Lent, Day 4 — Light

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Lent day 4 (Saturday) — Light

[Y’all] are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. (Matthew 5:14-15 CEB)

Read these verses slowly. Then read my reflections. Then come back and read these verses slowly again. Ponder the visual images the words evoke.

  1. “Y’all.” I’ve made a different translation choice here, because we don’t have a similar pronoun in English. Jesus addresses the disciples as a group (y’all) and, by extension, the rest of us. Remember, Matthew’s Jesus is talking to the church, the ekklesia, which means “the called-out ones.” Jesus says your called-out prophetic community is the light of the world.
  2. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). Here, he says, “Y’all are the light of the world.” I think both of these theological perspectives are important, and true in their own way. It reminds me that this prophetic community we call “church” is supposed to embody Christ’s presence (light) for the world.
  3. “A city on a hill.” Keep in mind that in Jesus’s day, people walked everywhere. They were more aware of hills and the actual shape of the land than we are because they didn’t drive. They hiked to cities on coasts, in valleys, and up hills. Lost? You don’t have a GPS. Look to see if there is a village or city on a nearby hill.
  4. Some cities like Magdala, Capernaum, and Tiberias were built on the coast. Jerusalem and Nazareth were built on hills. When Jesus says these words, his audience probably thought of specific places with specific walls and rooftops—not some abstract ideal.
  5. A city on a hill is obvious. It is a place of refuge. Its lamp and firelight in a pre-electric society would have portended safety for travelers.
  6. So, lamps. Specifically, oil lamps. There are two reasons putting an oil lamp under a basket is a bad idea: first, it is a waste of light and fuel. Second, it is a fire hazard. In Luke’s version of this saying (8:16), Jesus adds that you don’t put an oil lamp “under a bed.” Putting a burning oil lamp under your bed is suicidal!

    We don’t usually read this verse as being a warning, but I think there is an implied danger here. If the prophetic community doesn’t shine its light in public, if it doesn’t tell God’s truth to the world, there will be terrible consequences. Maybe it will be the fire of revolution, or maybe it will just be spiritual heat and smoke. Either way, “hiding your light” does not mean merely failing to shine.

  7. We don’t light a lamp to look at the light. We light a lamp to see BY the light. The light in verse 15 is generous. It “shines on all in the house.” Light does not shine discriminately. It falls on everyone and everything. It lets us see the dirt as well as the beauty.
  8. Again, keep in mind Jesus is talking about the prophetic community, not just individuals. When I read that the prophetic community gives light to all in the house, I hear Jesus saying, “Because of y’all, others can see what is real and true.”

Okay. Now go back and read the passage again slowly. Does anything change for you?

Lent, Day 3 — Salt

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Lent day 3 (Friday) — Salt

You are the salt of [the land]. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.
(Matthew 5:13)

  1. I’ve made a translation choice here. “The land” was always important to Jesus’ people. It meant the promised land, a land of their own. Centuries before, when his people were taken in exile “from the land” to Babylon, it was a terrible punishment. Proverbs says “Those who have integrity will dwell in the land; the innocent will remain in it. But the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be ripped up.” (2:21-22)
  2. Either translation works, but for modern readers “the earth” conjures up an image of our planet floating in space. That’s not wrong theologically, of course, but we modern people in our mobile society have forgotten how important the land has been to agrarian societies. Jesus’s people lived according to agricultural times of planting and harvest. Their lives were rooted in the land.
  3. You can also read “the earth” contrasted with “the heavens,” which is where Jesus has described our reward. Our reward is “in the heavens,” but we are the salt “of the earth.”
  4. Salt was expensive.
  5. You don’t eat a meal of salt. You add a bit of it to other things. It brings out the flavor of what it is added to.
  6. Salt was part of the offering made at the temple. A portion of this offering went to the poor and to the priests as their payment. Making an offering without salt was bad form, because it was essentially giving someone a flavorless meal (Leviticus 2:13). Offerings were not supposed to be given grudgingly, but with an attitude of generosity. You want the offerings you make to be flavorful and good, right?
  7. If this community of disciples is to be the salt of the land, it means God has given us as an offering to the world to bring out its flavor. Disciples bring zest and life to the world.
  8. If the community loses its flavor, it is no longer good for anything. Luke’s version is even more extreme: “not even fit for the manure pile,” in Jesus’s words (Luke 14:35). Keep in mind, Jesus has just told them they are to be like the prophets of old. What would it mean for a community of prophets to be truly “salty” in the world? How would this new community bring out the world’s flavor?

Lent, Day 2 — A Community of Prophets

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Lent day 2 (Thursday)

“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in [the skies]. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12 CEB)

  1. Yesterday I pointed out that Jesus sets up a pattern in the beatitudes. “Happy are the people who ______, because they will _______.” He invites his disciples to think of these different groups of people: hopeless, merciful, peace-makers, persecuted. “See them all as happy,” Jesus says to his disciples.
  2. Then he breaks the fourth wall. He’s no longer talking about someone else. He’s talking to us—the disciples. “Happy are you.” Oh, you thought this was about someone else? No. It’s about you.This is part of Matthew’s genius: he begins with us as the observers, watching Jesus and the disciples on the mountain. Then he lures us in to consider these various groups of people. Then suddenly Jesus is talking directly to us as the disciples, and we find ourselves—the readers—as startled as they are. See? Patterns. So tricky.
  3. And if it felt odd to call hopeless people and mourning people happy, get a load of this: “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me.” Most of us try to avoid being bad-mouthed in this way.
  4. Notice he doesn’t say “if.” He says “when.” If you are actually following Jesus, it is inevitable. You will get on the wrong side of power. Haters gonna hate.
  5. Okay, let’s talk about heaven. This is where I break from the usual translations, because our culture has screwed this idea up so much. First, nowhere in the gospels is “heaven” a place you go when you die. Second, that’s not even what Jesus is talking about here. In Greek, the phrase here is literally “in the heavens” or, as I’ve translated it here, “in the skies.”The phrase is a euphemism for God’s domain, or the place where God’s reign is already perfect. In a few verses, Jesus will tell the disciples to pray, “Let your will be done on earth as it is done in the heavens.” The motion of the heavens was orderly, though complex, and people believed histories and destinies were written in the stars. So here, when Jesus says, “your reward is great in the heavens,” he is really saying, “your reward is great in God.” God is your reward.
  6. Jesus has already surprised us with the switch, the break in the pattern. He has another subtle switch for us. “The reason you will be persecuted in this way,” he says, “is because that’s how the world treats prophets—the prophets whose mantle you are now wearing.” Surprise! Jesus has just told his disciples they are prophets in the lineage of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Amos. Elijah had kings and queens put out a contract on his life for holding them accountable. Jeremiah was imprisoned and accused of being a traitor for speaking back to his government. Amos was told, “Go back where you came from!” Jesus says, “Y’all are like them.”
  7. Jesus tells his disciples, “Be happy you are counted among their number!” Lots of people in our day think they would have acted boldly and prophetically if they had been born in a different time. They think they would have helped hide Jews from the Nazis, or have marched with Civil Rights foot soldiers. Jesus invites his followers to step up and be a community of prophets today.
  8. Again, I can’t get over how fiery these opening words of Jesus are. I am stunned that Jesus thinks so highly of us.

Lent, Day 1 — Happy

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Lent day 1 (Ash Wednesday)

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:3-10, CEB)

  • “Happy are the people who ______, because they will _______.”
  • Don’t rush through these. Look at the pattern. There’s a message in the repetition. Poetry sometimes uses repetition for emphasis. Jokes sometimes use repetition to set up a punchline, a surprise which often breaks the pattern.
  • Don’t rush through these. Before you name them “the beatitudes” in your head, before you anticipate what Jesus is going to say about the poor, the mourning, and the merciful, pause just a minute. Look at the structure of these sentences. What is Jesus saying to us with this repetition?
  • I think he’s telling us that our eyes can’t be trusted. Yes, it appears that those who mourn are anything but happy. Maybe there’s a reality we’re not seeing.
  • After you see the pattern, look at the verbs. Jesus says “happy ARE,” not “happy will be.” The ones he talks about now are happy now, because of what will be. This is not a promise for the future. It is a present reality.
  • You’ll notice I’m using a translation that says “happy,” because I don’t want to reinforce the notion that these are about promised “blessings” or “rewards.” Many of us were taught to think of God like a king who dispenses blessings according to a cosmic ledger: rewards for the good and punishments for the wicked. I do not think we can see them this way. (Jesus does talk about rewards in the next verse, but we’ll get to that tomorrow).
  • I think Jesus is talking about something that is more like a law of physics, inevitable and immutable. One might even call it “karma.” Things will balance. Those who mourn will be comforted, as certainly as the tides will follow the pull of the moon, or the seasons operate according to the tilt and spin of our planet. Human life follows certain laws, human beings and human consciousness grow in a certain way. Therefore the cosmic scales of justice and liberation are coming into balance, the moral arc of the universe is bending along a parabola. If we knew the moral trigonometry, we could even plot its course.
  • Peace-and-justice-seeking Christians often describe Jesus’ coming kin-dom as “topsy-turvy.” They point to Mary’s Magnificat where she says that God “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed” (Luke 1:53). I see the same logic operating here. Jesus is announcing that God does not operate according to conventional wisdom. The reign of God means that the oppressed are being liberated, that the last are becoming the first. Whatever we may observe about the injustice, brokenness, and sadness of the world is not the full picture.
  • At some subconscious level, deeper than your everyday thoughts and feelings, you may already know this to be true. I hope you are able to know it and feel it in your bones.
  • I can’t get over how defiant and audacious these words are. Jesus doesn’t blink. “Those who hunger for justice will be fed until they are full.” The powers of this world should be shaking in their boots.

Lent, Day 0

This is a Lenten devotional I’m sharing with Saint Junia newsletter subscribers. If you’d like to get these devotionals by email, you can sign up here.

| LENT DAY 0 |
Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Lent day 0 (Fat Tuesday)

Hi! Thanks for signing up for my Lenten devotionals. Over the next forty days I’ll be sharing reflections on the Sermon on the Mount, which I call the Jesus Manifesto. It is found in Matthew 5-7.

I’ve never seen a Jesus movie that does the Sermon on the Mount well. They picture him standing on a mountain or wandering slowly through a crowd, saying things in a dreamy voice. That’s not how it Matthew pictures it. The first verse says Jesus sat down, and his disciples came to him. These were his lieutenants, his hard-core followers. He was likely not speaking down to a crowd of thousands, but up to a crowd of 50-100, like in an amphitheater.

Matthew is the only gospel that refers to “the church.” While some people claim that Jesus never came to start the church, Matthew disagrees: Jesus came specifically to create the church—a new alternative community. The Sermon on the Mount is its charter. Jesus says, “This is what I’m here for, and this is how I intend you to behave.” It is direct, challenging, and revolutionary.

If you are able, I encourage you to read it through once before we start. You can read it slowly in about twenty minutes. It will sound familiar. You will find that it is full of some of Jesus’ most famous sayings, like “turn the other cheek,” and “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring troubles of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

If you are the journaling sort, I encourage you to jot down some thoughts as we go. I will structure my reflections as a series of 5-10 observations. I may have some questions for you to ponder.

I may miss some days. There is a lot going on in our world and in my life. But I want to model what a spiritual discipline looks like. It doesn’t mean you won’t miss days or mess up, but as my Dad has always said, “If you keep starting over every day, eventually you look consistent.”

I hope you enjoy this Lenten devotional journey through one of my favorite parts of scripture.


Nothing is Wasted


In the Bhagavad Gita, just before a great battle with his own family, Arjuna has a conversation with Lord Krishna. Arjuna is lamenting that he is at war with his cousins, that he faces a battle with people he has loved, and feels like giving up. Krishna tells him that as long as he is following the right principles, “No effort is wasted, and there is no failure” (2:49).

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I hear many of my friends who are seeking peace and justice lament that the world seems to be falling apart. They talk about being at war with their own families. They see how our politics have moved closer to fascism. Our economy more closely resembles the Gilded Age. They see that our civic religion simply justifies the state’s most awful abuses of power. It is hard to believe that “no effort is wasted, and there is no failure.” Many of us feel defeated already.

Part of this is because we believe the lie that the healing of the planet and our species depends upon us, and that we are not up to the task, or that we have already failed. I believe all of our great spiritual traditions teach us otherwise.

In the book of Exodus, God has a plan for what the Hebrews need to do to escape slavery. God does not tell them to take up arms—if they do, they will lose. God does not tell them to stage a teach in. God does not tell them to win the hearts of minds of their oppressors by building relationships and making persuasive arguments.

God tells them to throw a party.

Have a feast, God says. Only keep your shoes on and keep your walking stick in your hand.

What if the greatest acts of resistance to tyranny were about coming together and celebrating life? What if it was about feeding each other and telling our stories around a table?

Then, after God springs them from captivity, they find themselves trapped between a sea and an advancing army. God says, “This is actually why I brought you out here. Y’all are my bait, and also my witnesses. You don’t even need to fight. Just watch.”

God then proceeds to demonstrate the useless power of armored chariots against the sea.

Freeing them from Pharaoh’s oppressive clutches involves teaching them with a demonstration. God turns the power of nature against the machinery of the state. “The domination of the oppressors is unsustainable,” God seems to say. “Their wealth and war machines will not save them, nor will you be under their power. Do not put your faith in such things.”

I do not always feel hopeful about the future, and am grateful when someone shares an encouraging word. These typically say to keep your eyes elsewhere. Don’t look at power or victory the way the world does. Two examples I’ve read recently speak hope to people who are tired, traumatized, and fearful. The first is titled Do not lose heart. We were made for these times. The other, written over a year ago, is an op-ed by Michelle Alexander in the New York Times titled We Are Not the Resistance. Whether you are a religious reader or not, I think these articles speak to a spirituality of grassroots activism.

“By practicing [these principles] you can break through the bonds of karma. On this path, no effort goes to waste, and there is no failure” (BG 2:49).

“The Lord will fight for you today; you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14).

No, it does not mean sit back and take it easy. It is not a promise that the work will not be hard, scary, painful, or sad. It does not mean give it all up to “thoughts and prayers.” No Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, or Christian who knows the mystics of their traditions will tell you that.

What they will tell you, Arjuna, is that divine revelation comes to you in the chariot before a great battle—when you realize both how pointless and how necessary the fight is. These mystics will tell you that sometimes God brings you out of slavery and places you between a sea and a hard place, or helps you leap from the pan into the fire—just so you can see more clearly that this isn’t just about you. It is about all of us.

Most of us in the west misunderstand the concept of karma. Karma is not about getting what you deserve. It’s about letting go of the concept of deserving. None of us deserves either the good or the bad, so we should act without attachment, plant seeds without the assurance that we will see the trees grow, “cast our bread upon the waters” and trust that even if we do not see the good in this life, that there will be good that manifests itself.

I find it fascinating that our religious traditions tell us that what is working among us does want witnesses. The Great Mystery knows that we are forgetful, fearful, and frail. She knows that the act of throwing a party, of setting a table in the presence of our enemies, of celebrating our liberation before it ever happens, of acting without knowing the future is both an act of defiance and of faith. It reminds us that we are not alone, that no effort is wasted, and when we learn to be truly still and at peace in the face of the advancing enemy, we will know the power of God. That is victory.

Don’t Waste Your Breath



Lung cancer does not know if you are conservative or liberal, atheist or believer. Cancer does not care about your race, gender, sexual orientation, or if you are a good person. Heart attacks, Alzheimer’s, strokes, car and air crashes don’t care how wealthy or famous you are. And when we die, (because we all do), our fleshless skulls all smile the same smile—which makes justice and kindness all the more urgent.

Urgent even if you believe that there is a symphony on the other side of death, that a choir spot is reserved for you, the sheet music opened to the right spot, marked with a pencil where you are supposed to join in. Imagine showing up and standing mute, unable to sing, because your voice never learned to speak up for what is just and good, because it was never able to rise above a whisper for anything but yourself. In the chorus of those who are blessed because they are poor, because they mourn, because they hunger for righteousness, because they are persecuted, imagine losing your voice because it only ever spoke for the rich, the comfortable, and those who have never known hunger.

Regardless of what you believe about life after death, over your lifetime on this planet, in this life, you are allocated a certain number of breaths. What words will you choose to say with your own limited supply of air?

If you are a preacher, a pundit, a talk show host, a teacher, a leader—

If you are one of the lucky ones with a platform, whose voice is magnified, whose privilege makes your voice louder than others—

What message will you leave to the rest of us with your dying breath? Will you laugh with it? Sob with it? Sing it? Scream it? If it were set to music, would it make you proud?

Say it early. Say it often.

The rest is just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.