It is such an enormous blessing for those of us who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, that we have the documentation of his life and teachings by eyewitnesses, or by those reporters who had access to eyewitnesses, in those first four documents of our New Testament. But that also carries with it the challenge that we cannot ever claim ignorance concerning the data of who Jesus was, or what he taught. That, notwithstanding, it is far too common to skip over the demands of Jesus as we revel in his extravagant promises.

This is nowhere more obvious than in the seeming obliviousness we seem to adopt almost unconsciously about the radical social and ethical teachings that stare us in the face as soon as we begin reading those documents. Jesus never allows his followers to wander off into some spiritual never-never land, while, at the same time, remaining blind to the social and ethical realities of the context in which they live. To that end, in both Matthew’s account, and in Luke’s, early on, Jesus sits his growing company of followers down to explain what it looks like to be identified with him. In Matthew’s account, after a few records of his coming onto the scene and teaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, he sits his followers down on an elevation and gives them what we designate as the Sermon on the Mount beginning with the Beatitudes, which describe the ethical principles or God’s kingdom people. In Luke’s report, again early on, Jesus sits his follower down on a level and gives them the parallel Sermon on the Plain.

It is Luke’s briefer, and more starkly realistic, teaching that I want to point out to my readers. Right up front: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, … you who are hungry … who weep …when people hate you” … and more. But then (brace yourself): “But woe to you who are rich, … who are full, …who laugh now, … when all speak well of you …” ( or, vote for you?). This is the teaching that I’ve seldom heard heralded in my decades in the church (except in faithful journals such as Sojourners, or The Other Side). And yet, there those teachings are, staring us in the face, and calling for a radical new way of believing and behaving, … and conveniently ignored.

It is obvious in the political and economic spheres of which we read in the news. The 1% or 2% of the population who possess the vast majority of the wealth, use their Wall Street power to influence policies that give tax breaks to themselves, while turning a blind eye to the multiplicity of issues in the economy and social justice facets of our society. Legislators are defensive about their own salaries and benefits, and yet steadfastly refuse to realize that one cannot support a family on a forty-hour work week (or frequently with a second forty-hour job) on what is our legal minimum wage. Legislators who are champions of prison reform, housing, and all of those ancillary issues that are so common among the poor, face an almost impossible up-hill battle. Such issues are so commonly and conveniently ignored by those who live comfortably in good neighborhoods, and are well fed, and admired.

Ah! But dear readers, it’s not just in the political arena. I am a seventy-year veteran of leadership in the church as a teaching-shepherd, and I unequivocally assert that very few congregations want to hear these teachings of Jesus. They want something more ‘comforting’ and more ‘up-lifting’. Congregations so easily fall into the trap of seeking their institutional welfare by building grand meeting places, fawning over wealthy and important people, recruiting with an emasculated version of the gospel, … while ignoring the poor and hungry and grieving on their doorstep. And do you want to be reminded of what Jesus says to such ostensible Christian churches? He says: “Woe to you …” The church has become conformed to the world, and so become part of the darkness. “Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!”  I always appreciate your comments. Peace!

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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  1. Craig says:

    So true but so relative in nature. There is always someone richer who has the splinter in their eye and someone poorer who sees the log in mine. I have become more aware recently of my wealth and my worship and devotion to the idol of financial security for myself and my family. So I have increased my giving, but am writing this while taking a break from “working”, in a coffee shop, drinking a latte. Obviously not at the sacrificial level of giving yet.

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