Thursday, February 25, 2010
Looking For Loopholes
That is the way most of us read the Sermon on the Mount. The opening verses of this famous sermon are the beatitudes, a succinct summary of what it means to be blessed by God. It would not be the list I would compose. If asked to enumerate the blessings of God I would list family and health, friends and freedom, and even material security. But Jesus starts his list saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3)
Preachers usually spiritualize this verse to suit their audiences. It is easy to do; after all it says poor "in spirit." But when Jesus preached this same sermon a second time in the Sermon on the Plain, he changed it to simply, "Blessed are the poor." I guess his "apostles in training" had also been looking for loopholes.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This has to do with unattachment to material things. It is an inner attitude of nonchalance to the things of this world. If we are possessed by possessions, we cannot be possessed by God.
I will be honest. I am neither poor nor "poor in spirit." Likely you aren't either. If you have an annual income of $50,000 a year you are in the top 1% of the wealthiest people in the world. I have a house, two automobiles and health insurance (for the time being). My tendency is to look for loopholes to protect my assets. I want the blessing, but without the price tag.
We say, "God bless America" but do we really want America to be blessed by God's standard? The American Church is the wealthiest group of Christians in the history of Christianity. The total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion. It would take just one percent of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest one billion people in the world out of extreme poverty.
But we do not use our tithes and offerings to aid "the least of these my brothers." (Matthew 25:40) Instead we build expensive church buildings and pay religious professionals to produce Sunday morning entertainment that we euphemistically call worship. How can we say the love of God abides in us? (I John 3:17)
Think of the most spiritual people who have ever lived. All of them were poor in the world's wealth. To our shame, many nonchristians have taken the standards of the Sermon on the Mount more seriously than us who profess to be Jesus' followers.
In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi writes that when he read the New Testament "the Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart." Speaking to the British he said, "When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world."
When Gandhi died he owned six worldly possessions, the most valuable being a watch, spectacles, sandals and an eating bowl. When he was asked why he never became a Christian since he admired the Sermon on the Mount so much, he answered, "When you can convince me that Christians live by it, I will be the first to become a Christian." Truth be told, we hang ourselves with our own loopholes.