I'm a huge* fan of Jesus's "Sermon on the Mount," and not necessarily because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as though I had swallowed a live beaver -- in fact, rather the opposite. I like this passage because it can be seen as an (almost) systematic demolition of all the excuses and rationalizations we use to convince ourselves that we're perfectly fine, decent people (and also God likes us better than people who vote for the other political party). The uncomfortable fact is, I do, deep down, believe myself to be a perfectly nice and good human being, and to that end I present to you a list of excuses (one litany):
This is a huge problem, as I have tried to outline in my previous posts on Brokenness (Part 1, Part 2, Part 2.5). So now I take you through the Sermon on the Mount, step by step, excuse by excuse, as they all fizzle away in the acid bath of Jesus's teaching.
1. I'm Good with God Because my Life is Going Pretty Well (Matthew 5:1-12)
Jesus starts off the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes - a passage intimately familiar to most folks who grew up in the church. And yet, I think a lot of us (meaning me + some unspecified number of the rest of you) seem to believe Jesus said this:
Instead of what he actually said:
"Blessed are those who mourn" "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" "Blessed are those who are persecuted"
And in a similar passage in the book of Luke:
"Blessed are the poor" "Woe to the rich"
Jesus handily undoes a central (often unspoken) tenet of our self-justification - that our ability to manage our lives well means that God is totally fine with where we are. We avoid certain big sins, handle things with common sense, and believe that the resulting nice life is a sign from God that everything is hunky dory. Jesus would not seem to agree.
Instead, he presents us with what I believe to be the thesis statement of the whole Sermon on the Mount:
"Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth."
2. I'm Good with God Because I'm a Member of the Right Group (Matthew 5:13-16)
Jesus's teachings about salt and light are often taught like this to kids at church camp, shortly before they are summarily wedgied by the older boys:
This is a good message, but to Jesus's audience, I think it was not news. The Jewish people already believed deep down that they were the salt and light of the earth.
We all have our tribe - maybe our race or ethnicity, our education level, our denomination, our political affiliation, whatever. We want credit for having the right membership card in our wallet. No dice, says Jesus. He wants your heart, and he wants it humble.
3. I'm Good with God Because I Follow the Rules (Excepts For the Ones That Don't Matter Anyway) (Matthew 5:17-20)
In one fell swoop, Jesus demolishes both the idea that my rules-following makes me righteous and that I don't have to follow the rules. I couldn't think of a funny way to illustrate this one, though, so here's a picture of a hippopotamus juggling penguins:
4. I'm Good with God Because I Don't Do Anything Really Bad (Matthew 5:21-28)
I think sometimes we want moral credit for going our whole lives without stabbing an RMV employee with a barbecue fork, despite the temptation:
But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reveals that God is not fooled - he knows the murder and adultery in our hearts. We want credit for being smart enough not to plunge a knife into someone's chest or run away with the mail carrier (and hence reap the repercussions), but we do exactly as much as we think we can get away with. And we want moral credit for that? Imagine telling your spouse:
Have you tried on the words "murderer" or "adulterer" for size? They don't have quite the same ring as "decent human being," I've discovered. But make no mistake, in God's eyes, as well as the eyes of anyone who knew what we were really thinking deep down, those are our titles to own.
5. I'm Good with God Because I Try My Hardest (Matthew 5:29-30)
We really want God to believe that we're "doing our best." Maybe our actions are beyond our control - maybe it can't be helped!
I WOULD be good, God, but the internet is full of smut, and I have to have the internet to do my job. I WOULD be good, God, but my hand just goes places and I can't help it. Of course, if my hand really WERE doing evil things against my will, shouldn't I chop it off just like that guy from that execrable horror movie, Idle Hands? The fact is, my hand has nothing to do with it. I do evil because I want to. God knows it, and I know it. I'm not trying my hardest. I'm not removing myself from situations that I know tempt me. I'm not fleeing temptation - I'm trying to toe the line so I can innocently fall over it from time to time. That's not trying my best. Not even close.
6. I'm Good with God Because I've Been Treated Unfairly (Matthew 5:38-48)
I think Americans have a REALLY hard time with the last part of chapter 5. We can't believe Jesus is actually saying what his words seem to be saying. This is because, to an American, "standing up for yourself" is a cardinal virtue, regardless of your side of the political aisle:
America is all about fighting bad guys. Whether it's British tyranny, Southern slavery, Nazis, Commies, carbon emissions, or the lack of global access to Coca-Cola products, Americans believe in standing up to evil, wherever it lurks (even if -- sometimes especially if -- it's other Americans!). That's how we know we're the good guys, dang it. And there's nothing quite as satisfying as mulling over just how rotten those other people are.
And then here's Jesus - "Do not resist an evil man." Our enemies become excuses to strut around self-righteously - whether in deed or even merely in thought. We are to be completely, utterly innocent, even if that means letting honest-to-goodness jerks walk all over us. That's really hard for me. If I'm in the right, why should I suffer? Isn't being right what matters?
Well (I try to remind myself), how do I know I'm right? And on the off-chance I am right, it didn't matter for Jesus on the cross, did it?
And we're just getting warmed up! Chapters 6 and 7 are even worse... I mean better!
Happy holidays, everybody!