What a striking and wonderful message Jesus preached on the Mount.
It could be said that the Sermon on the Mount is a thumbnail sketch of Jesus’ central teachings for his followers, a brief catechism of the faith. It was a message so new that it was shocking to those who heard it. Those with faith could sense that something earth shattering was happening in those words. They might not have understood the full import of it, but somewhere in their life-wearied hearts they felt a stirring they had not known before.
Some who heard it, those who made the external accoutrements of religion more important than the lived faith, who burdened the people under laws that even they could not keep, who were too full up with self-importance, thought this itinerant preacher was at least crazy, but maybe even dangerous to their comfortable status quo.
Why these two reactions? And are these same reactions still recognizable today? My purpose for this series of articles on the Sermon on the Mount is to look at those questions through the prism of the dictums that Jesus articulated to that crowd on that day. It is as much to challenge me out of my own prideful opinions about faith as it is to challenge all of us to reexamine the distance that so often lies between our words and our deeds when it comes to actually living out of our faith. I will be using the account from Luke 6: 20-42.
The sermon begins with a set of powerful ideas, ideas that must have struck the hearers of that time as being odd, much as they continue to strike us today. These ideas seemed to be directed at the very core of suffering in the existing culture then, and now.
Jesus looked at them and said, “Blessed are you poor; the Kingdom of God is yours! Happy are you who are hungry now; you will be filled! Happy are you who weep and mourn; for one day you will laugh!”
These words throw the bright light of truth on the reality of suffering, that human universal that we all know in the intimacy of our own hearts. The suffering of the poor touches their every waking moment with the worry of mere survival, the dull and constant pangs of hunger, and the poverty of spirit they experience in the rejection and the indifference they encounter in others. What do they hear? Maybe, hope! Hope that their suffering might have some as yet undiscovered meaning. That suffering is not eternal. It has an end. More than that, that their suffering has its rewards.
Some others may have heard these words as a threat to their status, to their importance. There were those, then as now, who looked down upon the poor, the hungry, the suffering masses, or simply ignored them, keeping them out of their minds, avoiding them on the village streets, thinking of them as not worthy of their concern, because, in their comfortable, self-supporting theology, these people suffered precisely because they were outside of the graces of God. There is unrecognized irony in this. Are they who reject and remain indifferent to the poor and the suffering around them not more poor in their humanity than those who are poor materially?
The poor and the hungry and those who weep and mourn are still with us today. Jesus’ promise of relief is still as real today as it was then, but the neglect of the self-important, the greedy and the powerful, is too.
When, then, will Jesus’ words be fulfilled? Might it be possible that Jesus was speaking to the people before him as free individuals who could make choices based on faith and reason. He did not impose anything on them, nor does He on us today. He simply proposes to us, shows us the choices before us and then lets us make the decisions either to imitate Him by being persons for others, or to drown in the juices of our own selfishness.
Jesus tells us that, “The poor will always be with you.” Why? Is it because the poor and the suffering challenge us to break out of our self-centered and selfish hearts. Is it because the poor actually offer us an opportunity to be liberated, to be unshackled from the temporary and unsatisfying illusions of material comfort and self importance by seeing them and responding to their needs as fellow children of God? Might that not also liberate them from their poverty. Is it because the poor, in their suffering, call us to compassionate service, to suffer WITH them? Do they teach us how to love as Jesus did? Do the poor not represent all of us in the larger scheme of the Creation and the Fall. If we could see the poor with Jesus’ eyes, wouldn’t we love them enough to empower them, to enable them, to welcome them into the fullness of society with us.?
Indeed, wouldn’t that be drawing near to the Kingdom of God? Wouldn’t that be satisfying? Wouldn’t that be cause for the real beauty and gift of laughter?
Jesus does not force us to be his followers, He invites us. He does not demand unquestioning submission. Rather, with His life, His death, and His resurrection, He shows us how to be for and with others, and invites us to imitate Him. In doing so He promises to be in loving relationship with us now and forever. With God on our side, who could be against?
This is the first in a three part series about the Sermon on the Mount. Read Part II now.SKM: below-content placeholder