The Sermon on the Mount by Roger Shinn
Roger L. Shinn is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This material prepared for Religion_Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 2: The Spiritual Revolution
From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 5:1-3. For the parallel passage see Luke 6:20, 24. To follow up the theme look at Jeremiah 9:23-24; Matthew 18:1-4.
The first sentence in the Sermon on the Mount strikes the revolutionary note characteristic of that revolutionary person -- Jesus of Nazareth. We often miss this fact, because Jesus' words are so familiar. Like worn knives that have lost their cutting power, the sentences may lose their edge and even soothe rather than cut us. So try, as you study the Sermon on Mount, to read with fresh imagination -- as though you had never heard it before. You may be surprised at the result. Take the words seriously and they may anger you, annoy you, inspire you. They will hardly bore you. For they are revolutionary words.
Of course, Jesus was not trying to organize a revolt or seize the government. The traditional bearded bomb-thrower and the clever modem conspirator spit at his teaching. Jesus is more radical than the most radical of our political revolutionaries, but in a different way. He seeks a different kind of power. He has different goals.
Dr. Robert J. McCracken, pastor of New York's Riverside Church, tells how, in his teaching days, a college student enthusiastically urged him to read The Communist Manifesto. Although the teacher had read it before, he offered a bargain. He would read the Marxist Manifesto if the student would read the "Manifesto of Jesus." The student was startled to find, in that first sermon attributed to Jesus, these words:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
No wonder the Christian gospel has caused "revolutions" wherever it has gone. The apostles were accused of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6). They might have answered that they were trying to turn a topsy-turvy world right side up. For they sought no dictatorship, no kingly power. Their activities heralded the kingdom of God, which Jesus had proclaimed.
A comparison will help us to catch the central idea of Jesus' revolution. In Ruddigore, a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, we get some advice which, though intended to be comic, most of us take rather seriously:
If you wish in the world to advance
Compare that ditty with some other words, meant seriously but more likely to be taken as a joke. In 1918 Eugene V. Debs, the famous socialist, said:
"While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
When we realize that Debs was anything but an orthodox Christian, we have to say with embarrassment that his words come closer to those of Jesus than do most of our own. They disturb us in the same way that the Sermon on the Mount does. For in our most generous moments we may wish that there were no lower classes, but we still prefer (so long as there are class differences) to find ourselves with the comfortable and secure.
But why do we disagree with Jesus? Do we misunderstand him? If so, do we deliberately misunderstand, or is it an accident? A look at just the first verse of the Sermon on the Mount may tell us. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Three terms in that one sentence are strange to us: kingdom of heaven, blessed, poor in spirit. If we understand them, we understand the sentence. And the one sentence gives us the clue to Jesus' whole message.
The Promise of God's Kingdom
Every week millions of people in this world mutter the phrase, "Thy kingdom come." If they really meant it, and knew what they meant, earthly kingdoms would tremble. They should know
what it means, for it comes out of the Lord's Prayer and is the central theme in the Lord's teaching. Jesus began his public career with the proclamation, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17). The sermon starts with the promise of this same kingdom of heaven (as Matthew calls it) or kingdom of God (Mark and Luke).
The kingdom of God is God's sovereignty over a community and a world that acknowledges. It is God's answer to the evils of a world that rebels against him and tries to deny his lordship. It is not a kingdom which can be located on a map, but it is as real as any of the passing empires of history. We can understand it best by looking at it in three stages.
1. The kingdom of God has existed as long as the world, for God is the ruler of all he has created. An ancient Hebrew prayer begins: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the world." But evil powers refuse to acknowledge God. They rebel against him. So, long before the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had begun to look for a Messiah and an act of God to conquer evil.
2. Jesus taught that this kingdom of God was "at hand," "drawing near," even "in your midst." God was acting to invade human history and defeat evil. Those who had eyes to see could
already discern the signs of the times. Then-Christians believe--God did just what Jesus said he would do. But God did not do it in the way that people expected. He did it through the crucifixion of Jesus, through the resurrection, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Faithful followers of Christ may now by faith and action enter into the life of God's kingdom.
3. God's activity is not finished. The world still goes its evil ways, often more ready to serve devilish causes than to serve God. Christians expect God to complete his work. Beyond this age is an inexhaustible future in which God will continue his work. His kingdom includes all of time and of eternal life.
So, it is sometimes said, Christians live "between the times." We live between earth and heaven, between God's act in Christ and the completion of that act. We see all the contrasts between the ways of the world and the ways of God, as described in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet right now we can serve him. We can enter into a sacred fellowship of God and men where the kingdom of God is a real power among us.
Thus when we read the Sermon on the Mount, we (like the first hearers) can respond to promises of a future divine kingdom. But more, we (better than those first hearers) can recognize that something of the power of this future kingdom is already ours if we respond to God's love, shown us in Christ.
That Mysterious Word -- Blessed
The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount are called "The Beatitudes." The word beatitude means blessedness, or the highest happiness. With a capital B it refers to the sayings of Jesus which start, "Blessed are...."
But a word like blessedness calls for some thinking. Just what does it mean? It has a strange flavor to it, and we do not use it often. Our word happiness may come close, but it is often too trivial a word. Modern slang may even say, "He had a few drinks and was getting happy." We need to get beyond that word.
The word used in the New Testament is not the common Greek word for happiness. It refers to the attainment of an ideal and a goal. As soon as you read the Beatitudes, you realize that Jesus is talking about something far deeper than what most people mean by happiness.
Yet the word does not mean something mournfully pious and sanctimonious. It is a word of exclamation, of profound congratulation. It has been translated: "Hail you!" -- "O the blessedness of!" -- "How happy!" It has a fervor of joy and enthusiasm about it: "Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh" (Luke 6:21). It is sometimes applied to God himself. And it is the expression of God's favor and God's mercy upon us. So, sometimes not realizing what we are doing, we "ask the blessing" -- that is, ask God's blessing upon our families -- at mealtime.
Who Shall Enter God's Kingdom?
Of all the ways we might think of to find happiness, Jesus picks the last. Slashing through our eager ambitions, our goals, our hopes, he promises the kingdom of God to the "poor in spirit." So Matthew reports it. The record in Luke is even more startling: "Blessed are you poor, for God. . . . But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Luke 6:20, 24).
These are strange words, easily misunderstood. Jesus is not pronouncing a blessing on all people who are "hard up" -- however selfish or wicked they may be. Yet, though we may not like it, he uses words with economic significance. He reverses our ordinary scale of values. The motto of the newspaperman, Joseph Pulitzer, owes much to Jesus: "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Jesus consistently taught that possessing wealth is dangerously close to trusting in wealth and thereby rejecting the kingdom of God. (See Luke 12:16-21 and Matthew 19:16-26.)
The word was often used in Palestine to mean saintly. Especially in Jesus' time, under foreign rule, most of the rich people compromised with the pagan rulers and became worldly and irreligious, while the poor more often remained faithful. When Jesus blesses the poor, he means those who feel spiritual need, who make no claims for their own adequacy, who "do not have an inflated spirit" (Augustine), who are humble before God and yearn for his kingdom.
A foe of Christianity in the second century ridiculed this religion because it attracted "the very dregs of the population, peasants, mechanics, beggars, and slaves." One Christian, named Origen -- though himself a distinguished scholar who might have refuted the charge by pointing to his own learning -- answered that the church could take pleasure in following its Master by appealing to those whom others despised.
Now, after studying the three key terms, you can understand the first strange sentence of the Sermon on the Mount. Read it once more Then ask, Does anybody believe it? Do you believe it? What shall we do about this embarrassing challenge of Jesus of Nazareth?
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, complained that modern churchmanship is only play-acting. We have no thought of seriously believing Jesus. We are like tourists who, solely for amusement, use a quaint and obsolete guidebook. While we travel comfortably by rail, we read the book's description of the perilous roads and trails. Smoking a cigar a snug cafe, we read of dangerous robber bands who assault travelers in the region. Similarly, says Kierkegaard, while we enjoy our worldly comforts, we get a faint emotional glow from the reading of the Jesus whom we would never be so foolish as to obey.
Perhaps Kierkegaard was right. "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Christians have to come to terms with Jesus on that.