Addison Hodges Hart is a retired pastor and college chaplain. He is also the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God; The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude; and the new book Taking Jesus as His Word: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount.
In this post, he challenges readers to ponder the question, “Do we approach Jesus as his disciples, sit at his feet, and listen — really listen — to the words he spoke and still speaks to us?”
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In my new book, Taking Jesus at His Word: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount, I recount two stories which could be taken for caricatures. That is, they could be taken for caricatures if they weren’t both true stories. Each of them illustrates attitudes among sincere Christians that are not infrequently lurking just under the religious surface, often unrealized by the very ones who harbor those attitudes.
One story tells of an evangelical preacher who, in an unguarded moment of a feisty sermon, exclaimed, “I get sick and tired of ‘nice’ people who say to me, when I preach hard biblical truths, ‘Yes, preacher, but what would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?’ Well, I tell them, I don’t care what Jesus would say – what does the Bible say?”
The other story tells of an earnest young Catholic priest who, during a heated discussion of church law, was asked directly the same question that had so irked his Protestant peer: “What would Jesus do?” Without time to think it over, the priest snapped back, “Jesus would have obeyed the Church!”
Both stories are funny, certainly, but they should also be disturbing. After all, we are talking about respected church leaders here, persons who influence others on a daily basis. I can only guess that both might have been deeply embarrassed later by their indiscreet words. But both instances serve as a caveat for us: when we think of Jesus and his way, his kingdom and his teaching, where do we place these in our “hierarchy” of commitments? Do we, in fact, place the Bible above Jesus? Do we, instead, put the church and its authority above Jesus? If there is a tendency today to view Jesus as somehow in opposition to “religion” — and there is more and more — are not such attitudes as those I’ve illustrated at the very root of the problem?
These questions in turn lead us directly to the question of Jesus for each of our lives. Do we approach him as his disciples, sit at his feet, and listen — really listen — to the words he spoke and still speaks to us? Or are we instead guilty of filtering his words so thoroughly that they lose their power to dig down into the real stuff of our lives?
If we approach Jesus seriously, we should be willing to do the following:
First, we should not only ask him, “What must I do to be saved?” — a fine question so far as it goes, if a person even knows what it means. But we should also ask him, “How should I live my life here and now?” If we look closely at the recorded words of Jesus, we find that it is the second question he constantly addresses, though the other is not far behind.
Second, we should come prepared to put Jesus’ teachings into practice, even though we know full well that we will not do this perfectly. Jesus looks for persistence, not instant perfection. That said, there is a lie that has circulated for many generations that the teachings of Jesus, and especially those we find in the Sermon on the Mount, are elevated ideals that we cannot possibly fulfill. In point of fact, and as I am at pains to show in my book, we have become so accustomed to this false idea — often the result of inadequate translations and interpretations — that we have embraced a truncated sort of discipleship that doesn’t really take Jesus at his word. What we should assume is that, if Jesus had not really meant what he taught us or if he regarded his own set standards for his followers as impossible to shoot for, he would never have bothered teaching us to observe his words and example in the first place. The truth, indeed the good news, is that our lives can be changed. We can grow to live according to the living way of Jesus Christ.
Lastly, here are some words from that curmudgeonly atheist, Kurt Vonnegut, which should — like the two examples above — make us pause and ask ourselves where our true priorities lie with regard to following Jesus:
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
I have quoted these words in the opening chapter of my book, and for good reason. They strike a nerve, and they force us to ask ourselves critical questions about how serious we really are about letting the words of Jesus shape our lives.
Click to order Addison Hodges Hart’s Taking Jesus at His Word: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount.
UPDATE: In our original post yesterday, we provided outdated biographical information for Addison Hodges Hart. The post has now been edited to reflect his current status.