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 3: Turning Our Values Upside Down
From the Sermon on the Mount read Matthew 5:4-9 For the parallel passage see Luke 6:21, 25. To follow up the theme look at Matthew 20:25-28.
The poet Shelley, in his "Ozymandias," tells of a traveler who, in an ancient land, saw the ruins of a once great monument. In the midst of the desert stood "two vast and trunkless legs of stone." Half-buried in the nearby sand was the shattered, sneering face which had once been part of the statue. We are not told whether war or nature had destroyed the once impressive object. We learn only this:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
A witty modern writer suggests that along with the engraving on the pedestal may also be found the scratched names of Mr. and Mrs. Dukes and various other tourists. Obviously Ozymandias did not awe them. History is hard on boasters. Every cemetery reminds us that
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Yet still we love glory. And when Jesus tells us the paths that lead to blessedness, we cannot bring ourselves to believe him. For he turns our usual values upside down.
The Mourners, the Hungry, the Pure
Each Beatitude of Jesus tells how the kingdom of God reverses the obvious situation. Each statement makes us readjust our thinking.
Those who mourn shall be comforted. The aim is not to make a miserable, weeping world. Some misery comes out of self-centeredness, frustrated ambition, the bitter emptiness of those who cannot love. There is no comfort in such misery.
But in this world only the crude and insensitive can avoid sorrow. In Handel's Messiah we sing of Jesus (in the words from Isaiah) as "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief."
Sympathetic spirits will often know grief.
In desperate periods of history some men always respond by saying that we cannot afford to be sensitive. If today a person were to feel grief for all the pains of the world, he could not
bear the load. Hence we steel ourselves, stifle emotion, avoid thinking about pain and suffering. The world was in turmoil in Jesus' time too. The Stoic philosophers were saying: "Don't
mourn. Self-control is the answer to sorrow." A few decades after Jesus, Epictetus -- a great man in many respects -- said: Love your wife and your children, but not so much that you will be hurt when they die.
But Jesus would have us enlarge and deepen our sympathies. For those who weep shall laugh (Luke); those who mourn shall be comforted. The word comfort has been cheapened. We have softened it to suit our love of being "comfortable." But look at the word. You can see it in the root of our word fortify. Those who are comforted find the peace that comes from strength. No wonder Christians find in Jesus the fulfillment of the great prophecy: "Comfort my people" (Is. 40:1).
The hungry and thirsty shall be satisfied. Not all hungers can be satisfied. One may have a craving for wealth as long as one lives. Most often it is not satisfied. Who has all the wealth he thinks he needs? Or who, when he gets it, finds satisfaction? Like wealth, many of life's goals are either never attained or, when attained, turn out to be empty.
To hunger and thirst after righteousness is different. Today we have narrowed the word righteousness to : refer to good conduct. To those who heard Jesus, it meant much more. It included justice, generosity, goodwill, compassion; it even came close to meaning salvation. For all this we may hunger and thirst.
Few Americans know what hunger is. If a meal is an hour late, we think we are hungry. Maybe we know thirst a bit better; everyone has felt a parched throat on a torrid day. But with water coolers and soft-drink machines in most buildings, it takes imagination to feel the craving of intense thirst. If we knew such thirst -- for righteousness -- we would be blessed in God's kingdom.
The pure in heart shall see God. Aristotle had taught that the man of genius and education, if he had all the advantages of life, could contemplate God. For women, children, slaves, this was impossible, as it was for the ignorant and poverty-stricken. Jesus turns the whole system over. He has already blessed the poor in spirit, for whom Aristotle could have only condescension. Now he gives the one qualification for seeing God -- purity of heart.
The Hebrew, unlike many of the surrounding peoples, was little interested in the mystical vision of God. He saw God in God's activity, in divine judgment and mercy -- and now, at last, in Christ. Albert Schweitzer has written of Jesus: "He commands. And to those who obey, be they wise or simple, he will reveal himself through all that they are privileged to experience in his fellowship of peace and activity, of struggle and suffering, till they come to know, as an inexpressible secret, who he is . . ." (Out Of My Life and Thought by Albert Schweitzer, pp.71-72. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1933. Used by permission)
To obey Christ, says Schweitzer, is to know God through Christ. But who obey? The pure in heart. The best commentary is the story of Nicodemus in John 3. Not intelligence, education, leadership, but rebirth into purity of heart is needed.
The Meek, the Merciful, and the Peacemakers
Now (rearranging the order slightly) come three blessings that have been all but silenced by the thunder of our warlike world.
The meek shall inherit the earth. People love to laugh at this one. What an idea! All the earth that the meek inherit is six feet in a cemetery plot! (But that's a bad example to prove the point. In cemeteries the conquerors are like the rest of us.)
However, meek does not mean cowardly or soft. The tremendous Moses was called the meekest of men (Numbers 12:3). Jesus was meek (Matthew 11:29) -- heroically meek. There is nothing of Caspar Milquetoast in this Beatitude.
Benito Mussolini, when asked what his ambition was, replied: "I am obsessed by this wild desire -- it consumes my whole being: I want to make a mark on my era with my will, like a lion with its claw! A mark like this. . . ." And, using his fingernail as a claw, Mussolini gouged a scratch in the back of a chair.
That is not meekness, but it is not strength either. Compare Abraham Lincoln, both stronger and meeker than Mussolini. As a young lawyer he had been crushed by the rude treatment of a distinguished colleague, Edwin Stanton. But, ignoring pride, he appointed to the cabinet this man who had snubbed him. And Stanton learned to work intimately with the president whom he had regarded as "the Illinois Ape." Similarly, when General McClellan's repeated insolence to the President made others furious, Lincoln refused to worry. "I will hold McClellan's horse," he said, "if he will only bring us success." No weak personality can be so meek.
But how shall the meek inherit the earth? Jesus' words echo Psalm 37:11. To inherit anything meant in the Hebrew tradition to receive it as a divine gift. (So Christians are "fellow heirs with Christ," as Paul says in Romans 8: 17.) Jesus is not explaining how to acquire real estate, although even here we might ask how much the Mussolinis, with their disdain for meekness, accomplish. The real promise refers to the kingdom of God, where the meek are granted the divine blessing.
The merciful shall obtain mercy. Mercy represents one of the richest words in the Hebrew tradition. It is one of the key qualities of God. It is loving-kindness, generosity to the weak and helpless, continued love for people even when they have not been faithful. It is opposed to the rugged individualism in which men compete for gain by forcing the weak under.
The newspapers pointed out when Lavrenti Beria, former chief of the Russian secret police, was arrested and "liquidated," that this man was really the victim of his own methods. Locked in the prison where he had locked others, subjected to treatment that he had taught his secret police, tried in the sort of trial he had helped to engineer, he was mocked by his own cruelty. It would have been ironical if, in his cell, he had looked in a Bible and chanced to see the words, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."
The peacemakers shall be called sons of God. The Prince of Peace was the one Son of God. We, if we are peacemakers, can be called sons of God. We have been told, in this cruel century of history, that the only purpose of war is victory. But surely peace is the only purpose that can justify war. Even the warrior, if he is a Christian, will be less a warrior than a peace maker.
Real peacemaking takes courage. It is not a matter of crying peace where there is no peace. It is not the avoidance of trouble in proud isolation. It is not indifference to the sufferings of others. Peace is a call to heroic activity. It is God's work, in which we may share.
The Perpetual Conflict
It is a long time since the human race first heard these words of the Beatitudes. But they still sound almost as strange as they ever did. Jesus stands in perpetual conflict with the ways of the world. Persuasive philosophies keep trying to undermine these "Blessings."
(a) Many today, like Plato and Aristotle before Christ, say that true understanding and happiness are reserved for the mentally brilliant. Brains, they say, will save us. The scholars and technicians, not the "poor in spirit" or the "pure in heart," will lead humanity out of its despair.
(b) Some find in economic power the key to success. Marxism sneers at religion as an "opium" devised by the wealthy to keep the poor meek and content in their misery. American propaganda often says that our tremendous production and our high standard of living make us worthy to follow. Gradually we are realizing that such propaganda often makes other peoples despise rather than honor us.
(c) Various forms of ego-gratification promise happiness. Experts report that in primitive societies appeals to vanity sometimes succeed when all other motivations fail. Primitive man has been called "a peacock." We wonder whether civilized man is greatly different.
(d) Power and domination are powerful goals. Nietzsche, the German philosopher, scorned the "slave morality" of Christians and praised "master morality," the will to power. Laughing at sympathy and selflessness, he called them expressions of weakness.
To all these attitudes Christian faith makes a double reply. First, it reverses their valuations. Again and again it takes the side of the lowly. Second, it asserts that seeming weakness in reality may be strength. Mussolini and Nietzsche think that men cooperate, sympathize, and accept scorn or ridicule only because they are too weak to assert themselves. Christian faith replies that Mussolini and Nietzsche were the real pathological weaklings, that when a man has genuine strength he does not need to parade his power. So the Jewish scholar, Claude Montefiore, acknowledges in Jesus' message "an ethical teaching for heroes."
Missing the Point
Sometimes, instead of rejecting Jesus' teaching, we accept it too easily. We approve it because we do not even see the conflict with our usual ways. Thus visitors to the White House heard one President of the United States -- never mind which one -- say the following:
"The Sermon on the Mount is what we try to live by. If we can get all the world in that frame of mind, we will come nearer to stopping these terrible wars than by any other method I know of."
"We have become the leaders of the moral forces of the world, leaders who believe that the Sermon on the Mount means what it says, leaders who believe that the law is a God-given law under which we live, that all of our traditions have come from Moses at Sinai and Jesus on the Mount. We are endeavoring to live and act by that law."
"The Russian Communists do not believe in a moral code and even go so far as to say there is no Supreme Being."
Some American churchmen approved those words for their "spirituality. But The Christian Century, one of the foremost Protestant magazines, said: "We wonder a little how recently he (the President) has read those three austere and humbling chapters from the Gospel according to Matthew." (The Christian Century, June 28, 1950, p.782)