I read Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels a few weeks ago. It was written by Mary Gordon, an author and a Christian. It was interesting. Anything that makes me examine the teachings of Jesus can be beneficial. I appreciated her honesty and her ability to dig deep. Some of it was a little off putting to me but that may be because it made me look at things in a way I was not ready for. Still I thought some of it was a little whiny or nit picky. It felt like she was saying, “Why did He say that? Why didn’t He say this? What was He trying to say here?” Two mistakes we make when reading the Bible are that we get so deep into the details that we forget the big picture and that we try to interpret a passage based on our point of view. One of the areas I felt frustrated by in her book was the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. So here’s my big picture look at the Beatitudes.
There is a way of looking at how God has dealt with mankind over the centuries. Not a doctrine, just a way of looking at things. It’s called dispensations. First, in the Garden, there was innocence. After the fall there was conscience, then government, then the Patriarchs, then the Law, and now grace. Millennial reign and eternity are still to come.
It’s always seemed to me that God was showing us something in all these ways of governing ourselves. None of these approaches could give us fully satisfying communion with Him. None of these could make us truly righteous. God was giving us every opportunity to do it on our own, in our own strength. God was making a point. He was showing us we couldn’t do it on our own, we couldn’t recover what we lost in the Garden by ourselves. And to emphasis the point, when He was finished, He went silent. For 400 years He was silent. No revelation, no prophets, no word from God.
So we tried to make our own word. Scholars took the law of Moses and interpreted it, wrote commentaries, created detailed rules for every moment of our lives. Do no work on the Sabbath but what is work? They defined work. They determined how many steps you could take before it became work. One step more and you were profaning the Sabbath. They took these rules and they enthusiastically embraced them. Then they put them on the backs of everyone else.
Into this atmosphere of self righteousness and burden walked Jesus. He sat down to teach and the people sat down to listen. These were not the ‘righteous’ ones. Oh the ‘righteous ones’ were there alright, checking Him out, watching for errors. But most of the congregation was made up of just ordinary people. Like the guy at the next desk who was drunk all weekend. Or the one who is living with her boyfriend and cheating on him behind his back. Or the deadbeat dad. Or any of those people around us who we think of as sinners who are just trying to stay alive, just looking for an excuse to keep going, a reason to get out of bed every morning.
So what did He say to them?
To those people who had been told in ways spoken and unspoken that they were not righteous and they would never be righteous He said:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
- Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
- Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
- Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
And as He spoke these people who had been told they didn’t measure up and could never measure up, these people lifted their eyes and found hope. They saw that God was not who the pharisees said He was. They saw that He was not out of their reach.
The ‘righteous’ among them said ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ Jesus said ‘Love your enemies.’ The ‘righteous’ said ‘When compelled to, carry a burden grudgingly as far as required.’ Jesus said ‘When compelled to carry one mile, carry it two.’ He said things about divorce and hatred and honesty that didn’t square with what they had been taught. And frankly what He said was a lot more difficult to live out than what the Pharisees said. But it resonated with them. It sounded like what God would say.
Then He said ‘You are the light of the world.’ The Pharisees never said that. The priests never said that. I can imagine the listeners raising their heads, tears in their eyes, as they heard the good news. Good news that the world still needs to hear today.
The history of the church is this:
The white heat of revival brings new life and spontaneous worship. But spontaneity soon becomes practice, practice becomes tradition, tradition becomes ritual and the fire goes out. What rekindles the fire is when ordinary people, people we consider unrighteous, hear the words of Jesus once again. ‘You are the light f the world.’
The message of the gospel is not ‘You must be righteous.’ It’s ‘You can be righteous.’