It may seem lame at the outset (at least to me it does given this forum where folks usually contribute such beautiful life and faith insights), but my post is basically a book recommendation.
I have been loving Richard Rohr’s latest book titled Jesus’ Alternative Plan: The Sermon on the Mount. I’ve tried telling people what I like about it, and my words never seem to do it justice. I’m enamored with the mixture of intellect and mystery that Rohr weaves together to paint a picture of just how counter-cultural Jesus was in his time - and how “alternative” his life and teachings appear to our current social, economic, political, and religious systems.
Honestly, after the first third of the book, I was hooked… but nervous - nervous because I’ve heard “teachings” about how Jesus’ “radicalness” is this unattainable standard that we just need to try harder to mimic and hope we can reap the benefits by rejecting/forgoing anything the world would offer us. Yuck. But that’s not where Rohr goes. To him, Jesus changed human imagination. Jesus allowed us to really imagine a world outside some of our most messed up systems, and he let us imagine the deep spiritual advantages to growing roots outside the status quo. Forget claiming to be God - Jesus’ declaration that we are all winners within the Reign of God (here-and-now kingdom of heaven language) is what got him killed.
It has me thinking: I pride myself on trying to live in reality. But which reality? Where is my imagination for a more attractive alternative? Do I sense it? Can I help create it? Jesus’ teachings gently turn us away from a conventional way of seeing ourselves and the systems we’re stuck in, and Rohr makes the case that the Jesus Revolution’s main cry across history might be best summed up as “Identity, justice, and community.” That’s a lot different from the individualistic “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” isn’t it? Jesus is about restoring creation and reconciling all things. If I’m honest, while that sounds nice, it also sounds messy, so I either forget about it or choose not to think creatively about restoration and reconciling.
I want to put 100 quotes in this post, but a major value of the book to me is how Rohr turns Jesus’ parables into these images and visions. Concepts don’t transform us. We need images. Rohr says, “Until we can reimagine our God, ourselves, or our world, nothing ever happens.” I cognitively know it, but I didn’t really see how my modern Western culture has given me robust philosophies of progress, bigness, clarity, looking good, security, success, goals, winners and losers. Jesus’ Jewish culture wouldn’t have recognized half these philosophies, but it’s clear from his teachings that he wouldn’t give his allegiance to these cultural phenomenon. So why am I tempted to?
After showing the mysterious depth within a few parables in Matthew, Rohr offers a tiny summary that serves as the only quote I’ll include here: “Remember this: There are always two worlds. The world as it operates is power; the world as it should be is love. The secret of Reign-of-God life is how we can live in both — simultaneously. The world as it is will always be built on power, ego, and success. Yet, we also must keep our eyes intently on the the world as it should be. Power apart from love leads to brutality, but love that does not engage with power is mere sentimentality. A lot of Christians today are still trapped in one or the other.
See, Rohr doesn’t say go be a hermit in the desert. There is hope that we can exist in the world as it is while living within and believing a much bigger truth — and a much bigger story. After reading this book, I can tell you I’m more compelled by the metaphor in Matthew 13 where Jesus says, “The Reign of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which someone has found; he hides it again, goes off in his joy, sells everything he owns, and buys the field.” In a spiritual sense, I’m reinvigorated to want to stumble upon that treasure, go off in my joy, and then make sure I inhabit the place where that treasure lay. Can I imagine the treasure? God, grant me the imagination!
For those who want, I’ve included an untitled and uncredited poem-like introduction at the very, very beginning of the book. For a long time I didn’t get why Rohr included it. I thought the book was supposed to just be about convincing me they killed Jesus because he offered such a radical re-ordering of his culture’s priorities. But now I see that the book is really about what we believe. Not “believe” inflexibly or staunchly or in a manner of self-preservation or self-promotion. But rather the book is about what we believe is valuable to search after and orient our lives toward. Jesus’ wisdom is just interesting concepts unless we believe them. Then they’re potentially really transformative. May you be inspired to consider how “alternative” Jesus really was — and really is.
We know everything today
and believe almost nothing.
It is not reason that drives our lives,
but passion or the search for it.
It is not words or concepts,
but living images that grab our souls.
It is not what we know that haunts us at the end,
but what we did not know and don’t know yet.
We must make friends with the unknowing.
What you know is just ten thousand different things.
But what you believe
is what you pay attention to,
what you care about,
what finally lives and matters in you.
What you believe is not one of ten thousand things,
it is that which sees ten thousand things.
It is not what you know that matters,
or changes anything:
It is what you believe
— and believe all the way through.