Wake Up Call
Ever watch a movie where you were missing every third word, maybe because of accents, fast dialog, or low volume? At first you listen harder. Then your mind tries to make meaning by contextually stitching the edges of what you did hear together. Eventually you just give up and watch something else.
This is essentially what happens when we read ancient scripture and especially the teachings of Jesus concentrated in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not that we don’t have the right words in our modern translations—the bible is the best preserved and most researched ancient text in the world. We have the right words; we just don’t know what they mean anymore.
We read a line like the first Beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We don’t realize that the four key words and phrases—blessed, poor in spirit, for theirs, kingdom of heaven—all have idiomatic, cultural, or layered meanings dramatically different than the literal understanding in English. Taking those off the table, we’re left with “are” and “is” as the only words we actually understand.
It’s one thing to know that we don’t know every third word of dialog and remain confused; it’s much worse to think that we do. When we mentally stitch meaning together, we do it through the lens of our worldview, our most basic assumptions of the way life and the world work. And for us as Westerners, that is legal and literal. When we apply a legal and literal understanding to a masterpiece of Eastern spirituality, at best, the Sermon becomes irrelevant—an impossibly absurd set of commands and concepts. We give up and go watch something else. At worst, it becomes abusive, as non-literal, spiritual concepts are turned into religious doctrine and law.
The Beatitudes and the entire Sermon on the Mount are not rules to try to obey or impossible standards that can’t be obeyed—serving only to make us passively dependent. They are a wake up call to a new reality: that a God who is humble, connected, and undiverted is calling us to the same attitudes that will absolutely change our worldview.