What’s your favorite part of the Sermon on the Mount?
My evangelical protestant mom, who in “retirement” tutors for a Christian homeschool co-op, recently posed that question to her students.
Though they come from serious Christian homes, she was surprised to find that none of them had an answer. Even when given a moment to gather their thoughts, the kids couldn’t identify a single specific thing Jesus teaches in the most famous homily of all time.
Mom mentioned this to the principal of a sizable evangelical school in another part of the state, and her friend tried the experiment on her pupils. Same result: most kids couldn’t identify anything Jesus taught.
How can we claim to be guided by Christ’s teachings if we haven’t the foggiest what they are?
If you think this is a dig at Protestantism, don’t. Evangelicals famously read their Bibles more faithfully than most Catholics do – I wouldn’t take a bet our Catholic kids could do any better, would you?
Curious, I asked the girls in the morning carpool, my family around the dinner table, and a random sampling of parishioners I happened to run into. To a person, everyone said his favorite part of the Sermon on the Mount was the Beatitudes.
Promising. Until I asked for an actual beatitude – that is, any of the content of this well-beloved scripture passage. Sheepish smiles and silence ensued. Only my daughter and her friend from school could answer – because they’d just covered the Beatitudes in Doctrine class. (Score one for the Nashville Dominicans who run their school.)
With all this as prelude, I was deeply struck by the reading from Deuteronomy 4 in last Wednesday’s Mass. The Israelites, having completed their desert wanderings, are about to enter the Promised Land, but first the Lord renews his covenant with them, and Moses re-presents the Law.
Moses says of God’s statutes, “Observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and discernment in the sight of the peoples, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and discerning people.’ …Or what great nation has statutes and ordinances that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?”
Israel’s crowning glory, in other words, was the witness it would give by living in fidelity to the Law of God – a fidelity which would bear fruits of justice and wisdom, thus attracting everyone to it.
This notion of a moral law so perfect that the world can’t help but admire it finds its fulfillment in Christ.
I once heard the scholar Grace Goodell talk about her time in rural Iran many years ago, and the opportunity she had to teach the “Our Father” to the village mullah. He pronounced it: “Beautiful.”
Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount is a moral teaching so sublime that it captures the hearts even of non-Christians. My dad’s an example of this. He never seems quite able to embrace religious faith, but he’s certain one ought to live by the Sermon on the Mount and often cited Jesus’ words in correcting us kids. Gandhi found the Sermon on the Mount so attractive he founded a community which tried to live by its teachings. As this blogger points out, even the uber-atheist Richard Dawkins thinks the world would be a better place if we all lived by the Sermon on the Mount.
Of course Christ can’t be reduced to a mere moral teacher. But if people of other religions and none can find beauty and solace in Christ’s words – and recognize that striving to live by them is a source of personal peace and a more just community – how much more comfort is to be found in them for those of us who recognize Jesus as Lord, and know that grace is at work in our souls when we meditate on the Gospel? As Pope Benedict XVI taught in Saved in Hope, the Gospel isn’t merely “informative” – it doesn’t just tell us stuff. It’s “performative” – lived, it changes us, it makes good things happen.
How sad for us if we take the Gospel so much for granted we forget to meditate on it and allow it to do its work consoling our hearts and changing the cloudy filters of our thinking.
At the close of last Wednesday’s reading, Moses exhorts Israel to treasure God’s law “…be very careful not to forget the things your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your heart as long as you live, but make them known to your children and to your children’s children.”