Unpolluted, Unstained

A metaphor for the ritual effect of cussing.

Growing up, I got the sense that when the church talked about being “different from the world”, that was more or less code for a fairly defined set of behaviors, things like cussing, drinking, and sexual activity.  (Maybe smoking, but that was on the fence, at least for anyone over 35 years old.)  Those things represented something like distinctive marks of christian nonbehavior, another layer in addition to the other marks of good people generally agreed upon by society at large: honesty, respect for other people’s property, etc. I don’t honestly know that anybody was really saying that, or if it was just the way my immature mind heard it all, but for a long while I felt like this was a pretty good summary of what people thought it meant be “different than the world” as a Christian. The back half of James 1:27 would have been given that idea words in my young mind—it was a text I often heard in church.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself  from being polluted by the world.

In my understanding, this text gave a kind of summary of faith, with two main ideas.  Do positive things (care for widows and orphans), and don’t do negative things (“keep oneself from being polluted by the world” Read: don’t drink, cuss, or have sex.). Such was my youthful understanding of holiness.  For a preadolescent kid, before fermented or sexual opportunity presented themselves, the bar was admittedly low.  Still, resisting the small amount of pressure I got from wanting to fit in with my friends in the neighborhood who skillfully cursed while we played basketball and kick the can generally made me feel like I was doing what God wanted me to do. As I grew older and was able to generally fend off the other two behaviors in the unholy trinity of worldly behavior, I reinforced within myself the idea that being a Christian person really wasn’t all that tough.  And truthfully, unless you have some addictions or at least some deeply grooved habits, that brand of christianity really isn’t that tough. I mean, when it really comes down to it, you can do whatever the heck you want, as long as you say heck instead of hell. I suppose I could have lived like that for a long time without much problem, except maybe boredom.

When I started really listening to the Bible, though, I started getting a radically different kind of idea about what God wanted me to be like.  Take that verse in James, for instance.  That earlier line of interpretation of what it means to be polluted by the world is pretty easy to understand in the context of our american church culture.  But it doesn’t really ask the important interpretive question, “What did James mean by polluted by the world?” And when you really ask that question, you don’t just get an ambiguous idea of what it means, because James spends a good part of his letter describing what he seems to see as the influence of the world.  Indeed, the section right after this verse, in James 2, rails against viewing rich people as more valuable than poor people.  At the end of chapter 3, he talks about wisdom that’s worldly as being marked by envy and selfishness.  That discussion that trails into the beginning of chapter 4 where being covetous about physical wealth (and perhaps the honor and respect that came with it) sparks James to ask, “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God.”  His rant goes throughout that chapter, and in the back half of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five he uses some pretty flaming rhetoric to talk about the wealthy who presume to set their own agendas without concern for God’s authority over their existence or concern for the needs of the poor! (Seriously, that language in chapter 5 is smoking hot. No wonder it is probably the least publicly read part of James.) When you read all of that together, you can begin to put some content in James’s phrase “keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. It’s not just a few nitpicky behaviors that James is concerned about. James critiques the whole assumption of the world that we have no responsibility for other people, that our wealth is our own to do with as we please. To the extent that I adopt that mentality, I have allowed the world to pollute my faith.

James’s statement about true religion here isn’t a divided concept. Widows and orphans were an important group of “the poor” for the Jewish mind, people who were defenseless and vulnerable without the financial or legal help of other people. Caring for them is a specific expression of what people who are unpolluted by the world do. It is a way people show that they don’t think of their possessions as truly their own.

See, true religion is inconvenient.  Not because of all those church meetings that keep us from sleeping in on Sundays, or it might refine my beverage selection. It forces me to reevaluate the way I think about stuff, and my relationship with it.  It forces me to take responsibility for the poor and the way they are treated in my society. It keeps me from just doing whatever the heck I want. It challenges my “wants”, my desires, my greed, as motivations for my life.

It raises the bar.

There are certain behaviors that we have come to think of as producing something like a moral stain, a sin grease mark that has to be dealt with, and we often think about the biblical language of defilement in those terms almost exclusively. But we could take a significant step forward in understanding our faith if we can grasp that the real stains on our souls are not just behavioral slip-ups.  They are the deep stains of materialism, the deep stains of our thought patterns and habits, colored by the assumptions of the world around us. 

The opposite of being polluted by the world is precisely what James mentions in the first half of 1:27, the care for the widows and orphans. It’s what the Hebrew Bible refers to as “justice and righteousness”, a way of living in the world that respects the dignity of each of our neighbors as an image bearer of God. In the spirit of James, the practice of justice and righteousness is not just the maintaining the absence of evil—it is about the active love of our neighbors that goes beyond words and is fulfilled in action.

The Other Beatitudes—A Sermon from Luke 6:20-26

Everybody knows the sermon on the mount.  Unfortunately, if I got up this morning and started reading, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who [yawn] mourn, for they will be…”, it wouldn’t be long before I’d see your eyes glaze over, and we’d have to have a coffee break for everybody to stay awake for the rest of the sermon.

Everybody knows the sermon on the mount.  It is familiar, beautiful, and powerful.  It is full of language that is burned into our conscious consciences, a part of our ethical core as disciples.  And it should be well known!  It is, after all, the living and powerful word of God! It deserves a place in our ethical core!  But unfortunately, like is often the case, familiarity breeds contempt. In our familiarity with the Sermon on the mount, we have lost something of our ability to really listen to what it really says.

But, what if the sermon on the mount had a little brother?  I have a couple of little brothers.  They’re both tough as nails.  They don’t mess around much, say what they mean and mean what they say.  To top it off, they’re stubborn as all get out.  If you can get that mental image in your head—the little brother, fists up, ready to get nasty if need be—I’d like to introduce you to the little brother of the sermon on the mount.  It’s name is “the Sermon on the Plain”, and it waits for us in the middle of Luke 6. (The sermon doesn’t even get its own chapter!  It shows up here just after Jesus has named his twelve apostles.  It almost seems to function as their introduction into what being a disciple of Jesus is really going to be about.)

The Sermon on the Plain is really a distilled version of the sermon on the mount.  They have a lot in common, but the sermon on the plain is shorter, tougher, punchier.  Maybe it’s just because it is less familiar that it feels a little more stubborn and unrelenting than its big brother does.  But instead of talking about it too much in generalities, let me show you what I mean, and let’s read a little bit of it together.  It starts out with a set of beatitudes, just like the sermon in Matthew.  They read a little bit differently, though.  We’ll start in Luke 6:20. These are the “other beatitudes’.

And He lifted his eyes to his disciples and said, “Blessed are the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who are hungry now, because you will be filled.  Blessed are those who are crying now, because you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you and when they exclude you and insult you and throw out your name as something evil because of the son of man. Rejoice in that day and jump for joy! Because, listen—your reward in heaven will be greater, because their ancestors did the same sorts of things to the prophets.

On the other hand, [this might be a good time to pull your toes in] cursed are you who are rich, because you have received every bit of your comfort. Cursed are you who are full now, because you will go hungry. Cursed are you who laugh now, because you will mourn and cry. Cursed are you when everyone says good things about you; because that’s how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

I find these “other beatitudes” to be intense, raw, and inescapable. I look into them, and I easily see myself.  Unfortunately, I see myself on the wrong side, not among those who are blessed, but among the cursed.  Jesus paints two pictures.  One is of a group of people who are poor, hungry, saddened.  They are outsiders, and everyone talks and thinks badly of them. Jesus looks at that group and says—you are blessed! In his eyes, they’re the lucky ones!

and then there is another group.  They are rich.  They have full bellies.  They are happy and laughing, and everybody likes them because they’re easy to get along with.  Doggone it, that’s a pretty good picture of just the kind of guy I’ve wanted to become my whole life.  Isn’t that just a cup of cold water to the face?  The very kind of person I’ve spent my whole life—Jesus says they’re cursed.  He looks at them and says, “Man.  Gotta feel sorry for you guys.”

This set of beatitudes says that in Jesus’ eyes, the reality of the world is the opposite of everything I’ve ever known.  He takes all my assumptions about the world, and politely blows them to pieces.

Anybody else bothered by that?

If we’re really reading it, we’re bothered by it.  It’s so unrelenting and demanding.  It’s so physical that it won’t let me spiritualize it and shoo it away.  no “poor in spirit” here.  It’s the poor that are blessed.  No hungering for righteousness in this sermon, only the really physical feeling of hunger that comes from not having enough food to eat.

Faced with such a demanding text, I think two options present themselves.  “Option 1” is that we take these simple sayings and tease them out, dissect them down, gradually interpreting them in ways that dull their sting a little bit.  In option 1, we interpret them away, and I have to admit that this is a pretty compelling path.  I would love to do that, to employ whatever sophisticated exegesis and interpretation methods might promise to soften the blow a bit.  I wish I could take these things that Jesus says and turn them into what I think he should say.  I would love to somehow transform these beatitudes and woes into something interesting.  But they aren’t that, are they?  Not on their own.  This text isn’t interesting—its dangerous.  It is sharply critical of my vision of my very life.

Option 1 is to interpret them away.  In Option 2, we let them interpret us. What if we could let these words diagnose us?  What if I could let them shape me into the kind of person that Jesus admires? What if I could let them really challenge my idea of what the good life is really all about, and provoke me into letting Jesus teach me about his way of life, his vision of life.

This week, sometime when you’re by yourself in front of a mirror, I want to ask you to take a few moments and let these other beatitudes challenge you with a couple of questions.  Stop and look, literally, into your own eyes and ask yourself a few questions.

First, “Who am I becoming?” What kinds of things characterize who you are, both inside and out.  What dominates your life?.

Second, and more interesting, “Who gets to decide who I am becoming?” Looking at where you’re headed is a good start, but for people who claim to be disciples of Jesus, a more basic question is whether or not we are really letting him determine the vision for our lives.  The guy who said these beatitudes is really painting a radical vision, but am I willing to let that vision really affect me.  Drive me?

Finally, “What about everybody else?” It’s not just about me. These beatitudes not only change the way I see myself, but the way I look at almost everyone I see.  People aren’t good or bad, lucky or unlucky, blessed or cursed in the same ways I normally think about it.  My ideas of status and value just don’t hold up in the face of these beatitudes.  But, it’s not my ideas of value that really matter anyway.  It’s what Jesus values that really matters.  After all, he is the master.  I am the student.

I’ve got a lot to learn.

(Audio version here: The Plain Beatitudes. This is part one of this series.)