He came down with them and stood at a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed for yours is the kingdom of God. Woe to you who are rich, full, laughing, and respected for you will mourn.
Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the cheek, give to everyone who begs, on and on.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 is filled with wonder and with confusion. It has attracted and bewildered Christian for centuries and centuries. For as many answers as it provides, it leaves us with even more questions.
Like the parables, the Sermon is designed to pop every circuit breaker in our minds; it doesn’t explain things to our satisfaction, but instead calls to our attention the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.
Basically, we can help but walk away from Jesus’ sermon with our minds abuzz.
In the realm of the church, explanation is not the same thing as proclamation – though most of us prefer the former rather than the latter. We like things to be nice and orderly, we want things tied up neatly in a bow.
And Jesus rejects that desire completely.
Jesus, in his Sermon, isn’t telling us what works – he’s telling us what the Kingdom of God is like.
One of my professors from seminary, Stanley Hauerwas, puts it this way:
“A common interpretation is that the Sermon is a law that presents an impossibly high ideal to drive us to a recognition of our sin. It is meant to drive us to grace. In other words, it is not really meant to tell us what to do but rather to remind us that Christian moral life is about love. This internalizes the Christian life so that what it means to be a Christian is to do whatever we do from the motive of love. “Love and do what you will” — bad advice if I have ever heard it! It has an even worse effect on christology; why would anyone ever have put Jesus to death if it is all just a matter of being loving?” – Stanley Hauerwas, A Sermon On The Sermon On The Mount
We are so very tempted to read all of Jesus’ words in his Sermon as a list of virtues that good people ought to have. We walk away thinking we’re supposed to be poor, or hungry, or persecuted because of our faith. We convince ourselves that turning the other cheek or praying for our enemies will make us righteous or blessed.
Yet, what we miss is the fact that Jesus’ words assume there are already people in the community called church who find themselves in such positions.
Being blessed, according to Jesus, does not mean, “If you do this, then you will be rewarded.”
Being blessed, according to Jesus, means, “If you find yourself in a position like this, you are blessed because you are part of a community that makes all the difference in the world.”
Again, Jesus doesn’t promise his disciples, or us, that if we just muster up the courage to love our enemies then we will no longer have enemies. He doesn’t offer these words as a formula for how to prevent bad things from happening. In fact, loving our enemies and turning the other cheek generally guarantees that we will continue to have enemies who delight in hitting us on the cheek.
Christians don’t win by winning – we win by losing.
Remember, we worship the crucified God.
Jesus offers this Sermon to us, these descriptions and admonitions not because they will change the world. He proclaims all of it because the world has been changed by Christ forever, and we can no longer act as we once did.
We Christians are a weird bunch, in the end. We believe in impossible possibilities, and we pray for people the world never would, and we refuse to believe that anyone is a hopeless case.
And yet, without us living in such strange and faithful ways, the world will have no way of ever knowing what grace, peace, and mercy actually look like.