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The Greco-Roman world had seen a few radical teachers come and go, and those in power knew how to deal with them. Socrates once badgered Callicles into a corner until in exasperation he admitted, "0 Socrates, if what you say is true, then the life of us mortals must be turned upside down, and we are everywhere doing the opposite of what we should." Socrates wound up being forced to drink hemlock for suggesting the Athenians had gotten not just a few things, but everything, backwards.
The teacher that Paul and Silas professed to follow had been even more gruesomely executed - the iron fist of Rome. Jesus had rudely crumpled up the mental map of the commonly known world, saying the last shall be first and the greatest of all will be the servant of all - everything upside down or inside out. People tend not to appreciate that, and we know what happened. Strangely, those who had followed Jesus in life, instead of folding their tents and sulking quietly into oblivion, fanned out all over the Mediterranean, and in every place they were greeted with puzzled looks and clenched fists because they came with that same upside down, inside out message. "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here!"
How odd...at least to us! Christianity is something nice people do, isn't it? And the way we do it is probably so innocuous to onlookers that the potential for a riot is incomprehensible. Churches do not turn the world upside down; by our architecture, dress, and behavior we fit snugly into our surroundings. Political candidates wear their faith on their sleeves, and if they don't they get into trouble. Teenagers wear bracelets that hint at some vague morality: What would Jesus do? Books on the second coming of Jesus and a movie about his gruesome death haul in millions of dollars. How did the Jesus who got his followers into constant trouble in the ancient world come to fit in so comfortably, and even successfully, in our world today? Did Jesus adapt himself to the changing times? Are we more holy and devout, more in sync with God, than those bloody ancients? Or have we missed something? Or everything?
I wonder what would happen if we took Jesus half as seriously as did Paul and Silas. Is it imaginable that this world that most admit is sadly broken and steamily decadent would take offense? Could cities be thrown into turmoil? What does Jesus want from me? And for me? If we look into these Beatitudes of Jesus, what will we find? And might a few things, or even everything, look different because of what he said? And might they actually be different, better, more true, more beautiful, more faithful? Will onlookers say of us, "These [folks] who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here"?
To see and hear Jesus with clarity, we need to tune out the background racket. To do so, it might be helpful to resort to a time-honored technique of reading the Bible. For the rabbis of Jesus' day, and for the earliest generations of Christian theologians, every sentence, every word, every letter in scripture was there for a reason; nothing was superfluous. Every phrase, every consonant, was filled with meaning. In the same way, every omission, everything that was not said, was not said for a reason; every silence was pregnant with significance. So preachers and teachers did not merely ask, "What does scripture say?" but pressed on to clarify, "What does scripture not say? And can we deduce why?" (3)
Over these next weeks, as we hear the Beatitudes amid the clutter of our culture, and try hard to actually listen, we begin by asking, "What did Jesus NOT say?" To be honest, since we know what Jesus DID say in the Beatitudes and elsewhere, we certainly acknowledge that much of what we hear in our culture clangs rather noisily against Jesus words. What passes as wisdom in our world is directly in contradiction to Jesus.
Think about it. Jesus did not say Blessed are the rich. But we do, and our society wishes he did. We like the notion that it is actually Jesus who not only sees the rich as blessed, but even that Jesus was the one who blessed them with riches in the first place. Good people. Deserving people. Right? But then we pick up our Bible and find Jesus saying, "Blessed are the poor," (4) and he is even impolite enough to add, "Woe to you that are rich." Quick. Turn the page. Find something else. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (5) C'mon, Jesus, you can't be serious. We wish.
More. Jesus never said Blessed are the powerful, but we might wonder why not. After all, the powerful, those who are "connected," whether politically or economically or socially seem to be blessed beyond normal measure. Or are they? Perhaps it is good to remember the complaint of Alexander the Great on his death bed about there being no more worlds to conquer or John D. Rockefeller when he was asked how much money is enough and he responded, "Just a little bit more."
Jesus never said Blessed are those with a superb education, not that education is an evil to be avoided! But the unlettered, those without access to the corridors of knowledge, seem to enjoy some privileged access to Jesus' kingdom. Look at those who were Jesus' closest friends - fishermen, tax collectors - not a rabbi among 'em.
Jesus never said Blessed are the free. For Americans, there is no good, no "blessing," that seems more good, more precious, than freedom. Politicians have made wonderful careers touting freedom, freedom, freedom - we're going to arrange it for everyone in the world, whether they want it or not, and pity the fool that gets in our way. But what is this freedom? The ability to do what I want to do, when I want to do it? The capacity to worship God the way I want? Some folks see us and think we fritter our freedom away in self-indulgence. They see us making choices that many think are downright sinful. Freedom of worship has become freedom not to worship. Is worship about the way I want to worship? Or is it about God? Is life all about doing what I want to do? Does that not run into a rather large speed bump when we hear the one who spoke the Beatitudes saying, "Not my will, but your will be done?" Freedom? Independence? Jesus lived and taught DE-pendence, and invited others into the same dependence upon God, which alone is true freedom.
Speaking of America, our Declaration of Independence submits we have an "unalienable right" to the "pursuit of happiness." How fascinating, then, that Jesus never said Blessed are the happy. They seem blessed! Robert Schuller even wrote a book on the Beatitudes with the catchy, alluring title, The Be-Happy Attitudes. (6) Nothing wrong with happiness! And many of the more contemporary Bible versions have actually translated the Greek word makarios which we find at the beginning of each of Jesus' Beatitudes not as "blessed," but as "happy," and that is a legitimate translation. The danger, I fear, is that the word "happy" has gotten so watered down, so trivialized, that the "happiness" we pursue has virtually nothing to do with what Jesus had in mind when he said makarios..."blessed."
How do we measure whether we are happy or not? The gauge is usually superficial: for most of us, we are "happy" if we are having fun. Laughter, parties, smiles, feeling good, dabbling in hobbies and diversions: this is American-style "happiness." But to such "happy" people Jesus does not say, "Blessed are you because you are happy." Instead, he talks about poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, even persecution as contributors to happiness. It is all upside down, inside out.
To think of this upside-downness, inside-outness from another angle, look at what the church has taught for centuries as the "seven deadly sins" - lust, greed, gluttony, envy, anger, pride, and sloth. Once upon a time, these drove Christians to the confessional booth. But now, they sound like a commercial. Watch television, listen to chitchat in the hallway, analyze your checkbook. Sho' nuff - lots of lust, greed, gluttony, envy, anger, pride, and sloth. And people who are reasonably good in at least five or six out of the seven seem to have solved the riddle of the "happy" life. But Jesus never says anything good about them. Apparently, unless our argument from silence is totally misguided, Jesus still regards the seven deadly sins as deadly.
We do need to be careful here, and not make Jesus sound like a stick-in-the-mud who cannot bear anyone having a good time. Jesus is not and never was an ascetic. He himself was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard which would never have happened if he never ate or drank anything. Jesus has no interest in us or anyone being miserable, never enjoying life. Actually, Jesus wants the opposite - deeper pleasures, a higher enjoyment and delight in life.
Jesus is not anti-aspiration. Exactly the opposite. Jesus opens his teaching ministry with the Beatitudes not to douse cold water on our desires, but to whet our appetites, to heighten our desire, to stir in us a not-to-be-denied determination to be only the very best we can be (or rather, the very best we were made to be), to excite our imagination, to appeal to our longing for completion, to invite us to heaven. These are not so much attitudes that we SHOULD have as faithful disciples but rather attitudes that WILL BE - they will come with the territory.
I am wondering whether this might be as good a time in recent memory for us in America to hear again these words. Never in my lifetime has there been such a time of dissatisfaction with the status quo in our nation, which is why every candidate of every party is calling him- or herself the "candidate of change." In the paper this past week was an article called "Americans' unhappy birthday: 'Too much wrong'" (7) People were quoted using words like "terrified," "disgusted" and "scary" to describe what one calls "this mess" we Americans find ourselves in. Then comes the list of problems constituting the mess: a protracted war, $4-a-gallon gas, soaring food prices, uncertainty about jobs, an erratic stock market, a tougher housing market, and so on and so forth. The article went on to say, "The nation's psyche is battered and bruised, the sense of pessimism palpable. Young or old, Republican or Democrat, economically stable or struggling, Americans are questioning where they are and where they are going. And they wonder who or what might ride to their rescue."
I have a suggestion: the one who proposed that questionable priorities of ours about riches or power or freedom or any number of other things might need some reordering. When we finally decide that our literally hell-bent quest for self-reliance and independence is a fool's errand and say and mean "not my will but yours be done," then these Beatitudes, these amazing upside-down, inside-out attitudes that WILL BE will be ours.
I am a baseball fan. Even though there are some who liken watching baseball to watching paint dry, I love the game. This year, I along with all those who follow Major League Baseball have been surprised at the performance of the Tampa Bay Rays. Historically, Tampa Bay has been horrible - the strongest team in the league...holding every other team UP. But this year, halfway through the season, they have the best record in baseball. Why? Most folks credit Manager Joe Maddon and his ability to motivate his very young and relatively inexperienced team. He has tried to inspire a mind set that focuses on winning, and he has apparently succeeded. In the Rays clubhouse there are signs in four languages - English, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean - that all say the same thing: "Attitude is a decision."
Bingo. That will preach. "Attitude is a decision," and what your attitude will be will grow out of a basic decision that you and only you can make. Yes, as we study the Beatitudes over these coming weeks, you will hear things that are very much upside-down and inside-out. Then YOU will have to decide. In whom do you place your trust? Yourself? Your money? Your connections? Your social standing? Your education? Your power? Or perhaps you have come to the place in life where you have found that none of them quite make the grade and you are ready to trust something... someone...greater, the one scripture says "whom to know aright is life eternal."
For myself, I choose life. You too? God grant.
1. Acts 17:6
2. Acts 16:20
3. I am indebted to James C. Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), pp. 1-11 for the ideas behind today's sermon.
4. Luke 6:24
5. Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:24; Luke 18:25
6. Nashville, Tenn. : W Pub. Group, 1996
7. Pauline Arrillaga, Associated Press, Warren Times-Observer, 7/7/08, p. C-3