Jesus does some Plain Talking
As we start to re-orientate ourselves to some of the key passages in the New Testament, particularly those we often associate with the beginning of the approach to Easter, it is good to remind ourselves that to follow Jesus and his teachings is not all to do with happy Church worship, Joyous hymns, inspiring sermons and endless cups of tea with cake .
Jesus’ teaching can be disturbing and even uncomfortable and when it is acted upon even downright unpopular. I would go further. Catching on to Jesus’ central message helps us glimpse why Jesus, despite his messages of love, tolerance and forgiveness of enemies, should have enraged the authorities to the point they wanted him crucified. And since his serious followers might themselves risk stirring up the same sort of antagonism by applying such teaching, I even wonder if a sermon on such a topic should carry the equivalent of some sort of health warning.
A psychologist once pointed out to me that there is a vast gulf between what we do and what we say we do to put our lives right. We may well talk of our admiration for Jesus and the principles he taught, yet it is where the emphasis is placed in the way we live that gives a better clue to what we value as important. Is it for example in what we do for our family and fellows that matters? Would our love for those who have difficulties in life be what others would see? Or would it perhaps be that others see us putting most effort into building up money and prestige to make ourselves proof against whatever life will send our way.
Yet something strange often seems to happen. Many in this world seem to build a fortune to the point where there is no possible chance of spending it in one lifetime. True that some care for the future seems wise, yet strangely the values at the base of most religions place a very low value on wealth as a means to happiness (or what Jesus called being blessed).
To find what Jesus offers as an alternative we look to the record of his teaching and his actions in the gospels. Today’s reading aims directly at the conscience.
First let us acknowledge that today’s reading about Luke’s version of the so called “Sermon on the Plain” often takes very much a second place to Matthew’s version of the same teaching which has the much more familiar title of the “Sermon on the Mount”. I guess the main difference between the two “Sermons” is not only that the Luke version is much shorter, but that the Beatitudes in Matthew have a very different emphasis.
Whereas Matthew has a much more comfortable message as Jesus enumerates a series of blessings for believers, Luke has Jesus bless those who are poor and suffering. Lest the crowd miss the point, to the discomfort of those who pride themselves on having done quite well thank you, he adds a series of woes on those who are rich and satisfied. No wonder so many preachers faced with middle class or even seriously rich congregations, take the easy option of substituting the more comforting version in Matthew for this particular Sunday.
And don’t overlook the small hint of discomfort in the fact that there are differences in the two sermon passages. Surely if the gist of the message is essentially the same, yet in some places quite different, then holding to the view that both are part of the inspired and inerrant word of God becomes a bit tricky.
For what it is worth, I have to admit that for me at least, sorting out such passages is part of the journey of faith. I not only want to test my faith, and see how it fits with my corner of the world. I actually want to learn from the results and reshape my beliefs as I go. There is of course a catch. As I heard someone say recently, “as I have got older I now believe less than when I started.”
I might have once thought Santa might have a little list of the good and the bad but I no longer accept that this is the reason why some children finish with the best pile of presents. The tooth fairy at our place sometimes needed a little help from Mum of Dad under the cover of darkness, but has now been replaced by a dentist who not only fails to put money under my pillow, but actually wants to take it away with magical precision. Nor for that matter do I accept that why some children get very nasty illnesses while others live to a ripe old age, has anything to do with some supernatural form of accounting. Praying does indeed have a place, but not as excuse for failing to immunize.
But please don’t assume that therefore I am comfortable to turn my back on Jesus’ teaching. Because you see, as I now believe fewer of the things I used to believe, the things I do believe I now believe more strongly.
So we turn to part of the Sermon on the Plain. Well it is clear enough when it says:
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
If we are merely going to admire Jesus for telling us that the poor can be happy there is no problem. But if it is then implying we should be concerned about the happiness of the poor and expecting that we should be quite relaxed about sharing what we have and therefore not be fussed about improving our situation to make ourselves rich, then perhaps we need to check our own social conscience.
But surely not by taking it seriously?…Are we surprised then that the Catholic Church got so upset with the upstart Protestants in Luther’s time for challenging them about offering indulgences to get a pass to get to heaven by paying a large tax to the Church?
And who was Jesus wanting to hear these words: 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation”? Or what about the next verse? 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry”. We would prefer to think he was only wishing those in his audience on that Plain to hear the message. Surely he could not have been talking to the consciences of Christians like those who wanted the pesky refugees trying to cross the Southern border of the United States to go away lest they threaten the economic standards of the rich who are helping the nation become great again. We read that among that group who champion the wall there is a substantial number who are proud to call themselves evangelical.
But do you remember reading about those pesky prophets of old who challenged the rich and the powerful in the Bible lands. They were no more welcome than our modern day prophets who currently challenge us to share some of our wealth with the millions of refugees crowding the Middle Eastern camps and who are clamouring to come and join us. Now, bringing it closer to home… What should we tell those our community likes to call modern day bleeding heart prophets who want our country to pay a larger percentage of our budget to the resettlement of refugees? Are you …and am I…. comfortable with what the bleeding hearts have been saying? Perhaps we should really be telling them, that no matter how unpopular their call to our conscience might be, this is right in line with what Jesus was teaching.
The blunt truth is that: if we still accept Jesus’ message and accept what he was reported to emphasize, we may have to challenge what we hear on talk-back radio. Surely only false prophets (and I guess some those are telling us they speak in the name of Jesus) – only the false prophets of the Jesus message would come up with all those excuses that leave the refugees drowning in the Med or held in off-shore island detention centres. And who are those false prophets? Well I guess some are politicians who merely reflect what the electorate is telling them they must do. But here is the tricky bit. Who are in the electorate with such a message? Or more to the point, how will we advise our politicians.
I want to suggest that in practice we are all compromised in that unless it happens to be that we are somehow born saintly it is going to be difficult to speak up for what we know to be true and in line with what Jesus taught. The real temptation is to choose the easiest course of action which gives us the most immediate reward.
Yet what was it Jesus said 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets”.
Perhaps what we now have to do is ask a wider question. What sort of attitudes and actions make for better living for all? Kind and considerate behaviour, encouraging the best outcomes for the weak and vulnerable and being prepared to make some sacrifice for others is very different from those who become obsessed with personal gain. It occurs to me that following Jesus’ advice is nothing more nor less common sense for building relationships strengthening families and the shaping the sort of Church and community that would reflect positive values. Reflecting on either gospel account, whether it was the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain, the options given and choice made are not about some impractical and unattainable spiritual dream. Even if we set aside the unknowns like whether or not judgement is of this life or the next it seems the positive choice follows Jesus advice. Whether or not we choose to follow the advice is the bit we as individuals have to write for ourselves.