“You are really walking in the good news of the kingdom if you can go with confidence to any of the hopeless people around you and effortlessly convey assurance that they can now enter a blessed life with God.
Who would be on your list of “hopeless blessables” as found in today’s world? Certainly all of those on Jesus’ lists, for though they are merely illustrative, they also are timeless. But can we, following his lead as a teacher, concretize the gospel even more for those around us? Who would you regard as the most unfortunate people around you?
A Silly Side of Salvation?
There is, first of all, a silly side to this question–which turns suddenly somber. If you look at advertising and current events in the print and other media–for example, as you encounter them in supermarket checkouts, newsstands, and bookstores or on television and radio–you might think that the most unfortunate people in the world today are the fat, the misshapen, the bald, the ugly, the old, and those not relentlessly engaged in romance, sex, and fashionable equipped physical activities.
The sad truth is that many people around us, and especially people in their teens and young adulthood, drift into a life in which being thin and correctly shaped, having “glorious” hair, appearing youthful, and so forth, are the only terms of blessedness or woe for their existence. It is all they know. They have heard nothing else. Many people today really are in this position.
If you judge from what they devote time and effort to, you have the stark realization that to be fat, have thinning hair or a bad complexion, be wrinkled or flabby, is experienced by them as unconditional personal condemnation. They find themselves beyond the limits of human acceptability. This is a fact about them, regardless of how silly it may seem. To say, “How silly of you!” is not exactly to bring Jesus’ good news of the kingdom to them.
Instead, Jesus took time in his teaching to point out the natural beauty of every human being. He calls attention to how the most glamorous person you know (“Solomon in all his splendor”) is not as ravishingly beautiful as a simple field flower. Just place a daffodil side-by-side with anyone at the president’s inaugural ball or at the motion-picture Academy Awards, and you will see. But the abundant life of the kingdom flowing through us makes us of greater natural beauty than the plants. “God who makes the grass so beautiful–here today and tomorrow burned for fuel–will cloth you ‘mini-faiths’ even more beautifully” (Matt. 6:30).
This is the gospel for a silly world, all the more needed because the silly is made a matter of life and death for many. Sin, for that matter, is silly. If the kingdom did not reach us in our silliness who would be saved? Lostness does not have to wear a stuffed shirt to find redemption.
So we must see from our heart that:
Blessed are the physically repulsive,
Blessed are those who smell bad,
The twisted, misshapen, deformed,
The too big, too little, too loud,
The bald, the fat, and the old—
For they are all riotously celebrated in the party of Jesus.
And the More Serious Side
Then there are the “seriously” crushed ones: The flunk-outs and drop-outs and burned-outs. The broke and the broken. The drug heads and the divorced. The HIV-positive and herpes-ridden. The brain-damaged, the incurably ill. The barren and the pregnant too-many-times or at the wrong time. The overemployed, the underemployed, the unemployed. The unemployable. The swindled, the shoved aside, the replaced. The parents with children living on the street, the children with parents not dying in the “rest” home. The lonely, the incompetent, the stupid. The emotionally starved or emotionally dead. And on and on and on. Is it true that “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal?” It is true! That is precisely the gospel of heaven’s availability that comes to us through the Beatitudes. And you don’t have to wait until you’re dead. Jesus offers to all such people as these the present blessedness of the present kingdom—regardless of circumstances. The condition of life sought for by human beings through the ages is attained in the quietly transforming friendship of Jesus.
And the Immoral
Even the moral disasters will be received by God as they come to rely on Jesus, count on him, and make him their companion in his kingdom. Murderers and child-molesters. The brutal and the bigoted. Drug lords and pornographers. War criminals and sadists. Terrorists. The perverted and the filthy and the filthly rich. The David Berkowitzs (“Son of Sam”), Jeffrey Dahmers, and Colonel Noreigas.
Can’t we feel some sympathy from Jesus’ contemporaries, who huffed at him, “This man is cordial to sinners, and even eats with them!” Sometimes I feel I don’t really want the kingdom to be open to such people. But it is. That is the heart of God. And, as Jonah learned from his experience preaching to those wretched Ninevites, we can’t shrink him down to our size.
In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, he gives an awesome list of those who, continuing in their evil, cannot “inherit the kingdom”: “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, active homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers” (6:10). Then he adds, “And such were some of you, but you were cleansed, made holy and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
If I, as a recovering sinner myself, accept Jesus’ good news, I can go to the mass murderer and say, “You can be blessed in the kingdom of the heavens. There is forgiveness that knows no limits.” To the pederast and the perpetrator of incest. To the worshiper of Satan. To those who rob the aged and the weak. To the cheat and the liar, the bloodsucker and the vengeful: Blessed! Blessed! Blessed! As they flee into the arms of The Kingdom Among Us.
These are God’s grubby people. In their midst a Corrie Ten Boom takes the hand of the Nazi who killed her family members. The scene is strictly not of this earth. Any spiritually healthy congregation of believers in Jesus will more or less look like these “brands plucked from the burning.” If the group is totally nice, that is a sure sign something has gone wrong. For here are the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised of this world, whom God has chosen to cancel out the humanly great (1 Cor. 1:26-31; 6).
Among them there indeed are a few of the humanly wise, the influential, and the socially elite. They belong here too. God is not disturbed by them. But the Beatitudes is not even a list of spiritual giants. Often you will discern a peculiar nobility and glory on and among these “blessed” ones. But it is not from them. It is the efflugence of the kingdom among them.
These are to Be the Salt of the Earth, Light of the World
Speaking to these common people, “the multitudes,” who through him had found blessing in the kingdom, Jesus tells them it is they, not the “best and brightest” on the human scale, who are to make life on earth manageable as they live from the kingdom (Matt. 5:13-16). God gives them “light”—truth, love, and power—that they might be the light for their surroundings. He makes them “salt,” to cleanse, preserve, and flavor the times through which they live.
These “little” people, without any of the character or qualifications humans insist are necessary, are the only ones who can actually make the world work. It is how things are among them that determines the character of every age and place. And God gives them a certain radiance, as one lights a lamp to shed its brilliance over everyone in the house. Just so, Jesus says to those he has touched, “Let your light glow around people in such a way that, seeing your good works, they will exalt your Father in the heavens” (Matt. 5:16).
The complete obliteration of social and cultural distinctions as a basis for life under God was clearly understood by Paul as essential to the presence of Jesus in his people. It means nothing less than a new type of humanity, “Abraham’s seed.” Those who, in Paul’s language, have “put on Christ” make nothing of the distinctions between Jew and Greek, between slave and free, between male and female. If they “are Christ’s,” they inherit life in the kingdom, just as Abraham did through his faith (Gal. 3).
In a parallel statement to the disciples in Colossae, Paul says that in the new humanity, whose knowledge of reality conforms to the viewpoint of the Creator, no distinction is drawn between Greek and Jew, between those who are circumcised and those who are not, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, because the Christ in each one is the only thing that matters (Col. 3:10-11).
Inclusion of Scythian here is instructive and should be understood to refer to the very lowest possibility of humanity. The Scythian was the barbarian’s barbarian, thought of as an utterly brutal savage—largely because he was. Yet, “Blessed are the Scythians.” They are as blessable in the kingdom as the most proper Jew or Greek.
Paul’s policy with regard to the redemptive community simply followed the gospel of the Beatitudes. He refused to base anything on excellence of speech, understanding, and culture as attainments of human beings. Rather, in building the work of God he would disregard everything in the new humankind but what came from Jesus in his crucifixion and beyond: “I resolved to regard nothing in your midst except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Or, as he says in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17, “From now on we disregard all common human distinctions between people, and even though we have known Christ in human terms, we no longer do so. So if anyone is ‘in Christ’ they are a new type of creation, where the old categories drop away and the individual emerges in a new order.”
Surely it is this radically revolutionary outlook that explains why Jesus, in completing his statement on the “blessed” and God’s government in Matthew 5, finds it necessary to caution, “Don’t think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets”—that is, to abolish the entire established order as far as his hearers were concerned.
Obviously he had to say this because that is precisely what his hearers were thinking! They could think nothing else! They had not heard just another powerless list of legalisms, however pretty, and they knew it. They had heard an upside down world being set right-side up.
The Law and the Prophets had been twisted around to authorize an oppressive, though religious, social order that put glittering humans—the rich, the educated, the “well-born,” the popular, the powerful, and so on—in possession of God. Jesus’ proclamation clearly dumped them out of their privileged position and raised ordinary people with no human qualifications into the divine fellowship by faith in Jesus.
That is a powerful message, enough to thoroughly confuse a simple people who lived with their noses to the grindstone and knew no order other than the one imposed upon them by religious experts zealously defending their own privileges. So Jesus cautions them to respect the law—to fulfill it, not abolish it—as he then moves on, in Matt. 5:20 and following, to where he will explain what the law really means for human life under God. Exactly how they are to respect the law and move beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees we shall see in the next chapter.”
Excerpt from Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy (pp. 122-127) which I found particularly poignant. The gospel message presented in a fresh way that both gets under my skin and into my heart. Thank you Mr. Willard!