles. Yet here in the first instance of Jesus outlining the Kingdom Agenda, His first port of call strikes to the heart of who we are but what is unpopular to be. It’s all well and good saying life is precious and so making murder illegal, but what about this quality of a Kingdom subject?
Which country in living history could ever claim to promote and endorse the concept of being poor in spirit? Which country would ever say it lay at the heart of their understanding of the human condition to seek to poor in spirit? Got a country yet? Don’t bother – no state government in its right mind would ever look to go about preaching these basic Kingdom principles if it wished to retain its hold on power. It would be considered as a sign of weakness.
True humility is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural – whatever culture you can think of. It’s not self-flaggellation that is being referred to here, it is a general position of recognising how you should be prostrate in constant need of God who gives life, meaning and purpose to all things. That lack of self-sufficiency, that recognition of a divine dependency mentality flies in the face of all the self-help tips and independent teaching that looks to centre you as the the one who should be pampered and cared for more than any other.
In giving credence to what Jesus declares in this discourse is to be a threat to the status quo and inherently an enemy of the state. If you don’t believe me through these examples, look further in Matthew 5 where Jesus promotes loving your enemy, praying for them and blessing them. In a bid to sanitise this area, it’s easy to quickly shuffle this aside when it comes to warfare.
It’s easy to refer to Old Testament precedent of the nation of Israel going on military conquests to gain and retain the land promised to them by God. It’s easy to develop Just War theories that sidestep this requirement and give exceptions to national causes. It’s easy, but is it right? Why would the consequences for the disciple’s commitment to Christ bring an exception when it comes to engagement in ‘support of their country’? Yet again, however, these very sentiments from the Messiah have allowed people to pursue pacifism and non-violent means of seeking justice. It has lead to some refusing to engage in any violent conflict on the grounds of the very words Jesus says in His Kingdom Agenda.
Throughout the monologue there can be no denying the effects of these words are bombs going off in the very fabric of convenient and conventional religion, convenient and conventional society as well as convenient and conventional culture. No longer are we to be materially motivated and money-oriented, rather we should embrace the Kingdom perspective that implicitly trusts God to provide these basic needs as we pursue the call to share the values of righteousness and peace as defined by God. Yet try telling that to this capitalist, consumer and commercial society that informs everything we do today. Tell that to a government that says it’s concerned about balancing budgets but doesn’t waste any time miring a country in further unsustainable debt through its investments in petty and non-constructive matters.
What’s more at the heart of these powerful words is a call to a prayer-life that is about the Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. That is a Kingdom that undermines, challenges and opposes the real tenets on which current Kingdoms are run whether it’s a despotic authoritarian government or a liberal democratic society. These Kingdom calls are not for those looking for a comfortable life. These items on the Kingdom agenda when followed carefully must inevitably bring up rejection, mockery, dismissal and derisory comments.
In a world ever ruled by the popular and pragmatic, Jesus spoke of a Kingdom lifestyle that was not bothered about being popular and looked for things behind the surface pragmatic approach to things. It was challenging the whole way of life to see if it conformed to the character of Christ. That is why it was no good believing you could turn up to Jesus with a list of achievements believing these are sufficient, when the only achievement of worth is knowing Him and His Kingdom intimately for that to be reflected in a lifestyle of love and service, purpose in purity and righteousness ruling in all things.
That is also why implicitly in this scripture there is an encouragement to call for the spirit of God to help in giving the heart, the mind, the being to be able to live up to the items on the Kingdom agenda, so that the narrow road could be followed carefully despite the distractions of others.
No this so-called Sermon on the Mount is not to be taken lightly. It’s presentation may have been friendly and interactive and yet the content of the message went deeper and provoked more than an academic or purely emotive responses.
The speech gave so much hope for those looking to escape the misery and depravity of life as it currently stood, but that hope was not to come without a personal price for those who choose to follow. For all the challenge, the prize ahead – being a part of the new Kingdom of God able to see Him and be with Him would far outweigh the level of grief and pain of the persecution that necessarily follows the commitment to the Kingdom.
No wonder people were amazed at the authority with which Jesus spoke, because these words – though not all that new – were expressed with the meaning to highlight their revolutionary implications.
Today, some expressions of church make you wonder if they really got the gist of Jesus’ declaration of the Kingdom. Some expressions of Christianity leave you scratching your head as to whether this is something to expect persecution for such is its claim to the comforts of around them. Some internal wranglings also indicate that the rule of God in our own lives need to be chiselled away with the hammer of the words that Jesus shares in these words.
So the challenge remains today for the same original target as the initial monologue – those disciples who come to Him. The challenge is to dare live outside of popularity and conformity. The challenge is to dare live without reference to the world’s values and priorities. The challenge is not to sanitise these precious words as if they are safe words for pious moralising and engage with life-changing truth as to what the inevitable rule of God will look, sound, smell, act and be like.
For His Name’s Sake