The Sermon on the…?

Today our Gospel reading is well-known to us.  It is, of course, the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.  Pictorial renderings of this scene are as familiar as its words.  From ancient icons to childhood Sunday school images, we recognize Jesus standing on a high place above a yearning crowd, spatially intermediate between the people and God.  The crowd literally look up to Jesus, perhaps with his beatified aura reflected in their eyes.  The scene is set with today’s opening narrative description of the Sermon on the Mount.  Luke says, “Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people.”

Wait a minute…That’s not right.  Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place?  It’s as if someone has punked the Gospel book.  That is, until we realize that today’s Beatitudes are not from the Sermon on the Mount.  In fact, in Luke’s Gospel there is no Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount is in Matthew, and it, indeed, begins with the words, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down…he began to speak, and taught them.”

Are these two separate occasions in the life and ministry of Jesus?  Did Jesus preach two different sets of Beatitudes?  Maybe, but that misses the point, I think.  Matthew and Luke are trying to convey different theological truths in the ways they portray this sermon.  So, what are those truths?

Matthew wants to emphasize the spiritual, and in so doing it is important to him to locate Jesus on a “high place.”  It is both geographically and metaphorically universal in religion that people meet God and connect with the divine on mountaintops.  By setting the Beatitudes on a mountain, Matthew hearkens to this pervasive spiritual phenomenon.  Jesus’ Gospel words come down the mountain to the people just as, for instance, God’s commandments came down Mount Sinai through Moses millennia before.

Luke’s less-referenced version of the story, which we read today, actually offers a much more radical and uniquely Christian truth.  In Luke, it is not God’s words that waft down a mountain and settle among the people.  Rather it is God’s Word, the very person of Jesus, who himself comes down onto a level place with the people.  God deigns to descend to our level, in other words, and be intimately with us.

Image result for sermon on the mount vs. sermon on the plain

God deigns to descend to our level and be intimately with us.

This is further emphasized by the difference in the message Jesus preaches.  Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” becomes, in Luke, “Blessed are the poor.”  “Blessed are you who hunger for righteousness” becomes “Blessed are the hungry.”  In other words, Luke takes Matthew’s spiritual claims and recasts them with a gritty realism.

Let’s hear again the Beatitudes from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain: “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.  Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

I think we prefer Matthew’s more spiritualized version of these promises because in Luke it seems as if Jesus may be peddling an opiate for the masses by promising those who actually, physically suffer in this life a delayed reward in the next life.  But what if Jesus isn’t talking primarily about the afterlife?  What if what Jesus means is that the poor, and the hungry, and the sorrowful, and the persecuted have a blessing, an advantage, now, in this life, in this moment that the rest of us lack?  That seems like a contradiction.  Can it be that the suffering simultaneously are blessed?

Writer Monika Hellwig thinks they are.[i]  Hellwig believes that the acutely vulnerable understand their vulnerability while the rest of us live under the willful illusion that we are self-sufficient.  It is that illusion that often prevents us in the here and now from a living connection to the Spirit of God.  Hellwig uses the category of the poor to make ten declarations about their blessedness. We could substitute anyone who is vulnerable or suffering.  Hellwig says:

  1. The poor know they are in urgent need of redemption.
  2. The poor know not only their dependence on God…but also their interdependence on one another.
  3. The poor rest their security not on things but on people.
  4. The poor have no exaggerated sense of their own importance, and no exaggerated need of privacy.
  5. The poor expect little from competition and much from cooperation.
  6. The poor can distinguish between necessities and luxuries.
  7. The poor can wait, because they have acquired a kind of dogged patience born of acknowledged dependence.
  8. The fears of the poor are more realistic and less exaggerated, because they already know that one can survive great suffering and want.
  9. When the poor [hear the Gospel], it sounds like good news and not like a threat or a scolding.
  10. The poor can respond to the call of the Gospel with a certain abandonment and uncomplicated totality because they have so little to lose and are ready for anything.

What about those of us who are not poor, or grieving, or in distress?  Philip Yancey suggests we take Hellwig’s list and turn them into “I” questions, in order to reveal to ourselves the false security in which we sometimes live, and which hinders our connection to God.  Let’s try just a few:

Do I really and truly recognize that I am in need of redemption?  Do I recognize my interdependence with other people?  Can I distinguish between true necessities and luxuries?  Do I have patience to wait on good things?  Does the Gospel feel like liberation or scolding to me?  Am I able to respond to God’s call with joy and abandon rather than begrudging hesitancy?  What about you?

Philip Yancey says that the Beatitudes are “profound insights into the mystery of human existence. God’s kingdom turns the tables upside down.  The poor, the hungry, the mourners, and the oppressed truly are blessed.  Not because of their miserable states, of course—Jesus spent much of his life trying to remedy those miseries [and so should we].  Rather, they are blessed because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient…Human beings do not [easily or] readily admit desperation.  When they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near.”[ii]

If today we aren’t poor, or hungry, or sorrowful, or oppressed, then the Beatitudes remind us that we have been, or someday will be.  (That’s what the second half of the Beatitudes are all about.)  As fragile, mortal creatures, our well-being is always temporary, and our self-sufficiency is always illusory.  The Beatitudes cause the scales to fall from our eyes and grant us the gift of shedding the illusion, so that we realize anew just how dependent we are upon one another and upon the God who creates us in love.  Then, for us, too, the Gospel becomes Good News.  We recognize with wonder that God does not dwell on high but on a level place among us.  We recognize that rich or poor, joy-filled or sorrowful, we are blessed because God comes down into our real lives, our daily routines, our actual struggles, and abides with us and in us.  And when we know that Jesus speaks to us, we cannot help in turn but speak those words of blessing to God’s suffering world.


[i] Yancey, Philip. The Jesus I Never Knew, 115.

[ii] Ibid, 116-117.

Disruptive innovation

1908 was the year.  Karl Benz had introduced the first road automobile to use an internal combustion engine in 1885, but it was in 1908 that the first Model T Ford rolled off an assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan.  It was in 1908 on the streets of New York City that the number of automobiles surpassed the number of horses for the first time.[i]  After that, the transformation was so swift as to cause whiplash.  Horses had been the primary means of transportation since 3000 B.C., and all that changed in a heartbeat.

Car and horse.jpg

Almost immediately after the ascendancy of the car, automated taxicabs followed.  The taxi medallion, that iconic license to operate a cab, became for most of the twentieth century an investment as rock solid as gold.  A dozen years ago in San Francisco, taxi medallions sold for $250,000.  It New York City, they went for upwards of $1 million.[ii]  As recently as 2006, New York taxi medallions were advertised with this tagline: “In New York, the capital of world finance, the hottest investment isn’t stocks, bonds, commodities or even Manhattan apartments. It’s taxi medallions, the metal plates affixed to the hoods of the city’s 12,779 yellow cabs.”[iii]  Entrepreneurs and family patriarchs alike would invest in a taxi medallion as the safest of bets.

Then, in 2009 Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanik launched a little company named Uber, through which one could summon a complete stranger through a smartphone (which was itself a new thing) and take a ride in his Toyota Corolla.  A decade later, according to Forbes Magazine, Uber and Lyft control 70% of the business traveler market in the United States, while the taxi industry controls 6%.[iv]  (Yes, you read those percentages correctly.)  New York City taxi medallions have lost 85% of their value.  They’ve crashed faster than tulips in seventeenth century Holland.

Harvard University business professor Clay Christiansen coined the term for such phenomena: “Disruptive innovation.”[v]  Initially, in its nascent moments, such an innovation is received by people as novel and whimsical.  People see it as intriguing but don’t detect the portent that the innovation may redefine their entire lives.  (Think of old, grainy photos you’ve seen of the very first automobile drivers in their goggles and gloves, smiling blithely as they pass horse-drawn wagons on dirt roads.)  But then, as the full impact of the innovation slowly dawns, lighthearted infatuation gives way to wary apprehension, followed by startled anger and fear as the full implications of what is occurring settle in.  Life is disrupted.  The world is changed.  What was thought to be reliable and valuable suddenly doesn’t seem so.  Nothing can ever be the same again, and there is no going back.

Taxi medallion

This morning’s Gospel passage follows immediately upon last week’s Gospel.  In fact, today’s reading repeats the final line from last week in order to underscore the connection.  Last week Jesus arrived in his hometown of Nazareth.  There, Jesus went to the synagogue and read from Isaiah 61, which says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In today’s Gospel passage, the good people of Nazareth react.  At first, Jesus’ performance seems novel and even whimsical.  The son of Joseph the carpenter, who left home months (maybe years) before on a hair-brained journey to follow his crazy cousin John, has come home and taken the place of a teacher in the synagogue.  And, to his fellow Nazarenes’ surprise, Jesus recites well.  Jesus’ neighbors and kin are casually intrigued.  Word has previously reached Nazareth about Jesus’ remarkable acts in other towns around the Sea of Galilee.  The people of Nazareth hope that Jesus will, perhaps, offer them a parlor trick or two.  Some may even imagine that he’ll set up shop now that he’s home and draw a little more business to their tiny town.  Life will go on as usual, except that Jesus will add a dash innovation to their mundane lives.

But Jesus keeps talking.  He’s not a sideshow, he tells them.  He is a prophet, and more than a prophet, and he hasn’t come to tweak the town and add spice to their lives.  Jesus has come to disrupt their lives, to change their world.  He has come to claim Isaiah’s future-oriented prophecy as his own present mission.  They’ve all been blind, Jesus says, but his Good News will give them new sight.  What they had thought was valuable in the world isn’t really so.  They will come to value what God values, to love what God loves.  Now that Jesus is there, nothing will be the same again, and there’s no going back.

For the neighbors and kin of Jesus, the full impact of what they’re hearing slowly dawns.  Casual infatuation shifts to wary apprehension, which morphs quickly into seething rage.  The good people of Nazareth don’t want their world disrupted, and so, Luke tells us, they physically manhandle Jesus south of town to a precipice and prepare to throw him off the cliff.

Image result for jesus nazareth cliff

Here’s the thing: You can’t kill disruptive innovation that way.  Try as they might, the taxi lobby hasn’t slowed Uber and Lyft down.  I suspect the horse-and-buggy cabal probably sought to stop the automobile, but to no avail.  When one stands at the precipice of a value-altering disruption, a world-changing innovation, rage and bluster may grant momentary satisfaction, but they do nothing to stem the tide.  One can check out and leave the grid entirely, or one can align one’s life with the new reality.  Those are the only options.

Granted, when we are talking about disruptive innovations in technology and economics the social results, especially in the short term, are a mixed bag.  Real people experience real distress.  As Harvard professor Clay Christiansen says bluntly, “It hurts to be disrupted.”

The pain is no less real when our lives are disrupted by the Gospel, but then it is the pain of shedding things that are not God’s good for us, the pain of giving up commitments that are not in keeping with Jesus’ vision from Isaiah, the pain that is a necessary part of healing our spiritual wounds.  The pains of Gospel disruption, individual and social, are always Good News.

We are the Nazarenes.  We hear the words of Jesus, and we are casually infatuated.  We enjoy the aesthetics of worship.  We like that when we are low Jesus buoys us up.  But Jesus is about more than that.  He is a prophet and more than a prophet.  Jesus is God incarnate, and especially in this Epiphany season, he bestows upon us new eyes to see the world completely differently.  He redefines what is valuable in this world and in a life.  He shows us what to love and how to love.  And now that Jesus is here in this space and has entered into our lives, he will not leave.  He is the cosmic disruptive innovation, through whom God is remaking the world, and it turns out that it is us, and not Jesus, who stand at the precipice.  Will we go off the grid and pretend that nothing has changed, or will we, blessedly, realign our cares, our loves, our lives to his new reality?  It hurts to be disrupted, but it is also the way to new life, and that abundantly.





[iv] Ibid