Ever heard of the BE-not-ITUDES ?
I once caught an advert from the World Wrestling Federation that showed clips of huge men dripping with sweat and testosterone, grappling with each other. The voiceover, dripping with sarcasm, growled the words, “Someone once said, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth… yeah, right!!”
That ‘Someone’, of course, was Jesus, His words taken from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:5). It sounds appalling, put as brazenly as that advert did, but when we compare our life’s values to Jesus’ words, do our actions still shout the same sentiment: Yeah, right!!?
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THE upside-down SERMON
A tool I sometimes use, when I come across teaching from the Bible that I find hard to understand or to apply to today’s world, is to simply write out what the opposite of the teaching should be, and see how it looks from the ‘other side’. This was particularly useful once when I was asked to preach on the opening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, known as the Beatitudes. Looking for rough opposites of each of Jesus’ famous pronouncements, the results were startlingly descriptive of the way people seem to live when Christ is not in their thinking. So, taking each of the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:2-12 and finding a roughly opposite attitude, this is what I came up with:
Happy are those who are self-sufficient, for they will not be at the mercy of anyone.
Happy are those who harden themselves to life’s tragedies, for they will not get hurt.
Happy are the assertive, for they will not get pushed around.
Happy are those who don’t burden themselves with morality, for they will be free to act as they please.
Happy are those who leave others to their own problems, for they will not get dragged down by other’s misfortunes.
Happy are those who have no scruples, for they will not feel guilt.
Happy are those who never give in and never apologise, for others will be forced to let you have your way.
Happy are those who never take a moral stand, for those who do will never get anywhere in this world.
Happy are those who don’t take their beliefs too seriously, for they will avoid trouble and will fit in.
Setting my own “Be-not-itudes”, shown above, alongside the biblical passage, I gave everyone in church that Sunday an A5 printout, with the ‘actual’ verses on one side and the ‘fake’ version on the other.
One friend brought his copy to work the next morning and put it on his desk. A colleague came along, casually read the side facing him, and said, “Wow! These are great! I really believe this!”
...which might have been good, except that he had actually been reading the “Be-not-itudes”! It led to a good conversation, if I remember correctly, but taken unawares, this colleague had confessed to holding the exact opposite values that Jesus was promoting in the Sermon on the Mount.
This encounter rather startlingly underlined my point, that Jesus’ values in Matthew 5 are utterly alien to the values of the world around us.
Be honest: when you read those Be-not-itudes, did you find yourself sympathising with any of them? I certainly did. We should not be at all surprised that a non-Christian man in my friend’s office holds such values. What we should be concerned about is whether we as believers find ourselves agreeing with, or being influenced by, those Be-not-itudes. This is something I will come back to shortly.
JESUS’ headliners of the KINGDOM
Here was Jesus, at the start of His earthly ministry, ready to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven. John the Baptist’s warm-up act had done its job and the people were now waiting with bated breath for the first words from the lips of this mysterious miracle-working Man who had come among them…
With this opening, the people listening would have immediately recognised the format from the Old Testament scriptures. Psalm 1 is an example they would have been familiar with: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked… but whose delight is in the Law of the Lord.” Beatitudes (sometimes dubbed, beautiful attitudes) are pithy statements intended to impress on the hearers that these are the values you must have. Or equally, these are the values you must NOT have.
“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked… but whose delight is in the Law of the Lord.”
Those mighty sentences in Matthew 5 have become one of the most familiar parts of the Bible. (Luke picks up on another similar set of teaching that Jesus gave, probably on a different occasion, in Luke 6:17-26). Yet, they can be hard to understand if we do not allow for the context and the way in which beatitudes were understood in that time. Also, Jesus was speaking here to His disciples (v1), a wider circle of followers beyond the Twelve, some of whom would follow Him all the way through, and some would not. These were not casual on-lookers and passers-by; no-one would have thought that Jesus was giving a cast-iron guarantee that Planet Earth will be neatly divided up as real-estate for the total number of people on earth who qualify as “meek” (v5), nor that God automatically adopts into His family someone who successfully mediates a family feud (v9), thus by-passing the rest of the Bible’s teaching on justification by faith.
Rather, we should see them as a list of ‘Family Values for the Kingdom of Heaven’; broad brush statements that shout the things that God takes special note of, out of concern, love for and pleasure in those who listen to Him and long to be as He is. To be God’s people, God’s family, living in God’s Kingdom, we need to accept, absorb and delight in God’s value-system. And here Jesus sets them out in stark, memorable terms.
THE WORLD Leaks In
Few of us would look at the Be-not-titudes above and outrightly agree with them. We know that we are supposed to agree with what Jesus said. But at many times in history, the Church of Jesus Christ has done a remarkable job of watering down His teachings – especially the Sermon on the Mount – even to the point of teaching the opposite.
Not convinced? Let’s look at an example:
Whether or not you think being ‘poor in spirit’ is the same as being ‘poor’, Luke’s version leaves us little room to get out of the fact that being rich is hardly something that Jesus actively encourages. Though we tell ourselves that being rich is not wrong, we conveniently forget the caveat to New Testament teaching on wealth, that it can be a snare, and it should come with specific responsibilities to be generous and not oppress the weak. Instead, over and over again, Jesus promises that true wealth is being ‘rich towards God’ (Luke 12:13-21), and that money is not an opportunity for self-indulgence but a God-given opportunity to use those resources to alleviate the suffering of others (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
It is easy not to think of ourselves as ‘rich’ (an ugly word), so we say we are ‘comfortable’, a more acceptable way of saying it, and in our minds, there are always people who are better off than we are. We talk of ‘God’s blessing’ and of ‘prosperity’, taking some verses (mainly from the Old Testament) and ignoring others (mainly from the New) to justify our stance. The only sermon I have ever come close to walking out in protest was when the visiting speaker talked of Jesus being ‘rich’ since He owned a garment woven in one piece. Granted, it was a valuable item, but was very likely a gift from one of Jesus’ followers and hardly means that Jesus was going about contradicting His own warnings for the rich. Let us not forget that it was partly over similar corruptions of God’s word that the Reformation of the 1500s was made necessary.
MAKING EXCEPTIONS for ourselves
Particularly when it comes to Jesus’ uncompromising standards laid out in Matthew 5, we end up explaining things away just as the Pharisees did, ‘nullifying the word of God’ in Mark 7.
Because the Beatitudes are statements of values, rather than laws in themselves, they become easy to ignore if the circumstances don’t suit us. Jesus might have said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but He understands that in my situation, I could not possibly apologise, and it is not my fault this person did this to me. Or we say, “Jesus might have said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ but ‘seeing God’ is for heaven, right?” Thus, we deny the New Testament’s essential teaching of the crucial link between personal holiness and intimacy with God (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Hebrews 12:14).
We tend to make exceptions for ourselves when we come across verses that just seem rather impossible and impractical to obey – or at least to do so right now (things may be different when I achieve my promotion and I will have more disposable income, we say). Thus we find that, like the Rich Young Ruler, we too have a ‘ceiling’ to our obedience, a “this far and no further” where we falter on how much we are willing to obey. But we only have to look at the incredible promises of Jesus to see that by doing this, we are really only robbing ourselves of incredible, everlasting joy (see Matthew 13:44-46).
TAKING A STEP back
So, what was Jesus saying in Matthew 5? If we were to actually determine to obey all of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5, what would this look like? The first thing we see, is not a list of do’s and don’ts, but statements bursting with love and promise:
1. That grief, loss, pain and even poverty are not signs of God’s absence or lack of love.
2. That pride, self-assertion and self-interest are not “necessary evils” that we have to live with in the “real” world.
3. That purity and righteousness are not “optional extras” for super saints who live outside the everyday life of marriage, children, careers and housing loans. Instead, they are rich, promise-filled qualities for us all that are worth more than we could possibly imagine.
4. That following Jesus closely may involve misunderstanding, opposition and suffering, but is never too high a price to pay for the incredible and lasting joys that are ours.
Life is neither a one-time affair that ends in death and oblivion, as the atheist would claim, nor is it an endless cycle of rebirths. Both views, though very different, demand that we abandon hope. But Jesus teaches instead a life with hope now. Hope could be defined as, experiencing today the implications and joys of a secure and certain future.
People live according to the above Be-not-itudes to a greater or lesser degree because this life is all they have, and deep down they are terrified of missing out on their one shot at getting the best this time around. Rather, Jesus sets out His Kingdom as a people belonging to Himself who can know the incredible freedom, joy and delight of a true relationship with God both in this life and the life to come.
The selfish shall inherit the earth? Yeah, right!!
Peter Teagle trained for Christian ministry in Singapore, serving and worshipping in the Anglican church. For the last 20 years he has worked as an evangelist and Bible teacher, ministering to international students at universities all over the UK, with a focus on intercultural and contextualised preaching.