Skye Jethani’s inspiration for his latest book What If Jesus Was Serious? A Visual Guide to the Teachings of Jesus We Love to Ignore was two-fold. First of all, he realized how few Christians took Jesus’ toughest teachings seriously. Second, he realized he had a knack for doodling. The result is an illustrated guide to the Sermon on the Mount — a simple way of making sense of upside-down teachings like “love your enemy” and “blessed are the poor.”
Jethani sat down with RELEVANT to talk about his new book, why he thinks Christians have an issue with pragmatism and the difference between prescriptive and descriptive Bible teachings.
Your book is really about the Sermon on the Mount, which has some of Jesus’ most striking teachings in it. A lot of people look at the things Jesus says in there — love your enemies, turn the other cheek — and see that most American Christians don’t do those things very well. There’s a lot of perceived hypocrisy.
When it first dawned on me, I was a full-time pastor at my church. I was teaching a class on the Sermon on the Mount and we probably have 30 or 40 adults in there. And on the first day of the class, we read through the Sermon on the Mount. I simply asked everybody, “OK, who thinks that Jesus actually expects us to do these things that He talks about in the Sermon on the Mount?” And I was struck because not a single person raised their hand.
No one said we’re actually expected to do this. These are lifelong, predominantly white evangelical, suburban Christians. These are the people who should be the first to say, of course, the Bible is serious. Of course, Jesus calls us to follow him. We may struggle with it, but he at least expects us to do this. No one said that.
When I dug deeper, I got a variety of responses. A lot of it was rooted in bad theology that they had been taught, whether indirectly or directly, over the course of their Christian life. Some people dismiss the Sermon on the Mount by saying, well, Jesus was just illustrating what a perfect life looks like and how none of us can actually do it so that we would recognize our need for grace.
Then there were practical considerations. You can’t love your enemies and really make it ahead in this world. You’ll get walked all over. There’s this pragmatism that has come to infiltrate a lot of American Christianity. And when that pragmatism is matched up against what they read in scripture, the scriptures lose out and pragmatism wins. You see this from Christian leaders in the media, you see it from so-called Christian political leaders. You see it again and again and again, where people want to hold up the Bible or hold up Jesus as the symbol that we rally around, but don’t want to actually take him seriously. And that is the very definition of hypocrisy, to say, I stand by Jesus but don’t expect me to actually follow Him. Or I believe in the authority of the Bible, just don’t expect me to open it and actually read it.
It’s been interesting to see pragmatism become such a dominant ideology in Christianity. It’s always been there, but it feels very freshly explicit and sort of cynical in our American context, especially at the political level.
The opposite of pragmatism is to be principled. To look at a situation or a moment in which you are called to follow the teachings of Jesus and choose to do so, regardless of the outcome. Regardless of whether or not it will benefit you. In this regard, it’s the opposite of politics, right? Politics is the art of the possible, as people have said. It’s about compromise and there’s a place for that in different parts of our lives. But when you look at the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, about generosity, about not worrying, about loving your enemy, about turning the other cheek, about giving to the one who asks of you, you go on down the list, there are numerous cases in which following those things will not practically advance your wellbeing in this world. It certainly didn’t for Jesus’ disciples. It didn’t for Jesus. It got him nailed to a cross.
But the whole point of following Jesus is to take up your cross, deny yourself and trust that by following Him, you will ultimately be in God’s hands and He will ensure that you will ultimately be OK. It doesn’t mean you’re going to survive in this world in comfort and luxury, but it means that you will be a part of His kingdom and He will never leave you or forsake you. But we’ve taken it and reduced it to “loving my enemy is going to make me uncomfortable, or it might make me a doormat for somebody, and therefore I don’t have to do it.”
I’m not anti-pragmatism, but there comes a point where we have to stand on principle. And some of these are principles that the world is hungry for. Like the principle that every single person, whether they are with me or against me, is inherently worthy of dignity and love and respect. The principle that life is not about material items. The principle that the people who are blessed in this world aren’t the ones that are celebrated in the media. These are good things that the world’s hungry for that should be coming from the church, and in many cases, it isn’t. I think we’d be pretty surprised that a lot of our culture might respond very, very positively to it, if we took it seriously.
I’ve been struck by how many of the things we’re seeing in certain populist movements have a slight philosophical rhyme with scriptural teaching, like calling for justice and denouncing greed.
There’s a good to that, and there’s a danger in that. One of the risks with the Sermon on the Mount is that people will extract a single teaching or idea from that sermon in isolation from the rest of it and try to apply it. For example, you could argue that socialism could be extracted from the Sermon on the Mount or from the example of the Early Church. People do, and they have. What you have to remember, is that the Sermon on the Mount is a sermon. It’s a single discourse. Its logic built on itself. You can’t just extract, for example, the call to love your enemy, which is toward the end of chapter five and ignore how chapter five began, which is with the Beatitudes. And one of those core beatitudes is that the meek shall inherit the earth.
Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience at a time when their land was occupied by the pagan empire of Rome. There were some people who were cooperating with Rome as tax collectors and betraying their own people. And then there were the zealots who were essentially terrorists, who were fighting against Rome to try to get the land back. When Jesus says the meek shall inherit the earth — or more literally, the meek will inherit the land — what he’s saying there is, “Hey, this violent overthrow of Rome is not how it’s going to work.”
So you extract that through the rest of the sermon. You might want a world in which no one is in need, and everyone shares everything that they have, and anyone who asks, receives; but you can’t impose that on society through force. The whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is that these things happen the way a seed germinates and grows into a tree. It happens through the small, imperceptible meekness of the kingdom.
So in one sense, what you see in some of these protests and some of the political initiatives that are going on are to be applauded. But those who want to impose it through violence? That’s inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount. You have to look at the big picture, and not just pick and choose the parts you want.
It seems like another way we wiggle out of the Sermon on the Mount’s teachings is to flatten them all with so much metaphor that they stop meaning anything all. For example, some people say “blessed are the poor” meant “spiritually poor” or something so vague that it barely applies to anyone.
I think the problem with the beatitudes is we have tended to read them prescriptively. In other words: you should be poor, so you’ll be blessed, right? Or you should be meek, so that you inherit the earth.
Jesus is not, I believe being prescriptive there. I believe he’s being descriptive. He’s not saying what you should do to be blessed. He’s describing who is blessed with the arrival of God’s kingdom. And so it isn’t that the rich will not be blessed in God’s kingdom, it says the poor, because of their low status, have more to gain. He’s taking categories of people who his culture said were cursed, who were seen as not favored by God, who were outside the boundaries of the blessed community and he’s saying, “No, no, no, no. Those people you think are abandoned and forgotten, they’re blessed too. They’re included in this too.” It’s descriptive, not prescriptive.
So “what should a Christian do with the beatitudes?” is the wrong question. It’s not, how do I apply this to my life? Jesus is beginning this whole sermon by trying to reframe the way his audience sees the world. You think these people are blessed, the rich, the powerful, the comfortable, the influential? You think they’re the ones who are truly blessed? Jesus is saying, I want you to see that the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten, the weak, they’re blessed also. The only application, I think, of the Beatitudes is to question the assumption with which you see the world, and to recalibrate your vision to see it the way Jesus does.
Skye Jethani’s What If Jesus Was Serious? A Visual Guide to the Teachings of Jesus We Love to Ignore is available now.