Responding to Betrayal: The Ongoing Obligations of Love

An Outlaw Pastor: Rob Bell

Rob Bell was born on August 23, 1970 to a family that was deeply committed to the evangelical movement in America. His father, a U.S. District Judge appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Regan, worked with Jerry Falwell to start the Moral Majority, a political organization that played a key role in mobilizing conservative Christians in the 1980s.

After finishing high school, Rob went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College and, after experiencing a call to ministry, a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. As a young pastor, he was mentored by Ed Dobson at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids Michigan before going on to start Mars Hills Bible Church in 1999.

While his new church started with a few hundred people, within a few years it grew to over 10,000 in Sunday morning worship. By all metrics, Rob’s ministry was wildly successful, but at the same time he wrestled with difficult questions that emerged through deep study of the Bible and critical reflection on his own experience. Through this honest struggle, he eventually realized that he could no longer accept some of the central tenants of American evangelicalism, such as the infallibility of scripture. He also felt uneasy about the cozy relationship between evangelicals and neo-conservative politicians. As the insights kept coming they had a cumulative affect that launched him on a new spiritual journey.

Authenticity became a hallmark of Rob’s ministry which impacted his preaching and teaching. He decided to be honest with his congregation regarding his spiritual questions and to only preach about things he had experienced firsthand. While some found his transparency refreshing, others found it threatening, which led to conflicts at Mars Hill. For example, in 2003 he gave a message series on the equality of women, and some of the church leaders tried to have him fired. When he decided to empower women to serve in church leadership roles, worship attendance dropped by 2,000.

While these experiences were painful, Rob didn’t turn back, and his relationship with Mars Hills reached a turning point in 2011 after publishing Love Wins, a controversial book that questioned traditional teachings on hell. He was quickly labeled a heretic in evangelical circles and within a year decided to leave his church in Michigan to pursue other avenues of ministry in Los Angeles, California.

While many people at Rob’s church lovingly supported his spiritual transformation, others were not as encouraging. Before leaving Mars Hills, some wealthy church members tried to leverage him with money to return to the standard evangelical message, the old “we will take our money and leave if you don’t do what we want” trick. Remembering this betrayal, he said in an interview, “It broke me, but it also gave me this nuclear engine of resolve to keep going.”[i]

Rob has certainly landed on his feet, writing numerous books, preaching and teaching in sold-out auditoriums, broadcasting a popular podcast, and making the list of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. But this didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly wasn’t easy. He was treated horribly by people who once declared him their torch bearer, launching smear campaigns on television, radio, social media, and public speaking. Some of the very people that he led to Jesus called his faith into question, accused him of being a false teacher, and publicly protested his speaking engagements.

Amid all the hostility, Rob didn’t lash-out in anger or check-out in resignation. Rather, he remained true to himself, true to his relationship with God, and true to the values of the gospel as he understood them. In this way, he serves a real-life example of someone who has walked the first path of the Quadratos; someone who has accepted the call to a new spiritual journey, struggled with fears of the unknown, navigated big change, and responded to hatred with compassion and equanimity. Regardless of what you think about the specifics of his teaching, Rob is a good example of how to follow Jesus in the face of betrayal.

 

Being Betrayed: Jesus

Most people, whether they regularly attend church or not, can tell you that Jesus was betrayed by a man named Judas, but when we dive into the details of the story as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, we discover some helpful lessons for the first path of the Quadratos.

One of these lessons is not to be surprised by betrayal. In certain ways, it’s to be expected when we embark on a new spiritual journey that subverts old ways of thinking, believing, and acting.

It certainly didn’t surprise Jesus. At the Last Supper, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” Upon hearing this, the disciples became “greatly distressed” and said one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” Jesus answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me” (Matthew 26:21-23). This is clearly a foreshadowing of Judas’ betrayal (vv. 14-16, 47-50), but Jesus knew that Judas would not be the only one. In first century Palestine, meals were typically served from a common bowl. Each person around the table would tear a piece of bread, shape it into a scoop, and reach into the bowl for food. Since everyone at the Last Supper would have dipped their hand in the bowl, Jesus was not only foreshadowing Judas’ betrayal but that of all his disciples.[ii]

We see this play out in the story of Jesus’ passion. He predicted that Peter would deny him three times (Matthew 26:33-34), and he did (vv. 69-75). He predicted that all his disciples would become deserters (v. 31), and they did. According to Matthew, none of the disciples were at the foot of the cross, only the women.

Jesus expected betrayal, and this allowed him to prepare for it. Instead of being surprised and compulsively reacting to emotional triggers, he saw it coming and prepared to respond with intentional acts of love. In this way, he navigated between two common pitfalls.

First, Jesus did not retaliate with a spirit of resentment.

When Judas appeared in Gethsemane with a large crowd to apprehend Jesus and then betrayed him with a kiss, Jesus said, “Friend, do what you are here to do.”

Did you catch that? Jesus addressed Judas as friend, the man who sold him down the river for thirty pieces of silver. As Alexander John Shaia explains, “By using this address, he completely embodies the principles he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, returning nothing but the greatest love and respect even when it [was] not offered to him.”[iii] The betrayal didn’t change who he was—he remained true to himself and faithful to God. Instead of lashing out in punitive anger, Jesus responded with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

Second, when experiencing the pain of betrayal, Jesus did not disconnect from himself or those who betrayed him as a way of escaping the hard work of reconciliation. How often do we do this? Someone betrays us, and we disconnect from ourselves in mindless distractions and disconnect from them by pretending they don’t exist. If we happen to encounter them after the betrayal, it’s easy to ignore them in hopes that the conflict will simply go away. Isolation, denial, hiding, pretending, ignoring, blaming—all are attempts to escape the ongoing obligations of love.

But Jesus didn’t do this. He didn’t hide from those who betrayed him. Nor did he disconnect from himself, which can be seen when he was hanging on the cross and rejected the offer of gall (a bitter substance mixed with wine to deaden pain). He chose to remain fully awake, “to face and feel every moment with an open mind, heart, and body . . .”[iv] He stayed connected to his own experience, so he could continue to practice the gospel in the presence of those who were seeking to destroy him.

Interestingly, the two pitfalls of lashing-out and checking-out are different ways of acting-out a victim mentality. But Jesus would have none of this. Even in the depth of betrayal, humiliation, and suffering, he refused to see himself as a victim. He not only expected betrayal, he accepted it as a natural consequence of choosing the way of love in a fallen world.

In Luke 9:51 we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, Jesus made a conscious decision to walk into the holy city knowing it would be the beginning of the end. Resolute in his mission, he accepted the predictable consequences of speaking truth to power: betrayal, torture, and death. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is recorded saying, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (10:18).

Since he refused to see himself as a victim, he had no to need to punish people with anger or disconnect in fear. By refusing victimhood, he could continue acting with intentionality according to the law of love. This is a great example to us as we too experience betrayal on the first path of the Quadratos.

Like Jesus, we should expect betrayal so that we can prepare for it. As we embark on new spiritual journeys, there will be people that will try to pull us backwards into old ways of thinking, believing, and acting.[v] This pull can be gentle or forceful, and one forceful way of pressuring someone is by betraying them or accusing them of betrayal. This is especially true of authoritarian people who are plagued by the fear of losing control. The more fearful and insecure, the more authoritarian, demanding, judgmental, and punishing. So, don’t be surprised when some people don’t celebrate your new journey and pressure you to go back to your old self. It is easier for them if you conform to the old pattern because then they don’t have to change and readjust to the new dynamic in your relationship. As you push through their resistance and continue moving forward, don’t be surprised when those same people betray you or accuse you of betraying them.

But be careful how you press forward and respond to betrayal. Remember the two pitfalls: betraying the very values of the spiritual transformation we seek by lashing out in anger and disconnecting from those who hurt us in hopes of avoiding the ongoing obligations of love. Like Christ, we are called to forsake a victim-mentality, so we can intentionally choose to act with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity. This is no small order, and we fail all the time, but we must keep pursuing the way of Jesus Christ as part of our spiritual transformation.

As a note of caution, the law of love does not require us to be a doormat for the dysfunctional or a victim of abuse. God’s love cannot be separated from God’s justice, and to love someone involves telling them the truth (Ephesians 4:15). The same principle can be found in reconciliation, which is made possible only by mutual truth telling and changed behavior. Consequently, submitting yourself to ongoing abuse is not an indication that you’re being faithful to the law of love but that you’re operating out of an unhealthy and self-destructive frame of mind. What is needed in these situations is emotional and spiritual healing, which almost always requires you to separate yourself from the abuser long enough to interrupt the dysfunctional system and gain enough health to make better choices. As many have learned the hard way, sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone hellbent on destruction and abuse is tell them goodbye.

 

Doing the Betraying: Peter and Judas

In conclusion, it’s important to offer a few words for those who have inflicted betrayal on others. Just as Jesus said of the disciples, so is true of us. At some point in life, we all betray someone (which should make us more compassionate for those who betray us). It says in Romans 3:23 that everyone falls short of what God expects, which is another way of saying that all of us succumb to the backward pull of our former life, causing us to betray Jesus, others, and ourselves. Like the disciples, we all become deserters. So how do we get back up, find our footing, and start walking the road to transformation again? Fortunately, the passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew also provides guidance for this problem, especially as we consider the examples of Peter and Judas.

As already mentioned, Peter denied Jesus three times before he was crucified. Can you imagine the pain he must have felt when the full realization of his unfaithfulness dawned on his consciousness? Can you imagine how uncomfortable Peter must have been upon seeing Jesus again after the resurrection?

Although he was deeply ashamed of himself, he was able to accept responsibility for his own failure. As he stood before the one he betrayed, he found forgiveness rather than judgement, reconciliation rather than condemnation. As with us, it was probably easier to receive forgiveness from Jesus than it was to forgive himself, but by the grace of God Peter was able to do just that—and it saved his life.

This part of the story reminds us that even in the worst kinds of betrayal there is still the possibility of forgiveness and redemption for those who stay close to God and are willing to do the difficult work of reconciliation. We see this played out not only in the life of Peter but all the disciples, except Judas. All betrayed Jesus and all were forgiven and restored.

Just as all the disciples became deserters, all of us become deserters too. It’s almost like failure is built into the first path of the Quadratos. When embarking on a new spiritual journey, we all start in weakness, confusion, and fear, and we must all learn the lessons that our unfaithfulness teaches. After all, how can we proclaim the good news of forgiveness unless we have been recipients of this gift ourselves?

It’s important to keep all these gospel truths in mind because if we don’t it can kill us.

Like Peter and the other disciples, Judas betrayed Jesus too. We sometimes think of Judas as the only one, or assume his betrayal was worse than that of the others. But I don’t think so. Betrayal is betrayal, and if Judas had come back to Jesus after the resurrection and asked for forgiveness, I think Jesus would have embraced and restored him, just as he did with the others. So why did it turn out so differently for him?

I think it has to do with self-hatred. After betraying Jesus, Judas became the victim of his own despair. For whatever reason, he didn’t believe in Jesus, and I’m not talking about the kind of believing in which you receive Jesus as your personal savior. I mean he literally didn’t believe Jesus’ message about God’s love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It’s true that Judas felt horrible after coming to terms with what he had done, leading him to repent and return the blood money to the religious leaders. However, when he realized that this act of contrition could not stop the destruction he had set in motion, he descended into a dark pit of self-loathing. He could not imagine Jesus forgiving him. He could not imagine forgiving himself. So, he went into the woods and killed himself (Matthew 27:3-5).

Like Judas, we too can descend into a pit of despair after betraying someone we love. Self-hatred can blind us to the possibility of forgiveness and steal the hope of the gospel. As Dante knew, this is the definition of hell, a place devoid of hope, because once we lose hope we experience death—spiritually, emotionally, and, sometimes even physically. This is why believing in Jesus is a matter of life and death for many people.

 

Challenge

As we navigate change on the path to transformation, we experience resistance. Will we choose to keep walking even when others around us do not? Even when they pressure us to return to old ways of thinking and betray us when we do conform? Will we choose to stay awake to our own experience and remain connected to others, even as we confront our fears and the death of ego? Will we let go of resentment and choose love, acting with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity? Will we forgive others, remain open to reconciliation, and attend to the ongoing obligations of love? Will we believe the promises of Jesus, accept God’s forgiveness, and learn to forgive ourselves when we are the ones who have failed?

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I experience betrayal, help me to respond in love with a wise mind, a compassionate heart, and a calm spirit. When I betray others, help me to honestly see the wrong I’ve done, repent, forgive myself, and move forward in ways that increase the possibility for reconciliation. Amen.

 

(This post is the seventh in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

____________________________________________________

[i] The Hell-Raiser, video uploaded on The New Yorker, “A Megachurch Pastor’s Search for a More Forgiving Faith,” December 16, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-megachurch-pastors-search-for-a-more-forgiving-faith. See also the documentary, “The Heretic.”

[ii] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation, Second Edition, Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico 2017, pp. 103-104.  

[iii] Heart and Mind 107.

[iv] Heart and Mind 113. Matthew 27:34.

[v] One way of illustrating this can be found in family systems theory. In all groups, individuals assume different roles and then relate to each other in ways that aim at homeostasis, a stable equilibrium between the various roles. Since homeostasis is determined by the predictable interactions of all the various roles people play, when one person decides to change, it not only affects that individual but throws the whole system out of whack. Great pressure is exerted on the individual to go back to their previous role so that the system can be restored to balance. Whether it’s your family, church, or small group, if someone decides to deviate from their role, then people in that group will almost inevitably make efforts to pull that person backwards.

 

Advertisements

Questioning Religious Authority: Faith, Doubt, and Truth

Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.

Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]

 

Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence

Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]

Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).

In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)

By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.

 

Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority

I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.

To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”

Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.

In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.

Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).

While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]

When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.

Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.

 

Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.

In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.

Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.

 

Challenge

Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.

This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.

God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).

 

(This post is the sixth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

_____________________________________

[i] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.

[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.

Remember Who You Are: The Beatitudes, Identity, and Vision

The movie, Wonder, is an inspirational story about a 10-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman, who suffers with Treacher Collins syndrome. After being taught at home most of his life, he started public school for the first time upon entering fifth grade. This required him to leave behind the astronaut helmet that he wore to hide his facial deformities. Sadly, he was ostracized by nearly the entire student body, but quickly became best friends with a boy named Jack Will. On Halloween, while everyone was dressed-up at school, he overheard Jack make fun of his deformities and tell the other boys that he was only pretending to be Auggie’s friend. Feeling betrayed, Auggie had a breakdown after arriving home.

His mother, Isabel, offered comfort by saying, “You are not ugly, Auggie,” who replied, “You just have to say that because you’re my mom.” She responded, “Because I am your mom, it counts the most, because I know you the most.” Since Isabel knew her son better than anyone else, she could see the truth about Auggie, even when he couldn’t see it himself. When the other kids were cruel, it was important for her to remind him that he was a good, kind-hearted, smart boy with a great sense of humor. When Auggie felt ugly and rejected, he needed her to speak truth into his life. Despite continued bullying at school, the words of truth spoken by his mother gave Auggie the strength to be his authentic self. As a result, other kids were also enabled to see below the surface of his deformities and accept him as a friend.

The truth that Auggie’s mother spoke reminded him of his true identity and encouraged him to live into that reality. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus does something similar for us in giving the beatitudes (5:1-12).

Remember that the Gospel of Matthew was written to a group of Jewish Christians who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This was truly a paradigm shift in their thinking that resulted in big changes to their religious beliefs and way of life. It launched them on a new journey that took them into the heart of an emerging reality that Jesus called the kingdom of God. The decision to live in this new kingdom inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, meant to live under the reign of God in accordance with God’s values. However, these early Christians soon discovered that these values were diametrically opposed to the upside-down values of the world. In their very efforts to align their lives with God’s ways of life, they came face-to-face with fierce resistance, and instead of feeling blessed many felt cursed.

As the author of Matthew drew on the words of the historical Jesus to compose his gospel, the beatitudes became an occasion to remind these early Christians of their true identity in Christ and to encourage to them to keep the faith during times of difficulty. It’s like we can hear Jesus saying: While you might feel cursed when evaluating your circumstances according to the value system of the world, when seen according to the values of the kingdom you are truly blessed by God because you are living in the truth. Therefore, remember who you are and remain faithful. God looks upon you with favor and will vindicate and reward you in the end.

In this way, Jesus’ words gave encouragement and hope to a group of Christians who were struggling to find meaning in difficult circumstances, which were caused by their commitment to God’s way of life. In addition, the beatitudes revealed the marks of authentic discipleship, which not only confirmed that they were on the right path but also provided ongoing direction for their spiritual journey. With each pronouncement of blessing, Jesus says, “I declare by the power of my word that this is who you really are in the eyes of God, so remember who you are, be encouraged, and live into this reality.”

As we meditate on these pronouncements of blessing, Jesus can do the same for us. So, let’s turn to the beatitudes themselves to remember who we are and see more clearly who God is calling us to be.

 

The Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew[1]

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). The poor in spirit are those with no spiritual qualifications, charisma, or influence. No one would think to ask their opinion on religious matters or call on them to pray or teach a Bible study. According to the religious elites, these people were spiritually bankrupt and excluded from salvation without their rituals, teachings, and intercessions. Then Jesus comes along and says: God’s kingdom is open to you. Far from being excluded, God eagerly awaits your entry. While the “holier-than-thou” may look down on you, God sees your value and uses your spiritual poverty to reveal an important mark of authentic discipleship: humility. Those who are poor in spirit know that they cannot be saved by religion. Rather, they are entirely dependent upon God and find their identity, security, and hope in God’s saving action. Consequently, they are truly blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Like Jesus, the meek are “gentle and humble in heart” (11:29). The world says, “Assert your will and leverage your power to take what you want,” but the meek renounce the coercive, domineering, and violent ways of the world. In so doing, they expose the dark side of power and the damage it does to human beings. While the meek look foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, Jesus says, “these are the ones who demonstrate real strength and who are truly blessed.” When God finishes the new creation, the meek—not the domineering, forceful, manipulative, or violent—will inherit the earth. You can mock them all you want as impotent and impractical, but God will vindicate and reward them in the end.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (5:7). Like meekness, mercy is often seen as a sign of weakness. The world says, “If you are merciful, people will take advantage of you. If you don’t want to become a doormat, show strength not mercy.” But according to the value system of the kingdom, the merciful reflect the compassionate heart of God. By making the truth of God’s love and forgiveness real in this broken world, they show themselves to be true disciples. While the world may crush them for their kindness, Jesus says they are truly blessed because they reap what they sow—divine mercy.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (5:6). In this pronouncement, Jesus blesses people who sincerely pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth at it is in heaven” (6:10). They long for God to right-wise this fallen world with love, justice, and peace. They ache for the time when God will vindicate His people, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed. Based on this hope, they actively seek to extend the reign of God’s righteousness in the world around them, even at great cost to themselves. Since God is faithful, their hope is not in vain—their hunger for justice will be satisfied when God’s redemptive work in creation is complete.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). In this pronouncement, Jesus is not saying that mourning, in and of itself, is a virtue. Rather, like those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is blessing people who lament the present condition of God’s people in a world subject to sin, evil, and death. According to Jesus, the truly blessed refuse to resign themselves the present condition of the world but mourn the fact that God’s will has not yet been done “on earth as it is in heaven.” They are blessed because they will be comforted by God’s ultimate victory.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (5:9). Note that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers,” those who fear conflict and sweep it under the rug. Nor does he endorse the kind of peacemaking done by the Romans at the tip of a sword. Rather, he pronounces blessing on those who are courageous enough to engage the incredibly difficult work of reconciliation. Peacemakers work to eliminate hostilities between enemies in hopes that they may be restored to friendship. While the bullies and conflict avoiders of the of the world try to sideline the peacemakers, Jesus says, “In the last judgement, they will be claimed as God’s children.”

 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). Purity of heart is not about avoiding what some consider impure thoughts, but about single-minded devotion to God. Rather than dividing ourselves among several different loyalties, which will inevitably require us to compromise our values, our ultimate loyalty to God subordinates all others. This means that when the value system of the kingdom comes into conflict with the value system of the world, the kingdom always wins. Instead of serving two masters (6:24), we learn to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (22:37). We how to live with “undivided heart” (Ps. 86:11). While the world may see the pure in heart as naïve, Jesus says that they are blessed because they will see God in the feast of the new creation.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-12).

As we have already seen, the value system of the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the value system of this present world. As disciples of Jesus try to imitate his life by being humble, meek, and merciful; as they hunger and thirst for justice and lay their lives on the line for reconciliation; as they act out of a single-minded devotion to God, they meet fierce resistance. In their imitation of Christ, their very life shines light in dark places, exposing the violence and injustice of the wicked, who, in turn, try to extinguish their light. One strategy for this is persecution: using power to silence, smear, discredit, dominate, oppress, imprison, punish, torture, and even kill. People who experience these sufferings may appear to be cursed by God when seen through the eyes of the world, but according to the values of the kingdom they are blessed because they suffer for the truth. While the powerful may make their lives a living hell on earth, Jesus says, “their reward will be great . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Summary and Challenge

These words of Jesus, reminding us of who we are and encouraging us along the way, are important as we navigate change on the journey to transformation. When all the evidence suggests that we are cursed for embracing a cruciform way of life, we need to evaluate our circumstances in light of the value system of the kingdom. This is no easy task, because challenge, discomfort, and pain cause us to lose perspective, especially since the value system of the world seems to be our native language. But if we see ourselves through its distorted lenses, we are easily discouraged and tempted to give-up and turn back.

In order to cultivate the courage, strength, and hope to keep moving forward with Jesus, we must find ways to stay focused on the value system of the kingdom. We do this by developing a daily discipline of prayer and meditation on scripture (especially the teachings of Jesus). We do this by sharing life with the friends of Jesus who are marginalized and oppressed. We do this by declaring the reign of God’s righteousness in worship and allowing every aspect of our lives to be an expression of God’s glory. We do this by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love.

Focusing on the value system of the kingdom of God sharpens our ability to see the world and ourselves as God does, which is encouraging when all hell breaks loose. By meditating on the beatitudes we are reminded who we are, given direction for our journey, and empowered by renewed vision and hope.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I’m blinded by the value system of the world and begin to think that I’m cursed, remind me of who I am in Christ and help me see the world in the light of your coming kingdom.

(This post is the fifth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

[1] My understand of the beatitudes is informed by E. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes [NIBC], 178-180.