In an article, ‘Big and Little Loves’ in The New York Times yesterday (May 31), David Brooks began by noting that philosophers since the time of ancient Greece ‘have distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime. Beauty, ‘ he notes, ‘is what you experience when you look at a flower or a lovely face. It is contained, pleasurable, intimate and romantic. Sublime is what you feel when you look at a mountain range or a tornado. It involves awe, veneration, maybe even a touch of fear. A sublime thing, like space or mathematics, over-awes the natural human dimensions and reminds you that you are a small thing in a vast cosmos.’
A sublime figure: We can well see that the vast crowds who came to Jesus of Nazareth were drawn to him because they saw in him a sublime figure. On one occasion, as Luke records (6:17), Jesus addressed a huge crowd that had gathered below a mountain. Many had travelled great distances – from Jerusalem, Judea, Tyre and Sidon.
Sublime power: Some had come to be healed or released from demon possession (6:17-18). Luke tells us that Jesus had the power to heal everyone who came to him (power went forth from him, 6:19). No-one, before or since, has been recorded doing the kinds of things Jesus did. Indeed, we also have the attestation of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in the 1st century AD: Jesus was a doer of extraordinary or startling deeds…
Sublime teaching: Once again Jesus’ acts of healing were accompanied by teaching. His miracles revealed his compassion and power; they were also signs that authenticated his word.
THE MOST SUBLIME TEACHER
In his teaching that day, Jesus first reversed the way we look at life. Consider Luke 6:20-26:
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. ‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. 22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you* on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 ‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. ‘Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Why did Jesus spoke so harshly of the rich and those who love life? Are not riches, food, and laughter signs of God’s blessings (see for example Deuteronomy 28:1-12)? In fact, should we not expect these things if God is all-powerful and all good? In Jesus’ answer we begin to discern a framework that answers some of the tough questions of life. We learn a number of things:
1. Blessed in the Greek world had to do with inner happiness and contentment. In the Old Testament Hebrew world it was a reference to God’s favor (Psalms 1:1; 127:3-5; Job 29:10-11).
By contrast, woes, translated ‘alas’ in the New English Bible, convey the sense of regret or sadness. While the language Jesus used here is not found in Greek literature, there are many examples of its use in the Greek translation (LXX) of the Old Testament. Woes are the opposite of blessings.
2. To focus only on blessing is to forget the conditions for blessing that we find in the Old Testament: obedience to God.
The wisdom literature and the prophets of the Old Testament warn of the consequences of disobedience to God. Jesus’ parallel structure of blessings and woes shows us that he was applying the meaning of God’s commandments in a fresh way.
By placing the blessings of God in an eternal perspective, he calls for a paradigm shift in the way we view life and life’s priorities, bringing God’s perspectives into our lives. Our human hearts do not handle well God’s material blessings.
Indeed, Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (in the book of the same name), despaired of his family’s ability to cope with his wealth: ‘I plainly see to what foul uses all this money will be put at last,’ he cried, almost writhing in the bed; ‘after filling me with cares and miseries all my life, it will perpetuate discord and bad passions when I am dead. So it always is… Heaven help us, we have much to answer for! Oh self, self, self! Every man for himself, and no creature for me!’
How much do we, and the world around us, still need to feel the impact in our lives of the words of this most sublime Teacher.
© John G. Mason