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The passages below are taken from Fulton J. Sheen’s book, “Life of Christ.”
Two mounts are related as the first and second acts in a two-act drama: the Mount of the Beatitudes and the Mount of Calvary. He who climbed the first to preach the Beatitudes must necessarily climb the second to practice what He preached. The unthinking often say the Sermon on the Mount constitutes the “essence of Christianity.” But let any man put these Beatitudes into practice in his own life, and he too will draw down upon himself the wrath of the world. The Sermon on the Mount cannot be separated from His Crucifixion, any more than day can be separated from night. The day Our Lord taught the Beatitudes, He signed His own death warrant. The sound of nails and hammers digging through human flesh were the echoes thrown back from the mountainside where He told men how to be happy or blessed. Everybody wants to be happy; but His ways were the very opposite of the ways of the world.
One way to make enemies and antagonize people is to challenge the spirit of the world. The world has a spirit, as each age has a spirit. There are certain unanalyzed assumptions which govern the conduct of the world. Anyone who challenges these worldly maxims, such as, “you only live once,” “get as much out of life as you can,” “who will ever know about it?” “what is sex for if not for pleasure?” is bound to make himself unpopular.
In the Beatitudes, Our Divine Lord takes those eight flimsy catch words of the world—--”Security,” “Revenge,” “Laughter,” “Popularity,” “Getting Even,” “Sex,” “Armed Might,” and “Comfort”--—and turns them upside down. To those who say, “You cannot be happy unless you are rich,” He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To those who say, “Don’t let him get away with it,” He says, “Blessed are the patient.” To those who say, “Laugh and the world laughs with you,” He says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” To those who say: “If nature gave you sex instincts you ought to give them free expression, otherwise you will become frustrated,” He says, “Blessed are the clean of heart.” To those who say, “Seek to be popular and well known,” He says, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and speak all manner of evil against you falsely because of Me.” To those who say, “In time of peace prepare for war,” He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
The cheap clichés around which movies are written and novels composed, He scorns. He proposes to burn what they worship; to conquer errant sex instincts instead of allowing them to make slaves of man; to tame economic conquests instead of making happiness consist in an abundance of things external to the soul. All false beatitudes which make happiness depend on self-expression, license, having a good time, or “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die,” He scorns because they bring mental disorders, unhappiness, false hopes, fears, and anxieties.
Those who would escape the impact of the Beatitudes say that Our Divine Savior was a creature of His time, but not of ours, and that, therefore, His Words do not apply to us. He was not a creature of His time nor of any time; but we are! Mohammed belonged to his time; hence he said a man could have concubines in addition to four wives at one time. Mohammed belongs even to our time, because moderns say that a man can have many wives, if he drives them in tandem style, one after another. But Our Lord did not belong to His day, any more than He belonged to ours. To marry one age is to be a widow in the next. Because He suited no age, He was the model for all ages. He never used a phrase that depended on the social order in which He lived; His Gospel was no easier then than, it is now. As He put it:
So long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Law until all that must happen has happened. (Matthew 5:18)
The key to the Sermon on the Mount is the way He used two expressions: one was, “You have heard”; the other was the short, emphatic word, “But.” When He said, “You have heard,” He reached back to what human ears had heard for centuries and still hear from ethical reformers—--all those rules and codes and precepts which are half measures between instinct and reason, between local customs and the highest ideals. When He said, “You have heard,” He included the Mosaic Law, Buddha with his eightfold way, Confucius with his rules for being a gentleman, Aristotle with his natural happiness, the broadness of the Hindus, and all the humanitarian groups of our day, who would translate some of the old codes into their own language and call them a new way of life. Of all these compromises, He said, “You have heard.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’” Moses had said it; pagan tribes suggested it; primitive peoples respected it. Then came the terrible and awful BUT: “But I tell you. . .” “But I tell you that he who casts his eye on a woman so as to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his own heart.” Our Lord went into the soul, and laid hold of thought, and branded even the desire for sin as a sin. If it was wrong to do a certain thing, it was wrong to think about that thing. He would say, “Away with your hygiene which tries to keep hands clean after they have stolen, and bodies free from disease after they have ravished another.” He went into the depths of the heart, and branded even the intention to sin a sin. He did not wait for the evil tree to bear evil fruits. He would prevent the very sowing of the evil seed. Wait not until your hidden sins come out as psychoses and neuroses and compulsions. Get rid of them at their sources. Repent! Purge! Evil that can be put into statistics, or that can be locked in jails, is too late to remedy.
Christ affirmed that when a man married a woman, he married both her body and her soul; he married the whole person. If he got tired of the body, he might not thrust her body away for another, since he was still responsible for her soul. So He thundered, “You have heard.” In that expression He summarized the jargon of every decaying civilization. “You have heard, ‘Get a divorce; God does not expect you to live without happiness’ “; then came the BUT.
But what I tell you is this: If a man divorces his wife for any cause other than unchastity he involves her in adultery; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32)
What matters if the body is lost? The soul is still there, and that is worth more than the thrill a body can give, more even than the universe itself. He would keep men and women pure, not from contagion, but from desire of another; to imagine a betrayal is in itself a betrayal. So He declared:
What God has joined together, man must not separate.(Mark l0:9)
No man! No judge! No nation!
Next, Christ laid hold of all those social theories which would say that sin was due to environment: to Grade B milk, to insufficient dance halls, to not enough spending money. Of them all He said, “You have heard.” Then came the BUT: “But I tell you.” He affirmed that sins, selfishness, greed, adultery, crime, theft, bribery, political corruption---all these come from man himself. The offenses result from our own will, and not from our glands; we cannot excuse our lust because our grandfather had an Oedipus complex, or because we inherited an Electra complex from our grandmother. Sin, He said, is conveyed to the soul through our body, and the body is moved by the will. In war against all false self-expressions, He thundered out His recommendations of self-operation: “Cut it off,” and “cut it out.”
If your right eye is your undoing, tear it out and fling it away; it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for the whole of it to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand is your undoing, cut it off and fling it away; it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for the whole of it to go to hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)
Men will cut off their legs and arms to save the body from gangrene or poisoning. But here Our Lord transferred circumcision of the flesh to circumcision of the heart, and advocated letting out the lifeblood of beloved lusts and hewing passions to tatters, rather than be separated from the love of God which is in Him, Christ Jesus.
Next He talked of revenge, hatred, violence, expressed in those sayings of everybody, “Get even,” “Sue him,” “Don’t be a fool.” He knew them all, and of all of them He said:
You have learned that they were told, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” (Matthew 5:38)
Then comes the awful BUT:
But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two.( Matthew 5:38—41)
Why turn the other cheek? Because hate multiplies like a seed. If one preaches hate and violence to ten men in a row, and tells the first man to strike the second, and the second to strike the third, the hatred will envelope all ten. The only way to stop this hate is for one man (say the fifth in line), to turn his other cheek. Then the hatred ends. It is never passed on. Absorb violence for the sake of the Savior, Who will absorb sin and die for it. The Christian law is that the innocent shall suffer for the guilty.
Thus He would have us do away with adversaries, because when no resistance is offered, the adversary is conquered by a superior moral power; such love prevents the infection of the wound of hate. To endure for a year the bore who afflicts you for a week; to write a letter of kindness to the man who calls you dirty names; to offer gifts to the man who would steal from you; never to answer back with hatred the man who lies and says you are disloyal to your country or tells the worse lie, that you are against freedom—--these are the hard things which Christ came to teach, and they no more suited His time than they do ours. They suit only the heroes, the great men, the saints, the holy men and women who will be the salt of the earth, the leaven in the mass, the elite among the mob, the kind who will transform the world. If certain people are not lovable, one puts love into them and they will become lovable. Why is anyone lovable—--if it be not that God put His love into each of us?
The Sermon on the Mount is so much at variance with all that our world holds dear that the world will crucify anyone who tries to live up to its values. Because Christ preached them, He had to die. Calvary was the price He paid for the Sermon on the Mount. Only mediocrity survives. Those who call black black, and white white, are sentenced for intolerance. Only the grays live.
Let Him Who says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” come into the world that believes in the primacy of the economic; let Him stand in the market place where some men live for collective profit, or where others say men live for individual profit, and see what happens. He will be so poor that during life He will have nowhere to lay His head; a day will come when He will die without anything of economic worth. In His last hour He will be so impoverished that they will strip Him of His garments and even give Him a stranger’s grave for His burial, as He had a stranger’s stable for His birth.
Let Him come into the world which proclaims the gospel of the strong, which advocates hating our enemies, which condemns Christian virtues as the “soft” virtues, and say to that world, “Blessed are the patient,” and He will one day feel the scourges of the strong barbarians laid across His back; He will be struck on the cheek by a mocking fist during one of His trials; He will see men take a sickle and cut the grass from a hill on Calvary, and then use a hammer to pinion Him to a Cross to test the patience of One Who endures the worst that evil has to offer, that having exhausted itself it might eventually turn to Love.
Let Him come into our world which ridicules the idea of sin as morbidity, considers reparation for past guilt as a guilt complex and preach to that world, “Blessed are they who mourn” for their sins; and He will be blindfolded and mocked as a fool. They will take His Body and scourge it, until His bones can be numbered; they will crown His head with thorns, until He begins to weep not salt tears but crimson beads of blood, as they laugh at the weakness of Him Who will not come down from the Cross.
Let Him come into the world which denies Absolute Truth, which says that right and wrong are only questions of point of view, that we must be broadminded about virtue and vice, and let Him say to them, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after holiness,” that is, after the Absolute, after the Truth which “I am”; and they will in their broadmindedness give the mob the choice of Him or Barabbas; they will crucify Him with thieves, and try to make the world believe that God is no different from a batch of robbers who are His bedfellows in death.
Let him come into a world which says that “my neighbor is hell,” that all which is opposite me is nothing, that the ego alone matters, that my will is supreme law, that what I decide is good, that I must forget others and think only of myself, and say to them, “Blessed are the merciful.” He will find that He will receive no mercy; they will open five streams of blood out of His Body; they will pour vinegar and gall into His thirsting mouth; and, even after His death, be so merciless as to plunge a spear into His Sacred Heart.
Let Him come into a world which tries to interpret man in terms of sex; which regards purity as coldness, chastity as frustrated sex, self-containment as abnormality, and the union of husband and wife until death as boredom; which says that a marriage endures only so long as the glands endure, that one may unbind what God binds and unseal what God seals. Say to them, “Blessed are the pure”; and He will find Himself hanging naked on a Cross, made a spectacle to men and angels in a last wild crazy affirmation that purity is abnormal, that the virgins are neurotics, and that carnality is right.
Let Him come into a world which believes that one must resort to every manner of chicanery and duplicity in order to conquer the world, carrying doves of peace with stomachs full of bombs, say to them, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” or “Blessed are they who eradicate sin that there may be peace”; and He will find Himself surrounded by men engaged in the silliest of all wars—--a war against the Son of God; making violence with steel and wood, pinions and gall and then setting a watch over His grave that He who lost the battle might not win the day.
Let Him come into a world that believes that our whole life should be geared to flattering and influencing people for the sake of utility and popularity, and say to them: “Blessed are you when men hate, persecute, and revile you”; and He will find Himself without a friend in the world, an outcast on a hill, with mobs shouting His death, and His flesh hanging from Him like purple rags.
The Beatitudes cannot be taken alone: they are not ideals; they are hard facts and realities inseparable from the Cross of Calvary. What He taught was self-crucifixion: to love those who hate us; to pluck out eyes and cut off arms in order to prevent sinning; to be clean on the inside when the passions clamor for satisfaction on the outside; to forgive those who would put us to death; to overcome evil with good; to bless those who curse us; to stop mouthing freedom until we have justice, truth and love of God in our hearts as the condition of freedom; to live in the world and still keep oneself unpolluted from it; to deny ourselves sometimes legitimate pleasures in order the better to Crucify our egotism—--all this is to sentence the old man in us to death.
Those who heard Him preach the Beatitudes were invited to stretch themselves out on a cross, to find happiness on a higher level by death to a lower order, to despise all the world holds sacred, and to venerate as sacred all the world regards as an ideal. Heaven is happiness; but it is too much for man to have two heavens, an ersatz one below, and a real one above. Hence the four “woes” He immediately added to the Beatitudes.
But alas for you who are rich; you have had your time of happiness.
Alas for you who are well-fed now; you shall go hungry.
Alas for you who laugh now; you shall mourn and weep.
Alas for you when all speak well of you; just so did their fathers treat the false prophets. (Luke 6:24—26)
Crucifixion cannot be far away when a Teacher says “woe” to the rich, the satiated, the gay and the popular. Truth is not in the Sermon on the Mount alone; it is in the One Who lived out the Sermon on the Mount on Golgotha. The four woes would have been ethical condemnations, if He had not died full of the opposite of the four woes: poor, abandoned, sorrowful, and despised. On the Mount of the Beatitudes, He bade men hurl themselves on the cross of self-denial; on the Mount of Calvary, He embraced that very cross. Though the shadow of the Cross would not fall across the place of the skull until three years later, it was already in His Heart the day He preached on “How to be Happy.” (114-120)
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