I recently heard a preacher say that he had often heard testimonies from people who said something like: “My life was in a complete mess, then Jesus came into it and put it all together”. He said his own testimony would be more like: “My life was quite neatly sorted, then Jesus came into it and messed it up”.
It’s true that many people come to Christian faith from a sense of failure or chaos in their lives – a history of crime, addiction, abusive relationships, or homelessness. Often with the help of Christians who have shown them love and told them of the love of Christ, they have a spiritual experience that sets them on the path to a new life. But what does the Christian message mean for those of us whose life is reasonably comfortable and in good order? What should it mean? Is it just the icing on the cake? Does it just add a spiritual dimension and the promise of heaven when we die? The gospel is described as “good news for the poor”, but is it good news for those who are not poor?
It is something of a cliché to hold up the Sermon on the Mount as the classic pattern of a good life and a good society. It starts (Matt 5) with comforting and innocuous statements like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted …”, and so on. But it soon becomes much more disturbing:
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matt 5:39-40). Is that sensible?
“Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt 5:42). Anyone who has ever passed a beggar on the street should feel uncomfortable with that.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:19-20). Does that mean I shouldn’t have a savings account?
The last part of that sixth chapter of Matthew (vs 25-34) seems to speak on three different levels. There is simple common sense: “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?… do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Then there is a comforting message of God’s care for us: “Look at the birds of the air… consider the lilies of the field… if God clothes the grass of the field… will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” Then comes the promise: “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Does this mean that if I try to live a good life God will provide for my needs? Probably not quite that. “Righteousness” in the Bible does not usually mean just “being good” in the sense of living a decent, honest life. It is another word for justice. When Jesus says, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”, he doesn’t just mean that those who eagerly long to be good will have their desire satisfied: he is referring to oppressed people desperate for justice. And that is probably what “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” means – it calls us to make the active pursuit of justice the centre of our lives.
In three of the Gospels (Matt 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30) we find the story of a young man who came to Jesus and asked what he should do to have eternal life. He was rather like many idealistic young people today who have grown up taking for granted the comforts of a middle-class life and are looking for a higher level of spirituality. He had lived a decent, law-abiding life since childhood, but felt somehow that there should be something more. The answer Jesus gave was, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man walked away sadly. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God”.
Matthew also gives us that vivid picture of judgement, when the nations will be separated like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The King will call those on his right side to possess the Kingdom, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” When they are surprised at this, he says to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will point out to those on his left that they did none of these things, and the story concludes: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. (Matt 25:31-46)
No Christian who has ever passed by a homeless person on the pavement, or not bothered to give to a famine relief appeal, can feel comfortable with sayings like this.
Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (sometimes called “the Sermon on the Plain”) is even more challenging. Instead of “the poor in spirit” it talks directly of the poor:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:20-26)
Luke (16:19-26) also gives us the misnamed story of “Dives and Lazarus” – misnamed, because the rich man does not have a name. The Latin Bible was virtually the only one used in Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and “dives” is simply the Latin word for “rich”. This story is unique among the parables in that one of the characters has a name. At some stage, preachers came to think the other character ought to have a name too. This is not only a mistranslation, but it misses an important point. Jesus, in giving a name to the poor man and not to the rich man, is deliberately subverting the values of society. In real life the rich man would have a well-known and respected name, but the poor man sitting outside his door would just be “that beggar”. In telling this story Jesus is making the point that, well known as the rich man might be, the poor man too was a person known and important to God.
When the rich man dies, he is buried – a privilege accorded to rich and “important” people. The beggar’s body would probably just be tossed into a common grave. But beyond death their status is reversed. The poor man is taken up by the angels to sit with Abraham in heaven, but the rich man is suffering in hell. Why is he being punished? Nothing is said about any sin he has committed – he is in hell simply because he was rich and allowed the man sitting at his door to be destitute.
Today, in a world where the richer nations – which happen to be mostly those of a Christian tradition – enjoy luxury, security, and high standards of health care while millions in other countries are undernourished if not dying of starvation, we are surely ignoring the message of the Bible and the essence of Christian faith if we do not take these words of Jesus and the prophets seriously. The question is: do we, and can we?