It can be aptly stated, I think, that what Jesus has come to teach us is at the very least, unexpected; and actually, more than a little bit subversive in nature. In Luke’s version of his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus talks about how the poor, the hungry, the sad and the rejected will be the first in line to get into God’s kingdom – which went against all expectations of the “righteous uprights” of the time. Then he starts talking about the necessity of loving one’s enemies: not just in theory, mind you, but actually praying for them, doing good for them and with them, and doing so with no expectation of getting anything out of the bargain, all of which flies in the face of what you and I might still consider to be fair and just!
No, Jesus says, don’t judge; never condemn, nor retaliate against those who would lash out against you; rather, be merciful and forgiving; and always give in abundant measure, even to the point of giving more than what’s demanded or asked for. That’s part and parcel of Jesus’ message here, and it’s all very unexpected… and revolutionary. Jesus is bringing the revolution, a new kingdom to replace the old, what Dr. Timothy Keller refers to as “the upside-down kingdom,” in which “the pattern of values, power and product of [the] kingdom are utterly different.”
It’s possibly one of the most radically subversive speeches in all of human history, friends; and yet, I suspect that when our 21st century ears hear the words read aloud – Blessed are you who are poor; love your enemies, bless and do not curse them; be merciful, just as your Father is merciful, and so on – most, if not all of the radical nature of what Jesus was saying there has gotten lost in translation!
In fact, I’m afraid that what most of us hear in Jesus’ sermon is probably not unlike what airline passengers hear from flight attendants just prior to takeoff; you know, the whole spiel on emergency procedures during the flight. Now, if you’ve ever been on a plane as this talk begins, you know what happens: newspapers come out, the shades come down, buttons get played with, and nobody pays attention at all! I just heard a story recently about a flight attendant, fed up with having to deliver this speech flight after flight to a full but inattentive house, one day in her exasperation decided to adjust her instructions, announcing instead, “When the masks drop down, place it over your navel and continue to breathe normally!” And guess what? Nobody on the flight even noticed! They weren’t listening, despite the potential, however unlikely, that this information could save their lives!
Well, friends, it’s no exaggeration to say that what Jesus brings to our world and to our lives is just as important and just that life-altering; and yet, I fear that that with all our modern sensibilities we have risked allowing the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching to become mere expressions of warm and fuzzy sentimentality! And that’s what makes our scripture this morning very interesting indeed: because not only do we discover that Jesus knew that this kind of “watering down” of his gospel could happen; but also we find out that he’s not afraid to ask a hard question about that very possibility happening in us! That’s the thing about the questions that Jesus asks (and, honestly, the reason for this sermon series, friends) – our answers to his questions end up having everything to do with our spiritual life, how faith becomes true discipleship, and how we’re to dwell in this new, “upside down” kingdom that Jesus brings.
This particular question gets asked toward the end of Jesus’ sermon as Luke presents it. What’s interesting is that as we pick up the reading today, Jesus has moved from blessing-oriented affirmations to more, shall we say, instructive warnings as to the nature of discipleship. Jesus talks here about the folly of “the blind leading the blind,” meaning that to be a disciple, one ought to learn everything they can about their faith and have a clarity of vision if they expect to teach others who understand about their faith; you can’t be spiritually barren and expect to enlighten those who desire to know more about God. Jesus also teaches here about the dangers of hypocrisy with that famous admonition to first “take the log out of your own eye,” before removing the speck of wood out of your neighbor’s eye. And this is followed by some words about good fruit only growing on good trees: all of this which, quite frankly, probably sounded to the people hearing this sermon as a warning to them that they’d better not be like the Scribes and Pharisees.
After all, Jesus was not reticent in pointing out the hypocrisies of the religious leaders of his time – it just made sense that Jesus should follow up all this talk about love and mercy and forgiveness with the staunch admonition to not be like them; and in truth, isn’t that the way we approach sermons sometimes, that here’s the lesson we need to learn here today, not the least of which is, don’t be like those other people who don’t do what they’re supposed to do? I don’t mean for that to be as harsh as it sounds; all that I know is that there have many times and many sermons over the years when afterward, someone comes to me and says, “Pastor, that was a wonderful sermon; I wished that the people who needed to hear it had been here!”
Bottom line is that none of us, myself included, likes to be confronted with the unpleasant truths about ourselves and our lives; we’d much rather have those truths apply to others! But this, friends, is the very context in which Jesus asks his question: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’” he asks them (and us), “and do not do what I tell you?”
Whoa. You can almost hear the hush that must have fallen over the faithful! Now, wait just a minute, Jesus; surely you’re not saying what I think you’re saying? I mean, it’s one thing to say something about those Pharisees – they’ve got it coming; but to suggest that we… that I… how dare you, Jesus!
Sort of like that old story about the country preacher who stands in the pulpit and starts to rail against the evils of liquor and tobacco and gambling, and there’s the “stalwart ladies of the church” in the back, all responding with a resounding, “Amen! Hallelujah! You preach it!” And then the preacher shouts, “And if we’re truly to be God’s own people, then we need to act like it, and stop all this gossiping and slander in the church!” And to this, one of the ladies turns to the other and says, “Well. Now he’s gone from preaching to meddling.”
Turns out, you see, that all of these teachings and the admonitions of Jesus are not meant to be aimed “out there,” but rather are meant to be heard and received “in here.” You need to know that Biblical scholars suggest that the usage of the term “Lord, Lord” on Jesus’ part actually reveals a bit of sarcasm in his voice; in other words, he’s saying, to call out “Lord, Lord” with such of tone of piety might just show how spiritually blind you really are! Jesus has just laid out some of the great problems inherent in becoming a true disciple, but as Kent Hughes has written, “The problem is not other people. It is people, and I am one of those people!”
Suffice to say that upon taking a closer look at what Jesus is really saying here, you find out it can kind of sting! We don’t like to think of ourselves in the same league as scribes, Pharisees and all those unnamed “other people.” We like to think of ourselves as being filled with some kind of spiritual goodness – not perfect, mind you; most of us understand that there’s always room for growth – but at least people who have some clarity of vision and who basically bear good fruit as they live and grow. But here’s Jesus, calling us out, as it were; challenging those assumptions and yes, bruising our egos a bit. But he does it in order to correct our vision, to teach us the lessons of the heart, and to fine tune our practices of faith and the disciplines of love.
I said earlier that what Jesus has come to teach us is at the very least, unexpected, and is often subversive. But I wasn’t just talking about the grand and cosmic truths of the world and of eternity; this also applies to the many and varied ways that you and I live and breathe and just try to get through the living of these days. Friends, for all the grandeur of Jesus’ words about blessing and justice and mercy and love, what it all comes down to is YOU and ME and how we live with each other; how we seek to embody the kingdom of God in our hearts and lives.
And to that end, we are not to be as “a blind person leading a blind person,” nor, as The Message puts it, as “an apprentice who lectures the master.” We are to open our hearts to be fully taught and greatly nurtured, in keeping with the incredible truth with which we’ve been entrusted. We aren’t to look with derision to others for their failings; but to be working on our lives in such a way that we bear good fruit, truly producing the good things that come out of “the good treasure of the heart.” Simply put, Jesus is telling us, “if you love me; if you are going to answer my call and follow me, then you have to be doing what I tell you: loving with my kind of love; showing the kind of mercy that I show; living after the manner of …a disciple!”
Speaking of The Message, I love how that translation puts all this: “These words I speak to you are not mere additions to your life, homeowner improvements to you standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on.” And to illustrate this, Jesus goes on to share the beautiful parable of the smart carpenter who “dug deep and laid the foundation of his house on bedrock,” so that when the river burst its banks and crashed against the house, “nothing could shake it.”
Friends, in a world that just seems to go out of its way to find new and exciting ways to wreak havoc on our daily lives, this promise of Jesus is something for you and me to take to heart. We often speak of the season of Lent as a time for spiritual growth and to deepen our relationship with the Lord, and embracing Jesus’ promise of a strong and solid foundation for our lives seems to go hand in hand with that. But it’s also important to understand that a good part of the responsibility for building, and then maintaining that solid foundation, comes by our own efforts, in the work we do as Jesus disciples. We would not want to be the “dumb carpenter,” quoting The Message again, “who built a house but skipped the foundation.” Ultimately, that’s not only a bad idea, but it’s “a total loss” waiting to happen.
This Lenten season is a good time to answer Jesus when he’s asking us, “Why don’t you do what I tell you?” It’s not an easy question; not one that any of us wish to answer truthfully! But Jesus asks, and we need to answer; remembering, of course, that the nature of confession is that by our repentance we are forgiven by God’s grace; and that moreover, we are given the tools to go forward doing better than before.
My prayer is that for each of us, these next few weeks might be a time of questions, answers and also some greater understanding – that will be a blessing indeed.
Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, who walks with us on the journey.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry