We’re approaching the end of our survey of Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus (you can read my review here; other posts in this series can be found by clicking on the Simply Jesus category in the sidebar of the home page).
In the fifteenth and final chapter of Simply Jesus, titled “Jesus: The Ruler of the World”, Wright sets about explaining just how it is that God, through Jesus, has established His kingship in the world. In the midst of his explanation, the good professor refers to the Beatitudes. This, of course, is the name given to the most famous portion of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, found at the beginning of Matthew 5. Let’s remind ourselves of the text:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for 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 sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
While these enduring words of Jesus have no doubt been the subject of many sermons down the centuries, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of sermons I’ve heard on the Beatitudes in 29 years in charismocostal* churches. And that would still be true if several of those fingers had been amputated.
I suspect the main reason for this relative neglect among modern evangelicals is that you can’t easily shoe-horn the Beatitudes into any kind of teaching about how to be a go-getting, world-changing, ass-kicking super-Christian. (Sorry, I may have got a bit carried away there. But I hope you see my point.)
Poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness… who wants to hear about such dull and dreary attributes? Well, you certainly won’t have much time to spare for such things if you’re dancing to the beat of the world’s drum, which says that only the strong survive; that bigger, newer and more expensive is better; and that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
But, let’s face it, even if you’re committed to setting aside worldly paradigms and honestly wrestling with Jesus’ enigmatic words, they’re still not easy to get a handle on. In my experience, the faltering conclusion we usually come to in considering Jesus’ exhortations about blessedness is that he is describing the future blessed state of those who fit his descriptions. Are you poor in spirit? Never mind, cheer up – you’ll get some kind of blessed reward one day, in the sweet by and by.
The other way we typically react to Jesus’ descriptions in the Beatitudes is by assuming that Jesus is holding up some kind of ideal to which we should all aspire but which no living, breathing human being has the faintest chance of ever actually achieving. In essence, we throw up our hands and exclaim, What? That’s impossible! No one can really live like that!
And so we scratch our heads, put the Beatitudes back on the shelf of things Jesus said that we are resigned never to fully understand, and move on.
Thankfully, if we understand the nature of Jesus’ mission in the world, both in first century Palestine and wherever we happen to live today, we can make sense of what he was getting at when he painted his portraits of those who are the Blessed Ones. Allow Tom Wright to help us understand:
The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom-people. They are not simply about how to behave, so that God will do something nice to you. They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world. He wants to do it through this sort of people — people, actually, just like himself (read the Beatitudes again and see). The Sermon on the Mount is a call to Jesus’ followers to take up their vocation as light to the world, as salt to the earth — in other words, as people through whom Jesus’ kingdom-vision is to become a reality. This is how to be the people through whom the victory of Jesus over the powers of sin and death is to be implemented in the wider world.
— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus
Wright’s explanation is so clear that there’s little I need to add. But that’s never stopped me before, so let me say a couple of things:
1. In the Beatitudes, Jesus turns all our ideas of success on their head. If you want to be a world-changer, don’t try to be the biggest, the fastest, the strongest or the most impressive, however worthy your particular project might be. If you do, you’re really just doing as the world does, and how does that change the world? Sure, you might achieve some very worthwhile aims in the process, but in terms of changing how the world is – its fundamental mode of operation – you’re on the wrong boat altogether.
This is why it bothers me when I hear pastors, teachers and other Christian leaders exhorting people to be champions and world-changers. It’s not that the world doesn’t need changing: it needs it most desperately. The question is, how would Jesus have us go about changing it? How he went about changing the world was by emptying himself, making himself of no account and laying down his life. Perhaps his example should give us a clue.
2. In the Beatitudes, Jesus is pointing us to the way to true happiness. Biblical scholars tell us that the word often rendered “blessed” could also be translated “happy”. Happy are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful… Which immediately raises the question, How can someone who is poor in spirit be happy?
The answer, of course, is rather obvious. If the values you live by are those celebrated and upheld by the world, any suggestion that happiness might be found in simplicity and self-abasement is going to appear foolhardy. But if the values you live by are those of the kingdom…
I think what Jesus understands and is trying to illustrate is that the search for happiness through the usual avenues of outward success, appearance, wealth, status, etc. – all the things the world tells us we should value and pursue – is ultimately doomed to fail. These things might bring some degree of satisfaction for a time, but only until someone smarter, wealthier and more successful shows up and we begin to feel we have something to prove again.
Jesus knows that the only way to find true contentment is to opt out of the world’s merry-go-round altogether. If only we could get that through our heads.
(Incidentally, this is a subject to which I’ll no doubt return in the coming months, if only because I have Scot McKnight’s highly acclaimed commentary on the sermon on the mount sitting on my Kindle waiting to be read.)
* Charismocostal: of or pertaining to charismatic and/or Pentecostal churches and/or practices.
[ Image: Steve Day ]