I have been taken up now for a few weeks with Ellen Charry’s By the Renewing of Your Minds. It’s been a slow read for me, primarily because so much of her writing draws me to deeper places I avoid.
Yet…I consider myself a disciple of Jesus. I’m not always such a good one: I think about myself too much and I let others distract my thoughts away from God. I suppose I’m not all that different from the first disciples of Jesus, confused and conflicted about the radical life to which Christ keeps luring me.
In reading Charry expound on the Sermon on the Mount, I realize how incredibly easy I am on myself. When Jesus first preached this sermon, He did so to a crowd of people wondering who exactly this new Rabbi was and what made Him special. What exactly would it look like if one were to learn of Him and follow Him?
The fifth chapter of Matthew (vv. 5-11) records what Jesus tells them:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and falsely say all kind of evil against you because of Me.”
I don’t know why–it’s plain as day to me now–but this is a call to discipleship. Those who learn of Christ and follow Him, will be “the blessed or privileged of God” (Charry, 66). However, in the day-to-day happenings of life, disciples are grounded in personal discomfort for the sake of others. How can they do it? By knowing that all their true needs are met in Christ. In turn they can take a selfless position to begin to meet the needs of others. They can be meek in the face of attack, for they know their Defender. They can be poor, for theirs are eternal riches. They can be insulted, for they have the assurance of the Spirit that they are favored by God.
As Charry so eloquently argues, in The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is redefining righteousness. “In Jesus there is a new revelation of God that indicates that purity does not require separating oneself from others, as Phariasaic doctrine taught, but involves how we live together, even under trying circumstances (Charry, 67). Jesus specifies his opposition to traditionally authorized teachers by countering their fence around the Torah, built of jurisprudence, with His own fence, built of strength of character, a standard more demanding than that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Charry, 73). While the Pharisees’ fence was intended to keep the unclean out, Jesus is concerned with “building a fence around the disciple’s character so that she becomes selfless” (Charry, 75).
The remainder of The Sermon goes on to describe this fence of character. It is one of compassion for the defenseless and participating in exhibiting God’s highest standards of justice. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Charry explains,
Jesus is offering an alternative interior purity consisting of a dense concentration of demanding character traits: aggressive self-scrutiny, self-control, compassion, integrity, selflessness and finally, love of enemies, traits that are essentially limitless in application. Except for the teaching on lust, the antitheses all deal with situations in which the individual is possibly imposed upon, experiences hurt, inconvenience, or some sort of discomfort and would naturally respond in a self-protective manner or to reestablish a prior satisfactory state that has been disturbed by some intrusion. Jesus’ teaching in each case elaborates a basic theme. Disciples are called to rise above self-gratification even when wronged; and in the teaching on lust, they are to rise above self-gratification when it is not to rectify an injustice or dissatisfaction but to gratify a desire” (p. 76). Self-absorption is a waste of precious time in God’s beautiful world (p. 78).
Ouch. I find it terribly challenging to “cultivate a weak sense of self-importance,” as Charry puts it. Just tonight, I found myself charged up by some petty offense of which the perpetrator is probably completely unaware. How far I have to go to learn of Christ and follow Him in His example of selflessness.
I’m putting myself under investigation. It’s time for self-examination. If I am a disciple, does my outer witness bear testimony to inner purity? Whose standard of righteousness does my life reflect?