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Blessings and grace not orders and tests

broken chainNorwich Quaker and magistrate John Myhill reflects on Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes and their expansion on the Ten Commandments, reminding us that we are blessed not commanded. 

It has long been accepted that there are parallels between the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: along the following lines:-

  1. From the exclusivity of “no other gods but me” to the poor (or poor in spirit) entering the Kingdom of Heaven; it is not hard to see Jesus teaching that cleverness and wealth are the gods chosen by most people; whilst those who choose poverty know their dependence on God.
  2. From the prohibition of “graven images” to “mourning with those who mourn”; we see that giving comfort to those who have lost their idols will distract us from our own suffering.
  3. From the prohibition of blasphemy to “the meek shall inherit the earth”; takes a big leap from not saying anything against God, to not saying anything about religion at all, but just getting on with doing what is right.
  4. Keeping the Sabbath holy, is clearly just the first step towards living a holy life, which requires a constant “hunger and thirst for righteousness”.
  5. Honouring father and mother is a first step to being merciful to all people.  So much of Jesus’ teaching is about not judging others, or more positively honouring everyone as if they were your parents.
  6. “Thou shalt not kill” clearly becomes “blessed are the peacemakers”.
  7. No adultery clearly becomes “blessed are the pure in heart” for Jesus’ teaching is clear that no one is without sin, because it is not just what we do, but what we desire that needs to change.
  8. “Thou shalt not steal” is turned around in a similar way: for it is only when we are persecuted (as if we were criminals) for our faith, that we exchange the respectability of obeying the law, for the Kingdom of Jesus.
  9. No false witness becomes “suffer for my sake”: in other words accept the false witness of others against ourselves, and forgive them as Jesus did.
  10. Do not covet becomes the instruction that we should be the “salt and light” for others; so that others may want to be like us, not coveting what we have, but praising God as we do.
I believe these developments in teaching, by Jesus, may help us in understanding the many different ways in which “salvation” (or I would prefer the word “Grace”) has been misunderstood or institutionalised back into the language of orders or commandments, when they were intended as blessings:-
  1. We can be saved from our selfishness by becoming poor and reliant on the Spirit, rather than material things.
  2. George Fox said: “there is no salvation without my brother”.  Compassion is not a means to an end.  We comfort others because they are in need of comforting.
  3. When evangelicals talk about the “born again experience” it is just what the more orthodox try to capture in rituals of communion.  Both are extolling the virtue of surrendering self-will and depending on God’s Grace.  Those who are “meek”, who live the teaching of Jesus, clearly have that experience, and do not need to talk about it, or engage in rituals to express it.  Those who are not meek will find only empty rituals in any religious tradition.
  4. It is not Salvation (or even Grace) that Jesus urges us to seek, but rather “righteousness”.  Not that we can be righteous without Grace, but we can hunger and thirst for it.
  5. The same is true of mercy: it is not about doing good works, but about dropping a vengeful, angry response to others.  It is about being ready for Grace.
  6. The peacemaker sets out to love her enemies.  She will not succeed without Grace, but we have the example of Jesus’ life to see that it is possible to care about those who are murdering you.  The example of Jesus can help us towards “salvation” in this sense.
  7. Abraham is “pure in heart” as he is willing to sacrifice his only son, if that is what God wants.  This is the often used parallel to God sacrificing His son for us.  But it is also the idea of the embodiment of spirit: that there is that of God within each of us, and this enables God to feel our pain.  The death of Jesus is the first example of the teaching that God understands our pain from within, and is able to save us “from within”.  This makes sense to me of claims that we are “saved through the suffering and death of Jesus”.
  8. When we hear that “Jesus died for our sins” or listen to the parable of the vineyard owner’s son, who is killed by the tenants; Jesus is said to die where we deserve to die, like the “scapegoat” in the time of Moses; as a kind of balancing of accounts with God: then we know we are back with a vengeful god who demands sacrifices. 
  9. What we see in the life of Jesus is that those who show compassion will always threaten a state and economic system based on greed and competition.  Such people will be persecuted; but it is only such love that can save us from greed and competition. 
  10. Jesus saves us by example and we can save others by being the salt and the light.
The really important part of all this is seeing how I measure up.  Am I living up to these beliefs?  The answer of course is that I did not even manage to keep the commandments, let alone the far more demanding beatitudes.  But like Quaker Advices and Queries, they do form the basis for seeking righteousness. 

Conversely I also ask myself, what do the things I do, tell others about what I really believe?  Ask your friends: the answers can be surprising.  But remember we are blessed not commanded; and Grace is there for all who are open to it.

John Myhill is a Norwich Quaker, magistrate and a social psychologist and former chair of Norwich Central Churches Together.

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