Authentic Christianity strengthens our world

Father John A. Kiley
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St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, comprising chapters 5, 6 and 7 of his Gospel, contains possibly the most famous Scripture passages within the New Testament — with the possible exception of the Christmas story. The eight beatitudes, the orders to turn the other cheek and to give away a cloak as well as a tunic, and the directive to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect are all found on the lips of Jesus in this celebrated sermon. St. Luke for his part, as worshippers will hear over the next few Sundays, offers a similar but briefer sermon from the lips of Jesus but this time notably offered “on a level stretch.” St. Matthew’s placing Jesus’ on a mountainside to offer his compelling maxims is no doubt a deliberate attempt to project Jesus as the new Moses, the new lawgiver, easily recalling for his Jewish audience Mt. Sinai and the celebrated tablets of the Law. Sometimes preachers proclaim the Sermon on the Mount as a new Ten Commandments, a kinder, gentler version of Moses’ emphatic “Thou shalt not…”

St. Luke’s placing Jesus’ instructive words on a level stretch rather than on a mountain top plausibly indicates that St. Luke was writing for a Gentile audience for whom Mt. Sinai would have little symbolic value. Still again, the evangelist has no interest in the image of Jesus laying down the law, no matter how compassionately or tenderly. Actually neither the Sermon of the Mount nor the Sermon on the Plain has anything to do with laws, rules, or regulations, no matter how benign. Rather, Jesus’ words in both the Matthean and the Lucan accounts celebrate pride.

Pride has been quite a confused word for centuries. Pride is listed among the seven capital sins. In this sense Jesus would hardly be mentioning pride in the midst of his beatitudes. Pride has been lately adopted by various civil rights campaigns to protest their own worth — sometimes agreeably, sometimes provocatively. Nonetheless, a deeper appreciate of pride, understood as self-respect or self-esteem, is vital if the believer is to understand the images and symbols Jesus employs both on the mountain and on the plain.

Consider the rightful pride that a believer should have as a child of God leading him or her to a powerful self-respect based securely on God’s Fatherly benevolence. Ponder the appropriate pride that a believer should honor in all persons who happily acknowledge their self-worth in the light of God’s generosity toward them. Jesus’ celebrated words here concern the source of true pride, true dignity, for every individual person. Jesus’ images and metaphors (the slap on the cheek, surrendering a cloak and tunic, the loss of stolen property) indicate happenings that ordinarily deprive a person of human dignity. The very expression “a slap in the face” indicates humiliation and embarrassment. Ordinarily, such an unpleasant encounter would be a source of shame, not an occasion for pride.

Jesus however insists that self-esteem should not be so easily threatened for the authentic Christian believer. True dignity does not rest on self-defense or retaliation or restitution. True dignity is founded uniquely on the profound appreciation that a person is a child of God, born of the Father, redeemed by the Son and anointed with the Spirit. No blow to the cheek, no loss of clothing, no material deprivation can disturb the believer who is sincerely convinced that God is the source and the foundation of all true and enduring self-respect. If God is the source of a believer’s pride, then that person is secure and unassailable in the face of any obstacle. Such pride leads to courage, not arrogance. The psalmist might have phrased this notion differently but his meaning is the same: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The LORD is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid? When evildoers come at me to devour my flesh, these my enemies and foes themselves stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart does not fear; though war be waged against me, even then do I trust.” No obstacle is too daunting for the believer who is convinced of his or her worth in the sight of God.

And this conviction about self-worth applies to the neighbor as well. Believers will strive to instill or to appreciate such pride in others so that they too will have the knowledge that they are children of God, beloved of Him, redeemed by Him, enlivened by Him. Authentic Christian pride leads to mutual self-respect, so fundamental to the Church’s community life, so strengthening in this world’s challenging times.