This upcoming Sunday’s gospel reading is from Luke, chapter 9, verses 28-36, the transfiguration episode. Immediately when we begin the passage in v. 28, “after he (Jesus) said this,” a notation that should spell out that this episode is connected to and to be understood in relation to the passage that just preceded it. So what was it that Jesus just said? In 9:22-27 Jesus predicts his suffering and death at the hands of the religious authorities and lays out some hard words about what is in store for those who will follow him: denial of one’s self, taking up the Cross, losing one’s life, and so on. His words to his disciples and other would-be followers come on the heel of Peter’s announcement that he is “the Christ of God,” the Messiah—a term fraught with cultural, political and religious baggage that all point to a Messiah who is like David was, i.e. a warrior-king. Jesus’ words in 22-27 are the beginning of his work to undermine the traditional understanding of Messiah and craft a new one.
So we have Jesus, with three of his disciples, ascending a mountain to pray in v. 28. The setting on a mountain should conjure up for us memories of other important events and figures related to ascending a mountain—not the least being the Exodus story, Moses and his various encounters with God. Throughout Scripture, the mountain is an “in-between space,” rising up from what happens below in ordinary life toward the skies and the realm of heaven. In Luke it functions here as a place of revelation, but also a setting for prayer. And for both these reasons, as well as additional ones, it is a contrast to the Jerusalem Temple, a different sort of place for prayer and revelation. It is interesting that the whole following scene unfolds on the mountain, perhaps purposely chosen as a contrast to the Temple where God’s presence was “officially” supposed to reside, amidst the official authorities and the cultic system and the economics of sacrifice.
On the mountain, Jesus is joined by and converses with Moses and Elijah. The question for us is why these two? Why not David? Or any of the patriarchs? Jesus’ association with these two should give us a clue as to which tradition Jesus stands in within the Judaism of his day. He doesn’t stand in the tradition of David the warrior-king, the quintessential Messiah figure, but rather with Moses—the liberator of slaves and opponent of Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire—and Elijah—the prophet par excellence who challenges the Israelite King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel over their greed and injustice. Like these two, Jesus in Luke’s gospel will be cast as one who challenges the powerful.
As Moses and Elijah begin to depart, the disciples awake, glimpse what is going on, but as Luke tells us in v. 33 in reference specifically to Peter, “he did not know what he was talking about.” Peter has misgauged what is happening and his attempt to “capture” the moment by erecting three tents or booths to memorialize the episode is emphatically shot down in the most ominous way possible: a voice from a cloud interrupts his nonsense in v. 34.
The voice speaks in a way that should recall the earlier passage after Jesus’ baptism, the revelation that he was God’s beloved son—a revelation that sent Jesus off into the wilderness to figure out exactly what that means (click here to read our reflection on that passage from last week). The voice this time speaks not to Jesus, but to the disciples: “This is my chosen Son! Listen to him!” The exclamation points belong to the passage, because the voice here speaks with power and emphasis. And it is the second part of what the voice says that catapults us back again to what Jesus said just prior to this passage in vs. 22-27, taking us full circle. Listen to him. Don’t get caught up in your tent-building Peter, or building statues or monuments, or tabernacles or worship. Don’t get excited about Jesus being the new David, ready to kick the Romans out and set up a new monarchy. Don’t get lured in by the miracles and healings. The important thing here is to listen to him. Pay attention to what he says, and then go live it. So difficult for the disciples then; difficult for those of us who call ourselves followers of him now. Do we really listen to Jesus? Do we take his words to heart and stand in that tradition with him, Moses and Elijah, speaking truth to power and advocating in behalf of the poor, oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized?
The verse ends with the disciples doing that first action that might lead to listening to him. They fall silent. And as the road turns toward Jerusalem for them and for Jesus, maybe we’ll fall silent too and start listening.
At the end of chapter three of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus (and us as readers) hears the voice of God proclaim, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” This proclamation sets the scene for what happens in chapter 4.
Following his encounter at the Jordan with John, Jesus retreats to a place by himself, left to figure out what this means, this proclamation that he is the beloved son of God. In some sense, Jesus’s retreat to the wilderness calls to mind the Native American idea of a “vision quest,” a turning point in one’s life where a young man figures out whom he really is and what that means. So we have Jesus, at the beginning of chapter four, fasting and alone in the desert, possibly unpacking what has just happened in his encounter with John.
The eleven verses that make up the “temptation” passage are rife with Exodus imagery. Jesus being led into the desert where he spends 40 days and 40 nights fasting should recall to us the story of Israel, a people freed from Egypt and led by the spirit into the desert for a time of testing that lasts 40 years. But whereas Jesus’s ancestors spent their time in the desert complaining about there not being enough food or drink (and God answering with manna and flowing water from the rock), fashioning a golden calf and worshipping it instead of God, and so on, Jesus will meet the challenge of his testing. The Israelites are tested and falter time and time again during their 40 years, but Jesus will recapitulate their time in the desert with his 40 days—but he will meet the tests and remain faithful to God.
The devil starts the questioning of Jesus with an interesting conditional phrase: “IF you are the Son of God…” This phrase is attached to the proclamation at the end of chapter 3, connecting the two passages, and hinting to us that the very thing which Jesus was contemplating while in the desert was indeed what happened in the Jordan with John and what does it mean. And the devil has some easy ways for him to unequivocally answer the question of his identity. “IF you are the son of God…” well, then, do this and you’ll know for sure. Right? But Jesus doesn’t take the bait, recalling instead the words from Deuteronomy, words that again recall the manna passage and the Israelites own crying out for God to give them something to eat.
In the second temptation, the devil evokes in Jesus a powerful emotion—fear. He perches Jesus on the top of the temple and again suggests that a way of being sure about his identity is to throw himself off, even quoting scripture (the devil can quote scripture too!) as to how the scenario should unfold. But Jesus resists again, quoting Deuteronomy.
The final temptation offers us some interesting political analysis. The insinuation in verses 8-9 is that the kingdoms of the world belong not to God, but to the devil—they’re his to give. These verses should cause all of us to be skeptical of aligning any kingdom, any political ideology, any economic empire, any nation or state, with the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not equivalent to any political reality we might find here on earth. And no matter what good we think we might be able to do by wielding the power that comes along with positions of status and influence within such systems, we would do well to remember Jesus’ refusal to make any deals with the devil to be the master of such power (again by quoting Deuteronomy).
Whereas the Israelites time of testing and preparation as the chosen people of God was a series of failures and mistakes, Jesus realizes his identity as God’s chosen son by meeting each challenge and remaining faithful.
I am convinced in reading the opening passages of the Acts of the Apostles that it is Luke’s primary purpose to make sure the early church is oriented to that which is at the heart of the proclamation and passion of Jesus. The central message of Acts 1:1-14 resonates not only in the time of the apostles and the early Church, but for those who would follow Jesus today and the preaching and practice of our churches as well.
The passage opens with Luke orienting the reader to where we are in the overarching story (it is generally agreed that the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts is the same person) and confirming the continuity of Jesus’ message, both pre-Resurrection and post-Resurrection. As he did before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus speaks to his followers about that transformative reality called the “kingdom of God” (verse 3). The focus, therefore, of his proclamation has not changed after the Resurrection. The message remains the same: the kingdom of God.
Now we have to imagine that the disciples are in a tricky position, and we get the idea, when Acts opens, that they are contemplating leaving Jerusalem (4). After all, for the followers of Jesus, his arrest, torture and crucifixion must have not only been emotionally and psychologically traumatic for them, but also a warning as to what the authorities might choose to do to them as well should they stick around and “stay the course.” But Jesus “enjoins” them to remain in Jerusalem, despite their fear and despite the danger. He assures them that the promise about which they have heard him speak is imminent—reaffirming again that that promise has to do with the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, the object of the verse just prior.
The disciples, however, continue to mistake the “kingdom of God” with their own less lofty, more immediate ambitions regarding the “kingdom of Israel.” In verse 6, they question Jesus not about his “speaking on the kingdom of God,” but rather want to know whether he is going to “restore the kingdom of Israel.” Jesus’ response to the disciples is curt and to the point—a good paraphrase would be: “That is of no concern to you.” Jesus instead re-orients them to the task that they are going to undertake in the world (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth)—specifically to be his witnesses, those who will testify as to the truth of what Jesus said and did during his lifetime. And again, the message of Jesus’ actions and words throughout the Gospel of Luke (and now in the Acts of the Apostles) is not the restoration of Israel but the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
Then, like Elijah before him (another prophet that criticized the religious and political powers of his time), Jesus is “lifted up” and disappears (verse 9). Now the disciples are left in a rather awkward posture, standing (maybe mouths agape, slack-jawed?), looking up at the sky (verse 10). Whereas Jesus had been attempting to re-orient the disciples away both their own worldly ambitions and their belief in a limited and ultimately doomed political reality (the kingdom of Israel), two new emissaries (“dressed in white” clues us in to the fact they were representatives of God) will now re-orient their attention away from “heaven” and back to the world around them, the world in which they will play out their roles as witnesses to Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom of God (verse 11).
Implicit in Acts 1:1-14 is the call to give our allegiance to that kingdom which Jesus proclaimed—the kingdom of God—and not to give our allegiance to some partial, flawed political reality, be it the kingdom of Israel for the disciples then or the church’s embrace of U.S. empire in our own time. Secondly, the passage also challenges any interest the church may have in an “other-worldly” theology, a pre-occupation with “heaven,” and its parallels, the after-life and a salvation primarily concerned with what happens after we die. Instead, the passage, like the two men dressed in white in verses 10-11, challenges the church to stop looking up to the sky and to start looking around us—to make this world its concern, to understand our mission as being about the here-and-now, and that through how we live our lives—what we say and do—will we give witness to Jesus and the kingdom of God which he proclaimed: a kingdom where the oppressed are set free, the blind see, the poor have the good news of God’s special attention and concern for them preached and practiced by the church, where we love our enemies and do good even to those who would harm us.
Luke insists right off the bat that the church’s mission has nothing to do with aspirations for worldly power nor a pre-occupation with “heaven” and a “pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die” otherworldly theology. Our churches today would do well to remember this.
That was the title Diedre Houchen gave the Roundtable discussion she led last Thursday. After sharing some of her own faith journey, she invited others to share a bit of their own. Many had similar tales of finding connection with a particular community or way of being “spiritual,” then leaving to move on to something else. The two ends of the Christian spectrum that folks moved along seemed to be the personal encounter with Jesus and vs. the mandate to follow Jesus’ “Way.” This is a well-documented divide: Evangelical (conservative) vs. Progressive (liberal). Diedre wondered if there was any commonality, any way for the two to “talk.” We didn’t come to any conclusions, but hopeful ideas like humility, openness, honest debate, and recognition of a common search for meaning were discussed. In the end, it seems helpful to recognize that each of us comes to “faith,” or seeking faith, from a place of vulnerability that should be honored – regardless of our own conclusions (or current resting place).
Diedre recommends an episode of Krista Tippet’s “Speaking of Faith”- Evangelicals Out of the Box – as a great follow-up. It’s a big subject and one that causes a lot of heartache between people who call themselves followers of Christ.
Matthew 5:33-42 In these passages from Matthew, Jesus continues to speak of the “higher righteousness,” alluded to in 5:20, which is the crux of the new/old teaching he proclaims.
The fourth passage in this series begins with verse 33. It is an interesting passage that not only teaches, but is a demonstration of the teaching itself. The language of oaths and vows may not resonate with us now the way it did for Jesus’ original listeners; nevertheless, the focus of the passage may be even more poignant for us now.
We start with the question: Why does one take an oath? What makes an oath necessary? The answer, of course, is that one’s word is somehow lacking integrity, that there is some doubt as to whether you will do what you say you will do. So to give it more oomph – to emphasize one’s integrity and trustworthiness to another who is doubtful – we “swear” on a variety of things—our mother’s grave, “the Holy Bible”, to God, etc. But the greater issue here is the assumption that a person’s word is no longer good enough, and that integrity is in short supply. Today, it is an accepted fact that we live in a culture of lies, misrepresentations, deception and dishonesty—in everything from politics to marketing to our personal relationships. We have become a culture that lacks integrity and, because of that – when something is really important – we have to rely on various oaths, vows and other expressions to impress on others that yes, we really mean what we say . . .at least this time.
Jesus discerns this lack of integrity in his own time. In a culture of duplicity, Jesus proposes simplicity: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’” (verse 37). No oath or vow can substitute for our consistent, faithful practice of integrity. Jesus’ own directness of speech in this passage demonstrates just such integrity: there is no hedging, no obscuring, no duplicity. The message on integrity takes on the characteristics of integrity—Jesus is simple, straightforward and direct.
The next passage is one that many of us at the scripture study last Tuesday confessed to having wrestled with regularly. Many have come away from this passage (5:38-42) believing that Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to be doormats, to suffer evil without any resistance. But scripture scholars with good social and historical analysis of the Palestine of Jesus’ time have done incredible work with this passage over the past twenty years. The passage starts out by quoting what was a common understanding of justice in Jesus’ time and, indeed, still holds sway with the vast majority of humanity today: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (v. 38). We understand such a mentality today as being primarily about punishment, about seeking “justice” for the perpetrator. For some of us, it even offends our more “developed” sensibilities about a justice that has vengeance at its core. But for the early Israelites, such a law (lex talionis) was actually instituted for its limiting effect. An eye for an eye was instituted to limit revenge, to keep violence from escalating, and to actually break the cycle of vengeance that such actions often invited. Such cycles and escalations rooted primarily in revenge could quickly get out of hand and cease to be about any sort of justice at all. An eye for an eye functioned to limit that tendency.
What Jesus proposes instead of an eye for an eye unsettles some of us though. Is Jesus promoting passivity to evil when he tells us to turn the other cheek? Is Jesus telling us to unquestioningly accept suffering with no thought for our safety or dignity? A quick lesson in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ time is helpful in understanding what it is that Jesus actually counsels.
The culture of Jesus’ time, not unlike Middle Eastern cultures today, was built on the axis of honor-shame. One’s honor was considered of the utmost importance – and not incurring shame was essential. Note then the language of the last part of v. 39: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to them as well.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies that you would strike them with the back of you right hand. Such an act was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Those subservient to you—slaves to masters, wives to husbands, children to fathers, peasants to soldiers, and so on—could be put in their place with a well-placed backhand to the cheek. Additionally, to strike one in this way did not go against Jewish law. So what happens when we “turn the other cheek?” The act, far from being a sign of willingness to accept evil treatment, is actually an assertion of dignity by the oppressed party that put the oppressor in a difficult and shameful position. For the oppressor to strike his inferior on the left cheek, the oppressor is forced to strike with his open hand. To strike with one’s open hand, as opposed to backhand someone, is to acknowledge that the one you are striking is equal to you. Furthermore, to strike with an open hand is prohibited in Jewish law, so turning the other cheek and inviting your opponent to strike you with their open hand is to put the opponent in the unenviable position of acknowledging your equality to them, and then having to either back down in front of others and incur the shame associated with that OR break the law and incur the penalties and shame in that action. So what we have here is not Jesus inviting us to a beat-down by our opponents. Rather what we have is Jesus inviting us to a strategy for confronting and resisting an opponent who is in a position of power over us. It is actually a strategy for winning.
The same application follows in the next two examples. In v. 40, the issue of giving one’s cloak to one to whom you are indebted who has taken your tunic is directly related again to Jewish law. Jewish law states that the one item that a good Jew could not deny to another Jew, regardless of how in debt the other was to him, was his cloak. A cloak functioned in a variety of capacities for the poorest of the poor: clothing, shelter from the elements, and economic opportunity (beggars used to spread out their cloaks in front of them at the gates to the city, asking for alms to be placed in them). A cloak must therefore be returned before sunset to one’s rightful owner. To offer someone your cloak when they are taking your tunic again puts them in an awkward and untenable position regarding Jewish law and the potential for incurring shame in front of one’s peers and others.
In v. 41, Jesus is referencing the common practice of Roman soldiers to press into service civilian help in carrying their various military items. Any Roman soldier could require of any peasant the performance of this task—but the law stated that it could be for only one mile. So to offer to go two miles again turns the table on the opponent, forcing them into a position of breaking the law should they accept.
Great activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi understood Jesus’ words here as a strategy for winning in a situation when the vast amount of power was on the side of one’s opponent. To fight with weapons would be a strategy sure to fail since the opponent has all the power – and better weapons. But in the face of such overwhelming odds, Jesus invites us to think creatively and nonviolently. What he offers us is a strategy for winning—both in terms of asserting our dignity but also in appealing to the best sensibilities of our opponent and especially to the many who may not have chosen sides but are watching closely the interaction between us and our opponents. Calling attention to the deep injustice of our situation through creative resistance, as Jesus suggests, is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of all those watching from the sidelines. What we have here is Jesus inviting us to moral jujitsu—using our opponent’s energy against him to make our point and win the encounter.
Matthew 5:17-48, part one
“Inside-outside” is a game we all play. It seems to be taught to us from the beginning of life. Some folks are inside the circle (good); others are outside the circle (bad). This past week we started looking at a passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus seeks to obliterate those circles we draw, boundaries between ourselves and our friends and the dreaded “others” who are somehow not like us.
This section of Matthew, 5:17-48 is made up of 6 antitheses introduced with the common, “You have heard…But I say to you…” The antitheses are responses to (more or less) Torah-based pronouncements on killing, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and attitudes and behaviors toward one’s enemies. [Note: When Jesus states, “You have heard…” the following predicate is not necessarily a quote from Jewish law, but it probably was what passed for conventional wisdom and practice at the time.]
The section begins with a short passage (17-20) which situates the antitheses that are to follow. Lest anyone get the idea that Jesus is proposing a radically new teaching, he makes the case that what he is about to address is consistent with the best of the Mosaic and prophetic tradition in Judaism. The “Do not think…” that opens verse 17 points to what is probably a common reaction his teaching has already raised among his disciples and others: that his teachings are a challenge to or even a repudiation of the Torah. But while his teachings may question the what is passing as legitimate interpretation of Torah and certainly the authority of the teachers and interpreters of Torah in his day (Pharisees, scribes, others), his teachings should not be understood as inconsistent with or counter to the highest expressions of justice and morality already revealed in the tradition.
Another concern Jesus seems to have is that the misunderstanding of his teachings will lead not to a more rigorous practice and higher level of integrity among those who hear him, but rather some might be thinking his teaching allows for greater relaxation in matters of justice and morality. His acknowledgement of the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (v. 20) points to a more challenging discipline and a greater integrity to be the rule for his disciples. Making these things clear, Jesus turns to several examples of this “higher righteousness” in the following passages.
In verse 21, Jesus begins with the injunction against killing (Ex 20:13 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures). The truth of the matter is that the injunction against killing really only encompasses a very small number of us. Few of us will actually kill another human being (at least directly, but that is for another time…) during our lives. The injunction thus draws a small circle, encircling and setting apart a small group for whom the rest of us suppose the injunction is intended. But Jesus decides to draw the circle larger. He pushes the boundary out, including inside the circle all those who experience anger toward another, who ridicule others with taunts like “Raqa” (imbecile or “blockhead”) or “fool”. He connects that impulse—the impulse toward an anger directed at other humans, an anger that “dehumanizes” another human being through ridicule or disdain—with the most extreme of actions which flow from that impulse, namely, killing.
Killing happens because we have learned to dehumanize the other—to no longer see the other as human. This happens all the time in war. To get a soldier to kill, the soldier must devalue the enemy’s humanity, to see them as less than human. But killing is only the most extreme expression of the impulse. Jesus pushes that circle out until we are all inside of it, cognizant that each day all of us move along this same spectrum of dehumanization (of which killing is at the far end) in our actions and behaviors. And so the injunction against killing becomes not an indictment of a few who are somehow set apart from the rest of us, but rather an indictment of all of us and a warning to take seriously our own attitude and actions in our daily interactions.
The interesting second part of this passage is the prescription of reconciliation as an antidote to the anger that leads to dehumanization and severs our relationships to other human beings. In verses 23-24, Jesus recognizes that we all will fall into the very type of anger he cautions us about, so he offers a practice to heal the rift that dehumanizing anger causes: the practice of reconciliation. But the rub here is that he connects right worship with right relationship, and asserts then the converse: there is no true worship where there is division caused by anger within the worshipping community. As the prophets before him said again and again, the neglect of mercy, justice and reconciliation individually and communally nullifies our worship of God. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor. Those who dehumanize their opponents, worship falsely.
The same widening of the circle of indictment takes place in the next two passages (verses 27-30, 31-32) as well, this time regarding the injunctions against adultery and the process of divorce (tied together by their common reference to adultery). Again, the adulterers among us may be relatively small in number compared to the number of us that have looked on others as simply objects for us to use to satisfy our desires. The lust referred to here has the same end as the anger referred to above: dehumanization. Objectification of another human being is dehumanization; their value is reduced to how they can be used. If adultery is the result at the far end of the spectrum, the motivation for adultery—to see others for their value to us and not their value in and of themselves—broadens the circle until we all find ourselves within its boundaries. The injunction takes on new life and is directed at all of us, not simply those few who commit only the most extreme act of what lies in all of our hearts.
Additionally, adultery, especially in Jesus’ time but in our own as well, cannot be simply understood in the sense of “unchastity” but also incorporates an element of justice, or right relationship, as well. Adultery in Jesus’ time placed women in particular in a state of jeopardy—one simply thinks of the situation of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel, surrounded by a crowd intent on stoning her. A patriarchal society run by and for men elevated a man’s value and denigrated a woman’s value. And so women often bear, unfairly, the greater punishment or consequences of adultery. The indictment of the interior process of dehumanization over the act of adultery itself leaves all of us, like the crowd in John’s story, examining our own precarious sense of being “sinless” rather than focusing on the sin of another.
Perhaps most importantly, in examining the first three of these antitheses, we notice that Jesus’ widening of the circle changes the focus of our attention as well. If the injunction is simply aimed at killers and adulterers, then our eyes focus outward on and toward the others encompassed by those injunctions. But Jesus’ turns our eyes away from others and squarely back on ourselves. While we were intent on the sins of others, Jesus erased and moved the line so that we suddenly find ourselves in the circle too. Now we ask why it is that we are here in the circle too. We stop considering others sinfulness and we start considering our own. Such consideration is perhaps the first steps to learning how to live more fully this higher righteousness that Jesus called us to back in verse 20.
There is a short—but incredibly rich—passage which immediately follows the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 5:13-16 holds several familiar sayings of Jesus, using the metaphors of salt, light and a city set on a mountain. The essence of the passage, which really sets up the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, is that following Jesus is about offering a contrast to the dominant culture or society in which we live. It is the assertion that Jesus’ followers—the Church—are to be a “contrast” society.
The Beatitudes already are leading us in that direction, but it is in Matthew 5:13-16 that this becomes really straightforward. What is most striking about the Beatitudes is how they go against conventional wisdom and basic religious assumptions, both of Jesus’ time and of our own. Now Jesus directs his words to those closest to him, using the second person “you” for emphasis: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
What is salt? What does salt do? Salt adds flavor; its primary property relates to taste. That which is bland can be spiced up with a little salt. We add salt to give flavor to something. In essence, we use salt because it provides a contrast; it adds flavor. The implication for those who follow Jesus is that we are here on earth to provide a contrast to the world in which we live. And if we, as those who call themselves Christians, don’t provide that contrast? Then Jesus states clearly that we are no good to his mission, we are useless to him. Individually and communally, if our witness and way of life in the world fails to offer a contrast to the ways things are in the larger society, then what does our Christianity matter? The Church’s purpose here is to provide a contrast to the larger culture; if it does not, that it has no value at all.
If we think about this for a second we know that it is deeply, profoundly true. We live in a culture that celebrates rugged individualism, an individualism that states “me first,” “I’m number one,” “it’s all about taking care of me and mine.” But the gospels tell us over and over again that we are to care for others, even at a sacrifice to ourselves, that the common good and especially the rights of the most vulnerable (the widow, the stranger, and the orphan) are to be preeminent in our society. The gospel tells us that we are to love our enemies, but our society says bomb our enemies. Our society encourages us to worship and long for power, status, and privilege – and to find our security in money; the gospels tell us to seek to be the least ones, the ones who serve, the ones who find their security in God and each other, in relationships. The Church is supposed to be that society of people who are living these things out—in contrast to the larger society that surrounds us.
Two other things stand out in this passage. We need to remember that this passage comes on the heels of Jesus’ promise to his disciples that they will be persecuted, that they will stand in the line of those prophets who took to task the kings of Israel and Judah and suffered for it. So when Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden,” the disciples must have had mixed feelings. Any thoughts that they had about hanging low, trying to do their thing under the radar have just been addressed. Jesus first tells them they’re salt, now they’re light (another metaphor for contrast) and finally that they are a city of a mountain, nice and high where everyone can see them. Through the values of the Beatitudes and the promise of persecution, he has assured them that if they follow him, they will find that they will not “fit in” in this world. But not only will they not “fit in”—they also are being told that they must “stand out.” Their contrast is not just for themselves; it is for the world. So essentially he tells them: “You won’t fit in, and you’re going to have to stand out.” Any hopes of quietly following Jesus and muting or avoiding the persecution part have just gone out the window. The Church will be that city on the mountain, exposed for all to see, for both good and bad. Verses 15 and 16 echo too that the Church’s witness is not for itself, but for others, for all.
This idea of the Church as a contrast society seems to me to be at the heart of the crisis we find with our Church today. We longer look or act differently. We are just like our neighbors. There is little about being a Christian that seems to separate us out today from the society around us. There is little to no contrast between the Church and the larger culture in which we live. This is certainly not how it was for the early Church, and we find that it certainly is not how it is for those segments of the Church throughout history which have taken Jesus most seriously, and therefore conflicted with the societies in which they found themselves: from anti-slavery abolitionists in the 1700s and 1800s, to the black churches of the civil rights movements; from St. Francis and his movement which eschewed the trappings of power and wealth which gripped the church of his day to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany which resisted Hitler’s rule; to the churches of Latin America that speak out for the poor and suffer martyrdom to the U.S. churches today shielding and protecting undocumented workers.
But for the the majority of Christians in our nation today, the contrast is simply not there.
As the great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote in the 1800s, critiquing the Church of his time for the very same thing: “There was a time when one could almost be afraid to call oneself a disciple of Christ, because it meant so much. Now one can do it with complete ease, because it means nothing at all.”