Ok, so I'm not quite ready yet to go into the Sermon on the Mount, like I said I was in the last installment... there's a metaphor I wanted to talk about first (and nothing sells a post like knowing there's a metaphor coming!). It's something I like to call the "moral plateau," and it's how I viewed the world for most of my spiritually immature years (1982-present). Basically, a lot of Christians (and non-Christians for that matter) see the world kind of like this:
We divide the world into two general groups of people - those on the moral plateau (which always includes the person doing the division, naturally), and those off of it. The nature of the wall varies from person to person - it might involve membership in a church or other tribe, acceptance of a particular lifestyle, belief in some set of propositions, the purchase of one or more trendy brands of organic coffee, etc. But whatever it is, it invariably divides the world neatly between me and my tribe, and "the other" - the bad people!
Evangelical Christians like to put that wall somewhere around baptism + church membership + living a basically moral middle class lifestyle. Some problems can arise, however.
I remember growing up in a church youth group that put a lot of emphasis on getting baptized and committing yourself to church - but I never really knew what was supposed to happen AFTER that. Nor, for that matter, did anyone else. Nor did it seem to bother anyone. After all, we're on the moral plateau, where else could we go?
This worldview also leads to a certain lack of mercy towards those not on the plateau...
And then, of course, there's the endless arguing about where the wall is and how big the plateau is. Is the wall baptism? Saying a certain prayer? Some quantity of good works? Or, if you're especially sentimental, maybe just not being a genocidal maniac? That is, some of us would like to keep the walls low enough so that EVERYBODY can get in...
That is, what if the "moral plateau" is so high, that nobody ever has any real justification in feeling complacent with where they are morally? What if the only thing that saves us is God's mercy, and the only thing left for us to do is keep climbing?
That is, what if we have no cause for looking down on anyone, since on the grand scale of things, we're all towards the bottom of the cliff? What if we have no cause for complacency because we have so far to go? What if we have no cause for despair because God has offered extravagant mercy for those humble enough to recognize where they are on the wall? Consider this parable from Jesus:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” - Luke 18:9-14
The trick is understanding and actually believing - internalizing - how sinful we actually are - that we are nowhere near any "moral plateau," if such a thing even exists. And for that (hopefully) we turn to the Sermon on the Mount...