Column for Bethel Seminary’s Admissions Blog, August 2013
The beatitudes form the opening statement of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount, nicely situated at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew and thus the entire New Testament, gives a comprehensive view of the teaching of Jesus and provides a framework for his entire program. The beatitudes make use of rather general categories that can be applied for many programs and ideologies. Gandhi’s appreciation for them, for instance, is well-known. They easily fit his non-violent rebellion against the British colonizers in India. In the beatitudes we find the beautiful statement: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:6-7, NIV). How should we understand these verses?
First and foremost, these words about social justice cannot be detached from the person of Jesus or his teaching, but neither can Jesus be separated from these verses about social justice. The kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and allegedly inaugurated it, the kingdom of which he basically was the embodiment, was to be a kingdom in which both dimensions were to be honored. In it the vertical dimension of living before the God of Jesus in a right relationship to this God was to be in harmony with the horizontal dimension of social justice, political righteousness, and societal well-being. This kingdom was to encompass all of reality, the whole world. In the kingdom Jesus and the world are one.
With this balance comes—how else can it be—a necessary set of fallacies. There are those who think they can appropriate Jesus’ call and promise for their own program, be it political, religious, or revolutionary, without acknowledging Christ as center. Detached from Christ, concepts of righteousness and mercy are up for grabs. They could mean anything. At best they will remain mere aspirations in the face of humanity’s notorious incapability to materialize the good. One gains the world without a center, a world ultimately devoid of transformation and meaning. Others focus exclusively on God and neglect the horizontal dimension. Christ is indeed the center, but the center of what? The center of a minimal space that leaves out most of the world. A space that barely has room for one’s individual soul and a personalized ethics. What kind of king is it that rules over an island of a few square feet?
Maybe Bonhoeffer was right when he more or less collapsed the two dimensions, the vertical and the horizontal, into each other. Where one is concerned about meeting the demands of God, about being in right relationship with God, one is directed to look at one’s neighbor. The other presents an ethical boundary to oneself; the confrontation with the other demands a moral response. It is in the other that we encounter the transcendent presence of Christ that invites us to be as Christ to the other. This ethical-relational model functions on an individual level but also on the level of the enterprise and the state. The imperative to foster justice, peace, righteousness, and mercy is one with the call to follow Christ and to model ourselves after him. It covers the inner reality of the human heart as well as the public domain.
The implications for us Christians are clear. Talk about social justice and international peace is talk about Christ who is at the center. The beatitudes are not merely nice spiritual promises but imperatives that indicate the direction of our participation in the move God is making in Christ in this world. The whole world. The world of God. Thus we are required to radically and continually rethink our mission and our Christian existence beyond the liberal-conservative or left-right divide and beyond any system that is designed to minimize our responsibility. The sole aim is that the whole world may take the form of Christ. This, I think, comes close to the meaning of the beatitudes.