The Sermon on the Plain: Why We Read Critically

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Illustration by Utagawa Kunisada

 
 

We’ve come to the end of the Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. It is shorter than Matthew’s more famous version, but I hope that it’s clear how they are each important in their own way. (You can click the links to read them in full).

I also hope that it’s clear that we choose how to hear Jesus’s words. Even the gospel authors made choices about how to interpret Jesus’s sayings. They placed these sayings in particular contexts based on their own understanding of what Jesus meant.

Here’s the structure of the Sermon on the Plain, which is found in Luke 6:

  • Happy are you who are oppressed (v 20-23).
  • How terrible for you who oppress (v 24-26).
  • Stage 1: Love your enemies and treat people the way you want to be treated (v 27-31).
  • Stage 2: Actually, love the way God loves; be children of the Most High (v 32-36).
  • Give everyone the grace you would want for yourself (v 37-38).
  • Don’t presume you are morally superior to others (v 39-42).
  • Focus on what’s going on inside yourself (v 43-45).
  • In order to put these words into action, dig deep. Only then can you claim to be a follower of Jesus (v 46-49).

There’s a lot of nuance missing in this summary, of course. There is always a background of social justice and liberation in Luke’s gospel, as we’ve seen. I invite you to read the whole thing again (click here), to put it all together and reflect on what we’ve explored.

If you’re comparing the Sermon on the Plain to the Sermon on the Mount, you may also be wondering: What happened to all that other material from Matthew’s gospel? What happened to the Lord’s Prayer? The light under a bushel? What happened to “Ask, seek, knock?”

Luke put them in different places. Again, he heard something different in Jesus’s words, and so he gave these sayings a different context.

That is where we will turn next.

Prayer:
Jesus, your words have power to heal and transform. Help me hear them in many different ways, and not just with my ears, but with my inner self.


PS: I’ll be doing a comparative reading of the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible starting May 6.

The Sermon on the Plain: Dig Deep

 
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photo by Rasbak (click for source)

Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say? I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built. But those who don’t put into practice what they hear are like a person who built a house without a foundation. The floodwater smashed against it and it collapsed instantly. It was completely destroyed. (Luke 6:46-49)

We come to the end of the Sermon on the Plain today. It is very similar to the way Matthew ends the Sermon on the Mount.

  • Jesus begins with a provocative question: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?” I used to hear this question as accusatory or plaintive, but I think it’s neither. It’s simply a question meant to cause us to reflect. A leader you don’t obey is no leader at all
  • In other words, in the world of human behavior, in the world of religion and what we today call “Christianity,” the idea of Jesus is more compelling than Jesus’s actual teaching
  • Luke has been letting us overhear Jesus’s words to his disciples, so we need to understand these words are addressed to us as well. 
  • This is a point which heavily influences my own theology: Jesus’s teaching saves
  • Theology about Jesus is called Christology. One of the key questions in Christology is, “How does Jesus save us?” The answer that is dominant in evangelical Christianity, and has been most powerful in the last few centuries, has been that Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross is how Jesus saves us. But in the last few decades, there has been a renewed focus on how Jesus’s incarnation and liberating ministry saves us. This area of theology is called Atonement Theory.  
  • I think we need a renewed focus on how Jesus’s teaching saves. This is why I cling to this passage: It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. 
  • Luke’s version of this saying has an important difference from Matthew’s, who just says “build on rock.” Luke’s Jesus says, “Dig deep and build on rock.” Dig deep. These teachings are not surface-level education that you know with your head. This has to be deep in your inner self, as we saw yesterday (see v. 45). 
  • The verb Jesus uses points to the fact that a “flood” is not simply rising water—the Greek word is more like “smash” or “burst out.” I imagine Hurricane Katrina. It was a natural disaster that exposed the deep class and racial inequality in our country. It showed that our nation’s rhetoric about equality and being a land of opportunity is a sham. It exposed a house with no foundation. 
  • If we would truly be followers of Jesus, we have to excavate: dig down deep in ourselves individually and as a society. Jesus’s teaching on the transforming power of love is not just “be polite to people.” It is about self-knowledge and God-knowledge, and that you cannot know one without the other.

Prayer:
Teacher, be my Lord. Lord, be my Teacher. Teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

The Sermon on the Plain: The Inner Self

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A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit, nor does a bad tree produce good fruit. Each tree is known by its own fruit. People don’t gather figs from thorny plants, nor do they pick grapes from prickly bushes. A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self, while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self. The inner self overflows with words that are spoken. (Luke 6:43-45)

  • Do you remember the “tree and fruit” metaphor from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount? (You can read about it here and here). There, it was about being able to identify “false prophets” who are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Here, Jesus is illustrating something different.
  • Jesus has just said, “Don’t judge” (Luke 6:37-38), and he followed up by cautioning us against aspiring to spiritual leadership of other people, because we are lousy at getting splinters out of others’ eyes (Luke 6:29-42).
  • So these words about “good trees” and “bad trees” are not intended to be a tool for evaluating or judging others’ worth or their spiritual progress.
  • If anything, it is a reminder to let people be. Are you after figs? Don’t go seeking them among thorns. Are you after grapes? Then go handle grape vines, not poison ivy.
  • On the other hand, seek fruit from fruitful people.
  • Don’t miss that the distinction is not just between good and bad fruit, but between different kinds of fruit. “Each tree is known by its own” The emphasis is also in the Greek. To extend the metaphor, why would you expect figs from a grape vine, or grapes from a fig tree?
  • If Jesus is still riffing on the “don’t judge” idea, he may be inviting us to ask, “Am I seeking the wrong kind of fruit from this person?”
  • Notice that there is also a distinction between fruit trees and plants that cannot be expected to produce fruit. It is senseless to blame a thistle for being a thistle. People do what they do. Why do we presume to fix them?
  • For the second metaphor, I like the CEB’s word choice here: “the good treasury of the inner self.” Older translations say, “the abundance of the heart,” which is a beautiful phrase, but we tend to sentimentalize “heart.”
  • “The inner self” — I’ve been pointing out how some of what Jesus says relates to Eastern traditions. Hinduism and Buddhism reflect deeply on the nature of the Self. Judaism’s prophetic tradition focuses more on social and political relations. But Judaism’s wisdom tradition does delve into the dynamics of our internal world and our character. Psalm 51:6 says, “…you want truth in the most hidden places; you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.”
  • Jesus talks about “the inner self” because our outer world is a manifestation of our inner one. Jesus has moved from talking about “judging others” to focusing on what’s going on inside us. It’s easier for us to ascribe suffering and conflict “out there” to the external world. But the reality is that we hate most what is inside of us. We cannot find peace because we are not at peace within.

Prayer:
Wisdom Beyond the Universe, I am often caught up in the world of blame and judgment. Teach me to bring my inner self in harmony with you.

The Sermon on the Plain: A Splinter in Your Eye

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Photo by Sugar Pond (click for source)

Jesus also told them a riddle. “A blind person can’t lead another blind person, right? Won’t they both fall into a ditch? Disciples aren’t greater than their teacher, but whoever is fully prepared will be like their teacher. Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s or sister’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Brother, Sister, let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You deceive yourselves! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. (Luke 6:39-42)

We looked at the first two verses yesterday. Today we’ll put them in context with the rest of the famous parable.

  • This splinter/log metaphor works on so many levels.
    1. First, we all know how irritating it is to have a tiny speck in your eye. It itches, your eye waters, and you can hardly think of anything else. Can you imagine being oblivious to it?
    2. Occasionally I have asked a trusted friend to take an irritant out of my eye. “Can you see it?” I ask while I pull my eyelids up and to the side.
    3. I also know how reluctant I am to touch someone else’s eye. It’s a delicate operation.
    4. I’m often stunned that these jelly-filled orbs in my face do so much. How precious they are to me! And how frustrating when they don’t work!
    5. The image of someone with a log or beam in their eye is supposed to be ridiculous. It’s like an octopus on roller skates. Yet we see in real life how this works all the time when it comes to judging others. Preachers, politicians, pundits—all are notorious for being judge-y hypocrites, but they certainly don’t have a monopoly on the practice.
    6. When you do see someone with something in their eye, doesn’t it make your own eye hurt or itch in sympathy? You naturally want to help them, because of the discomfort it causes you. I think about the way I am often embarrassed for other people. But my discomfort is really discomfort with my own experiences, not theirs.
  • What is it about religion in general that gives people license to be judge-y? How can a religion based on the man who said these things be so moralistic?
  • The CEB chooses to translate “Hypocrite!” as “You deceive yourselves!” I think this is an interesting choice. Matthew loves the word the most. He uses it a dozen times in his gospel. Luke only uses it a few times, but this is one of those instances.
  • By putting the “blind leading the blind” and “splinter/log” sayings together, Luke, more clearly than Matthew, makes this saying about spiritual leadership. There is the possibility of someone becoming fully prepared for the delicate operation of teaching and leading.
  • You will be like your teacher. How often do you see Jesus judging people? He heals and liberates. Someone who has become like Jesus, and is fully prepared to remove splinters, simply isn’t going to go around poking their fingers into people’s eyeballs
  • This section is about seeing clearly. How confident are you that you see clearly? Do you think you see clearly enough to help others see? Do you think you see clearly enough to help without hurting? How many people are walking around doing harm, all the while convinced that they are helping? This paragraph makes me realize how dangerous “ministry” can be.

Prayer:
All-seeing One, my vision is limited. Help me see what I need to see for myself before I presume to help others.

The Sermon on the Plain: The Clueless Leading the Helpless

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photo by Ashish Gupta

Jesus also told them a riddle. “A blind person can’t lead another blind person, right? Won’t they both fall into a ditch? Disciples aren’t greater than their teacher, but whoever is fully prepared will be like their teacher.” (Luke 6:39-40 CEB).

  • The CEB (Common English Bible) uses the word “riddle” instead of “parable” here, which I think is an interesting choice. The parables are often like riddles, where the meaning is hidden. I’m not sure the meaning is particularly hidden here.
  • But the context of these two verses is Luke puts them in the Sermon on the Plain, between “do not judge others” and “why do you see the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, but not the log in your own?” Luke makes these verses about why we shouldn’t judge or criticize others. “Do not presume to be a spiritual leader,” he seems to say.
  • But Matthew uses the same two sayings in two different places in his gospel (Matthew 15:14 and Matthew 10:24). There they have a different context: “blind leading the blind” refers to hypocritical religious leaders, and “disciples aren’t greater than their teacher” is a warning that disciples can be expected to be harassed by religious leaders the same way Jesus is.
  • This is a good example of the way different authors hear different meanings in Jesus’s sayings. To me, it is evidence that Luke and Matthew are drawing from the same source document (Q), but interpret it differently.
  • So it shouldn’t be any surprise that faithful Christians today come to different conclusions about what Jesus means! If I’m to take this passage seriously, I should be doubly circumspect about criticizing others—both because of what it says, and how it came to be written!
  • The earliest recorded example of the “blind leading the blind” is from the Katha Upanishad, a sacred text of Hinduism, which was written somewhere between 200 and 800 years before Jesus: “Ignorant of their ignorance, yet wise in their own esteem, these deluded men, proud of their vain learning, go round and round like the blind led by the blind” (2:5).
  • Some people argue that Jesus was aware of the spiritual teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is certainly possible that the metaphor arose independently, and it occurred to more than one person in several centuries. But we also already know that Jesus quoted other religious leaders like Rabbi Hillel, who said “What is hateful to you, do not do to another; this is all the Law and the Prophets.” It would almost be more shocking if Jesus was not influenced by the spiritual teachings of other faith traditions. He even referenced pagan mythology in his teaching.
  • Both of these quotes are about spiritual leadership. In context, I believe Jesus is saying one of the reasons we should not presume to judge others is that most of us are not in the position to be spiritual leaders. “Lead yourself first,” Jesus seems to be saying.
  • Many of us have been on “trust walks,” where we are blindfolded and led by someone else. These can be powerful forms of embodied learning. Those of us who are not physically blind should try navigating the world without sight. Are you able to even stand on one leg with your eyes closed? Try it!
  • We also need to recognize that this metaphor is ableist. Blind people are able to navigate the world, often very well, to the surprise of the sighted. “The helpless led by the clueless” might be a more inclusive phrase. If you try the exercise above repeatedly, standing on one leg with eyes closed, you will probably find that you are able to do it better with practice. How much more so those who refine their senses without sight over the course of years.

Prayer:
Teacher, lead us to humble wisdom.

The Sermon on the Plain: Karma

 
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Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return. (Luke 6:37-38 CEB).

  • “Karma” is a Hindu concept that we Westerners tend to think of as cosmic balance. “What goes around, comes around.” What you deal out will be dealt back to you. The internet is full of videos of “instant karma.” We usually only think of karma when we see someone “get what’s coming to them,” and we experience schadenfreude—“malicious delight in the pain of others.” The German word literally means “damage-joy.”   
  • But the Hindu concept is really an expression of a simple law of the universe: Every moral action has an equal and opposite reaction. Our actions have consequences, and even the tiniest reverberate in eternity.   
  • In Hinduism, the enlightened person acts benevolently without being attached to the results. “They are free, without selfish attachments… They perform all work in the spirit of service, and their karma is dissolved” (Bhagavad Gita 4:23). The goal is to escape the endless cycle of karma and payback.   
  • Jesus here applies the concept to our moral grandstanding. He has just talked about being compassionate as our Father is compassionate toward wicked and ungrateful people. Here he seems to call into question our moral reasoning itself: Are you so sure you know who the wicked and ungrateful are? Are you sure you know who the “sinners” are? Best not to judge at all, since what goes around, comes around.   
  • Jesus is steadily working toward higher and higher states of moral reasoning in this sermon.
    1. First stage: Love your enemies. Why? Because even your enemies (sinners) know how to be kind when it suits them, and you are better than that.
    2. Second stage: Love as God loves, because you are God’s children, and even God is kind to sinners.
    3. Third stage: Sinners? Who is to say you’re not the sinner? Best be on the safe side and give everyone the forgiveness and grace you want for yourself.
       
  • I love the emphatic way Jesus puts this. The portion you receive, he says, will be “packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing.” This is not one of those bags of potato chips that is half full of air and says on the package, “Contents may have settled during shipping.”   
  • In the ancient world, measuring in the marketplace could be a place of contention. If you paid for a bushel, you wanted that bushel to be full, with no wasted space. A measure of grain should be “firmly shaken.” Jesus adds “packed down” and “overflowing.” In other words, you bet your sweet bippy that you will get every last bit of the judgment coming to you.   
  • It is both a threat and a blessing: forgive and be generous in a way that you will be delighted to receive what God has in store for you.   
  • It is also meant to point us beyond threat and blessing. I think the gist of this passage is that our God is NOT a transactional God. The whole nature of this sermon is to move us, stage by stage, from selfish reasoning (If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended?) to something better (You will be acting the way children of the Most High act).

Prayer:
Grace That Fills Every Nook and Cranny of the Cosmos, deliver us from a theology of deserving.

The Sermon on the Plain: Children of the Most High

 
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If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. (Luke 6:32-36 CEB)

  • In the previous section, Jesus told people to “turn the other cheek” and to give your shirt to someone who steals your coat. He also said a) love your enemies, do good to them, bless them, and pray for them, b) give without thought of reciprocity, and c) treat people as you would want to be treated (the “Golden Rule”). 
  • In this section, Jesus focuses on some of the same verbs he used in the previous section: love, do good, and lend. 
  • The repeated emphasis on lending is telling. Debt was rampant in the first century, just as it is today. Several of Jesus’s parables involve lending and debt. Endless cycles of debt created massive poverty. The idea of lending without expecting repayment challenges ideas—both then and now—about the way the market is supposed to work. 
  • Don’t miss the revolutionary character of these remarks. Remember, Jesus started off with “Happy are you who are poor.” In Luke, economics and power are always a subtext.
     
  • In this section, Jesus raises the ethical bar. Not only are we to treat people as we would be treated, but to “be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” The Golden Rule is difficult enough. Loving as God loves is quite a reach! 
  • That’s why Jesus builds up to it. He is arguing from the lesser to the greater. He begins with three rhetorical questions, which amount to, “If you do what even sinners do, why should you be commended?” If all we are after is reciprocity or transactional relationships “do to others as you would have them do to you” is a great place to start. But it’s still transactional. Jesus wants us to desire something more. 
  • Jesus wants us to be Children of the Most High, carrying on the family tradition of being kind to ungrateful and wicked people, just like our Father. 
  • The word “sinner” here is not judge-y. Yes, we are all sinners. If moral character is a spectrum, we are all ungrateful and wicked compared to someone else. The point is that even people we think of as morally “worse than us” (sinners) are capable of transactional relationships: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. 
  • Self-interested altruism is the floor, but there is no ceiling: “Love like God.” 
  • Instead of the word sinners, Matthew’s similar passage in the Sermon on the Mount uses the words “tax collectors” and “Gentiles”— that’s us non-Jews. (Click here if you want to compare the two). 
  • Children of the Most High is a beautiful phrase. I wonder how we would think of ourselves, and each other, if we began each day with a reminder that we are Children of the Most High
  • Like Matthew, Luke ties our behavior toward others with God’s indiscriminate kindness. We demonstrate we are God’s children when we love as God loves.

Prayer:
God, our compassionate Mother and Father, I am already your precious child. Help me to live into my divine heritage.

The Sermon on the Plain: Love Your Enemies

 
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But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. (Luke 6:27-31 CEB)

  • Jesus changes direction here so fast that it’s easy to get whiplash. He just said “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who laugh, and woe to you when people speak well of you.” But instead of continuing his diatribe he starts talking about love for enemies. 
  • It’s pretty clear Jesus has put his finger on class resentment. There are two sides, and you have to choose which one you are going to be on. God does take sides, and God is on the side of the poor and powerless. But Jesus begins to paint a picture of the life God wants for this community of prophets. 
  • In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount terms, we’ve jumped from the beginning to the end of chapter 5. We’ve skipped the part about Jesus not abolishing the law, and “you have heard it said… but I say to you.” As I said the other day, I think some of this is implied in the set-up. But Luke’s Jesus isn’t bothering to respond to critics and naysayers. He goes right to the hard stuff. 
  • Luke’s Jesus is all about the contrasts. Rich and poor. Violent and non-violent. Here the contrast is between those who live a violent, selfish life and those who live a nonviolent, generous life. Jesus envisions his community being the latter. 
  • Love… do good… bless… pray. This is how Jesus envisions us treating our enemies. And I will confess, that is not my inclination, especially when I consider the class and political injustices he has just indicated. 
  • But Jesus seems to understand that we cannot change the world simply by fighting. As Carl Jung said, what we resist persists. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I mean that our resistance cannot be simply fighting or fleeing. We give energy to evil and selfishness when we oppose it with violence or respond in kind. 
  • For this reason, I hear Luke’s golden rule differently than I hear Matthew’s version. Luke’s Jesus sees it as a way to end the world’s vicious cycle of tit-for-tat
  • If we are to be a community of prophets, if we would like to see the Great Reversal, it will only come about if we actually live out this ethic of nonviolent mutuality
  • Love is the key to transformation.

Prayer:
Divine Friend, hatred and resentment come so naturally. Help me to love my enemies.

The Sermon on the Plain: The Flip Side

 
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But how terrible for you who are rich,
    because you have already received your comfort.
How terrible for you who have plenty now,
    because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now,
    because you will mourn and weep.
How terrible for you when all speak well of you.
    Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26, CEB)

Wow. Are you ready to hear this? I don’t think any of us are ready.

  • This follows the same form as the “happy are you who are poor” section. Jesus names four groups: people who are poor/rich, hungry/full, weeping/laughing, and rejected/praised. 
  • Old translations say “Woe to you.” This is classic prophetic language of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Ezekiel, and was often followed by descriptions of war, famine, exile, and grief. Jesus is putting on the mantel of the old prophets. 
  • As we saw yesterday, Luke’s Jesus does not spiritualize poverty or oppression. His words are for people experiencing dramatic economic inequality, and so they are relevant to us today. They also hearken back to his mother’s words in Luke: He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. (Luke 1:52-53) 
  • It’s interesting that Luke’s Jesus uses the same logic here that Matthew’s Jesus uses when talking about hypocrisy in giving, prayer, and fasting for show: “You have already received your comfort.” It’s the same rhetoric applied to a different subject, which makes me think Luke and Matthew are, in fact, drawing from the same source document (Q). They’ve just applied it to different things. 
  • This section addresses people on the top, and it’s disturbing and stunning because we all know we want this stuff and spend a huge amount of energy in our lives to acquire it. Who doesn’t want wealth, food security, joy, and people’s praise. Are we not supposed to want wealth, security, and a good reputation? 
  • The implicit lesson, though, is that the system is broken. It’s not that we should all aspire to poverty, hunger, and social rejection. It’s that some people have and others do not. The system praises prophets (ahem, televangelists, ahem) who support the status quo, and they reject reformers and revolutionaries. 
  • Jesus implicitly invites his followers to be a contrast society, to demonstrate the kind of life that flips our corrupt system of inequality to something more just and loving. 
  • But we can’t make that point without directly confronting the power system that maintains injustice. Jesus can’t start off talking about love and peace without exposing the inequality and sin at the heart of human society. 
  • God takes sides. God has a preferential option for the poor. 
  • Too often, churches mute this section of the sermon. They want to talk about love and justice in the abstract without directly exposing and confronting specific injustices. People say it isn’t loving to make rich people uncomfortable, it isn’t loving to call others “false prophets.” Jesus will certainly talk about love in the next section, but first he must make it clear: He isn’t here to play. He’s here to tell the truth.

Prayer:
Just One, shine your light on our society, so that we may see it clearly and confront its problems  courageously.

Time for a New Religion

Hey, American Christians! Time for a new religion.

Christianity hasn’t made you more loving, or generous, or less violent and militaristic. Your scriptures say that God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only son, but you don’t love the world enough to even slow your economy in the face of pandemic or environmental collapse. So obviously, preaching Christianity from American pulpits hasn’t worked for y’all.

So let’s try a different religion. In this one, your immortal soul doesn’t go to heaven or hell. It time-travels and goes into the person who, during your life, you most treated like shit. Your reward, or punishment, is that you get to live their life. Punched someone in the face? You’ll feel it. Spread life-ruining gossip? You’ll feel that, too.

Suffering is inevitable for everyone, of course, but whatever suffering you manufactured for others will be visited upon you.

Of course, you’ll get their joys, too. And maybe you’ll have a chance to learn a lesson and develop more kindness, or maybe the lesson will simply make you more bitter and evil. It’s really up to you.

And here’s the kicker: depending on the size of your effect—say, you created or influenced public policy—you may actually wind up living multiple lives. If, for example, you were a ruthless dictator who killed thousands or millions of people, your reward is that you get to live every single one of their lives. You’ll get their joys, of course, but also millions of dashed dreams, millions of unimaginable griefs, just unbelievable pain. If you were a billionaire whose lobbyists pushed millions into poverty, you get to live ALL of their lives. You’ll get to feel what it’s like to have too much month left at the end of the paycheck. You’ll feel the rage and sadness of watching loved ones die because they can’t afford preventive healthcare. You’ll feel the trauma of racial disparities and other systemic injustices.

What happens to you when you die? You get to walk in the shoes of the people you hurt.

As a matter of fact, it’s silly to say “you’ll get to” live their lives. It’s already happening, because of time travel. See? The pain you inflict upon them is the same pain you are inflicting on yourself now. You just don’t know it yet. You may not even know it then, in the future-present. It depends on how spiritually stupid you insist on being.

You can erase some of this, of course, with your good deeds. And it may be that after you live the lives of people you hurt, you’ll get to live the lives of people you helped. There may be a reward, many lifetimes from now. But I suspect that in this new religion, we’ll need to keep that a far-off hope, because American Christianity has demonstrated it has a far greater affinity for hell and threats of punishment than for heaven. We seem to prefer a theology of deserving to a theology of grace. That’s why I think this new framework will be perfect for us.

And if you’re following the logic of this transmigration of souls, you begin to realize that we’re not actually separate souls. We’re all the same life, which makes it vitally important that we care for each other and the earth while we have the chance. You may have eternity to work it out, but there is an urgency to it—in part because our species won’t live forever, either, especially on our present trajectory. We can’t wait to fix our behavior and our attitudes until tomorrow, because tomorrow is already now.

American Christians, some of you may realize this sounds a lot like Hinduism. And, for the record, India is certainly having their own problems with selfishness, hatred, and terrible social policy right now. But maybe it’s time to try living our private lives (and adopting social policies) that take karma seriously.

You know, like “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Because those aren’t just hypothetical statements spouted by some random messiah. And your current leaders who are loudest in claiming allegiance to him while doing harm are liars. Or, as he said, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

So it’s time to re-evaluate. It’s time you tried out a different religion. Or no religion at all.

And if this sounds like blasphemy to you, then you never knew Jesus Christ.

(Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 6:46-49, Matthew 25:41-46)