I have been a student of the Matthean Beatitudes scripture since my own Holy Spirit-directed encounter with it several years ago. I have had several conversations with my associate pastor, who prefers the Lukan rendition of “blessings and woes”. He is from a younger generation that is more motivated spiritually toward justice issues and I am from a generation which has taken up the cause of personal spirituality in a more inner focused way. While I have studied the two versions side by side, it was not until this weekend that God has given me a greater appreciation for why the two versions of this teaching exist.
I was at the national conference of Christian Educators’ Fellowship where, in an interfaith panel discussion, Marjorie Thompson, from the General Board of Discipleship, said that, in transmitting our faith to the next generation, we need to cultivate three things:
1.) inner life (relationship with Christ, especially in the area of prayer and silence)
2.) authentic community where respect can be nurtured, and
3.) authentic ministry to the world.
As I thought about those, it has seemed to me that our last generation or two in the church have pursued our spirituality, unconsciously perhaps, in such a way that the first and third priorities that she lists have become increasingly polarized from one another. There are those who believe that the inner life (works of piety/holiness) are the end all and be all of the Christian life. There are others for whom ministry to the world (works of mercy/social gospel) are the consuming passion. Each side seems to have staked its claim for the heart of Christianity and looked askance at the other, suspecting the authenticity of one another’s spirituality. The tension created in the church by the increased polarity of these two positions having drawn an either/or scenario instead of fully embracing a both/and scenario has left a lot of youth turned off and wary of the institutional church. What has been most lacking in the process is the authentic community that she called for, too.
I have to admit that I started out my young adult life in the works of mercy (social gospel) mode, politically active, advocacy- focused and thinking I was doing it for all the right reasons. Ultimately, however, it led me down a path to a point where Christ had very little to do with anything. Then, out of my own Aldersgate experience, I was led to the other extreme- to the point that Christianity was all about the circumcision of the heart, the transformed, spiritualized inner life. At that point I became very critical of those whom I saw exalting the social gospel with little apparent regard for the necessity of personal holiness. Now, out of gratitude for Christ’s work in my life and a more mature understanding of servanthood arising out of gratitude for what He’s done in my life, I am at the place where both are greatly valued and pursued in my life. But I feel, at times, like I am occupying that narrow strip that borders both sides of the line of demarcation between enemies’ lines- the “no man’s land” that is hospitable to neither side.
Sunday morning, as I read once again my own thoughts about the Matthean Beatitudes and pondered it and the Luke version, suddenly I was reminded of Acts 6:1-4. It is the account of how the Greek Christians complained that the Hebrew Christians were not treating the Greek widows fairly with regard to distribution of food. This happened as the number of new converts was growing. Isn’t it just like satan to seek to thwart the growing movement with a family squabble? The apostles had the people seek out 7 persons of good character, known to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and appointed them to the task of administering justice in the matter. They, then, could return their attention to the ministry of the word and prayer. Ahhhhhh……even here in the first generation of the church the battle lines were drawn…..the pietists versus the social activists. And so we see the process begin. Christ anticipated it and prepared for it within the church. He gave us the Sermon on the Mount, accounted for us in Matthew’s gospel, written by a Hebrew for the Hebrews – a spiritualized version in which Christ assumes the rabbi’s posture (sitting) and on a mountain. And though the immediately preceding section talks about crowds following Jesus and Him healing many, when Chapter 5 begins, we are told that His disciples came to him and He sat and taught. Then, He gives us Luke’s version, a Greek version for the socially conscious Greeks, brought to us from the level plain, in the prophet’s posture (standing among the diverse people) all of whom seem to be clamoring to have their respective needs met. So we get a view of both the rabbinic and prophetic teaching styles of Jesus, essentially the same message in both, but with slightly different emphases. The one that appeals most to each of us seems to be a reflection of our own position on the continuum between the two poles- those with more pietistic leanings preferring Matthew, those more inclined to social activism preferring Luke.
The constant in each of the accounts is the presence of Christ and His message, which really doesn’t change very much between the two. (I am in the process of exploring exactly what those differences are!) There is really no conflict between them; they are simply different facets of the same prism. What we see depends on where we sit (or stand)……on the mountain or on the level plain. It is a shame that some of us have felt the need to stake a claim to one or the other and diminish the value of the other because of our own preference. Somehow I think Jesus must shake His head in sadness at times, asking of the Father, “How long must I endure this? How long will they remain so ignorant?”
Out of love for Christ, I am trying to be more sympathetic with my Christian brothers and sisters who are so lopsided to one end of the pole or the other. Having been, at one time or another, on each end myself. I am also striving to help them see that this is not Christ’s desire. Rather, He would have us embrace Him fully….both the Teacher and the Prophet. Or at least, accept as the apostles did that both works – piety and mercy, holiness and justice, inner and outer focus – are necessary for the community of Christian faith and quit taking broad swipes at one another.
I teach the Matthean version as a progressive journey toward a life that is increasingly able to reflect the character of Christ. It ends with verse 12: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you, for so persecuted they the prophets who were before you.” That final step in the progressive Beatitude journey leads to one who has cultivated the character of Christ and is able to undertake the prophetic role with full understanding of the risk and with complete equipping for the task. If our social activist brothers and sisters would embrace with us The Way of transformation that Christ shows us in the Matthean version, it would lead to an army of spiritually mature, prophetic, socially-conscious world changers that would turn the world on its ear. Instead, too many fragile travelers along the early steps of “The Way” are ridiculed and slandered and made irrelevant in the name of “The Cause”. And many who are pursuing their own way, like the throngs clamoring for healing on the plain around Jesus, are attaching themselves to “The Cause” with no real desire to know or exalt Christ, but only to derive the benefit that they see abounding to themselves in their own pursuits.
I know that The Way of Piety will, in time, if vigorously and righteously pursued lead to the other (The Cause of Mercy). I am not convinced that it always works as well in the other direction. The Way of Piety demands humility and changes the individual, because it is inherently all about changing the individual into more Christlikeness in all our ways (including mercy). In pursuing The Cause of Mercy, on the other hand, because it is other-focused, one can avoid any serious work that examines one’s own life and that can more often lead to pride and self righteousness. The two have to be undertaken concurrently for best result and to fully represent Christ in the world.