The Deep Desire of True Ambition

© Balefire9 | stockfresh.com

© Balefire9 | stockfresh.com

Recently I watched the 1947 movie, Gentleman’s Agreement for the first time. Starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire, it told the story of a reporter, Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who poses as a Jew to uncover anti-Semitism in post World War II America. In a climatic scene, Phil’s fiancée, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), realizes it’s not enough to privately abhor prejudice; you have to do something about it. In the context of Matthew 5:13-16, you have to be salt and light.

Further developing what he’d been teaching his disciples, Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world.”  In verses 5:3-10, he described the blessings available to those who were his disciples. He warned them in 5:11-12 of the persecution they would face simply because they wanted to live righteous lives on his account. Here he said you can’t fly under the radar and avoid persecution. Theirs was not to be a life of quietism and retreat from the world. Rather, as Craig Blomberg said, they “must permeate society as agents of redemption.”

The first metaphor was a statement of fact—you are salt of the earth. In our time we think of salt as something that adds flavor—as a supplement—to what we eat. But up until the invention of refrigeration, salt was an essential preservative. That is the meaning of the salt metaphor here. Jesus is saying his disciples are to be a preserving influence on earth. According to Sinclair Ferguson in The Sermon on the Mount, “Christians whose lives exhibit the qualities of the ‘blessed’ will have a preserving impact” upon society.

Salt losing its taste is another saying that makes no sense to moderns, who get pure granulated salt from a Morton’s salt container at the grocery. But the salt used in first-century Palestine was most likely taken from the Dead Sea, where it would have been mixed with other minerals. If the sodium chloride somehow dissolved out of the mixture, it would leave “salt” that had lost its “saltiness” (sodium chloride).  Good for nothing, it was tossed into the street, which was the garbage can of ancient cities.

Once again in Matthew 5:14 Jesus directly addresses the disciples, now saying they are (factually) the light of the world. It’s the same message as in the previous verse, but with a different image. In each case the target is broadly described—the earth and the world. It’s like saying, if you didn’t get it the first time, I’ll tell you again another way: “you are the light of the world.” You can’t hide; and you shouldn’t hide.

© Suzanne Tucker | 123RF.com

© Suzanne Tucker | 123RF.com

We lose some of the power of the metaphor today as we live with electricity in huge cities, where darkness is typically an annoyance or inconvenience, not something that stops human work and activity until the sun comes up the next day. Rural living or wilderness vacations get moderns closer to an understanding of the image. Until the widespread use of electricity, nightfall was DARK. A city on a hill, with its cooking fires and torches would have been an incredible contrast to the surrounding darkness. You could not hide it.

Conversely, it makes no sense to light an oil lamp and then put a basket over it. You put it on a lamp stand where it can illuminate the entire room. Now the light from an oil lamp doesn’t compete well with that from even a forty-watt light bulb. But recall how grateful you were to get that one candle lit when your electricity went out and the batteries in your flashlight were dead.

Notice also the contrast between the light of a city on a hill that can’t be hidden and that of an oil lamp that could be hidden. The disparity of the two images suggests that, whether your “light” is big or small, you shouldn’t try to hide it. It makes no sense and ultimately can’t be done. Rather, let it shine so others can see it.

The “light” is the light of righteousness in verse 5:10 that is ultimately from Jesus Christ. He is the great light who has dawned upon those dwelling in darkness (Matthew 4:16). He is the light of the world (John 8:12). His disciples, those who have been brought out of the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12-13), are to now live as children of the light (Ephesians 5:8). Again turning to Sinclair Ferguson:

Jesus is underlining the challenge, which is stated so clearly in his Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20): the whole world is to be our sphere of influence. To reduce it to anything less would be tantamount to restricting the power, authority, and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is not a Christianized “jihad,” calling for forced conversion or subjection. The light of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is seen in his disciples as they are poor in spirit, mourning for sin, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers in their daily lives with other “earth” people living in this world. “In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mathew 5:16).

Parallel to the followers of Jesus living out the beatitudes as they are salt and light to the world, members of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) put their program into action as well. Bill W. said repeatedly that “A.A. is more than a set of principles; it is a Society of alcoholics in action. We must carry the message, else we ourselves can wither and those who haven’t been given the truth will die.” You can find this statement in The Language of the Heart (p. 160), Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (p. 139), and the pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service.

In A.A. Comes of Age, Bill added that action was the magic word. “Action to carry A.A.’s message is therefore the heart of our Third Legacy of Service.” He defined A.A.  service as “anything whatever that helps us to reach a fellow sufferer—ranging from the Twelfth Step itself to a ten-cent phone call and a cup of coffee. . . .  The sum total of all these services is our Third Legacy of Service.” The Twelfth Step reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and practice these principles in all our affairs.” The linked pamphlet, A.A.’s Legacy of Service, goes on to tell some of the early history of A.A. More detail of that history, focusing on the Three Legacies, can be found in The Language of the Heart and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.

The life of service and recovery within A.A. is not identical to that described by Jesus within the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples. But I suspect they would all agree with this statement from Bill W.’s “Step Twelve” essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: “True ambition in not what we thought it was. True ambition is the deep desire to live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God.”

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”


Light in the Spiritual Darkness

© Noel Powell | 123RF.com

© Noel Powell | 123RF.com

In his commentary on Matthew, Craig Blomberg thought that no other religious discourse in history has attracted the attention devoted to the Sermon on the Mount. Both Christians and non-Christians alike have admired the teaching contained here. Leo Tolstoy believed the Sermon on the Mount was the true gospel of Christ and centered his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You on what it taught. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were influenced by Tolstoy’s teachings on nonviolence in that work. Gandhi reportedly said that when he read the Sermon on the Mount, it “went straight to my heart.” Dr. Bob, one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), said that the Sermon on the Mount was one of the “absolutely essential” passages of Scripture in the early days of A.A., before the Big Book was written. It is this last association that I want to explore here.

According to Sinclair Ferguson, the Sermon on the Mount is not about an ideal life in an ideal world. Rather, it is about “kingdom life in a fallen world.” In a similar way, the 12 Step recovery program is about sober life in a drinking world.  Whether you are trying to live out a kingdom life or a sober life, they both call for radical lifestyle changes within their respective worlds.

At times, there has been some cross-pollination between those two worlds. When Bill W. introduced Sam Shoemaker at the 20th anniversary convention for A.A., he said that “It is through Sam Shoemaker that most of A.A.’s spiritual principles have come.” In his talk, Shoemaker said he thought the great need of our time was for a vast, world-wide spiritual awakening. He believed that A.A. was one of the great signs of that spiritual awakening. He thought that A.A. had indirectly derived its “inspiration and impetus” from the insights and beliefs of the church. And he hoped the reverse would be true. “Perhaps the time has come for the church to be reawakened and revitalized by the insights and practices found in A.A.”

The Sermon on the Mount seems to be one of those places where A.A. was cross-pollinated with some of the insights from Scripture. Here are a few examples. In the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, it says that resentment is a “number one” offender. “It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease.” Three separate sections of the Sermon on the Mount could be relevant. There is one on anger (5:21-26); one on retaliation (5:38-42); and one on loving your enemies (5:43-48). Oh, and one of the Beatitudes (5:7): “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

The A.A. website said there is nothing concrete to point to when or where the saying “one day at a time” became one of the slogans of A.A. It could have originated with the Oxford Group; or it could have been originated with Bill and Dr. Bob. In the A.A. book, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers (p. 282), Dr. Bob is quoted as saying: “‘Easy Does It’ means you take it a day at a time.” A.A. historian Dick B. wrote that Anne Smith, Dr. Bob’s wife, mentioned “one day at a time” in her notebook. Both Anne, Dr. Bob and Bill W. were active with the Oxford Group in the 1930s. In his book, The Akron Genesis of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dick B. reported that one of Dr. Bob’s early sponsees, Clarence S. said Dr. Bob told him the concept for one day at a time came from Matthew 6:34.

The principle of anonymity, which is so important to A.A. (it’s even part of the program’s name, Alcoholics Anonymous), can be found here as well. The forms of piety (giving alms, prayer and fasting) that Jesus addressed in Matthew six are all tied together with anonymity. In his book Turning Point, Dick B. made the same point and even cited where Bill W. wrote on the importance of anonymity as he sought to convince A.A. to adopt what would become the Twelve Traditions. First appearing in the Grapevine in November of 1948, and then gathered into the A.A. published book, The Language of the Heart, Bill W. began his essay on Tradition Twelve:

One may say that anonymity is the spiritual base, the sure key to all the rest of our Traditions. It has come to stand for prudence and, most importantly, for self-effacement. . . . In it we see the cornerstone of our security as a movement; at a deeper spiritual level it points us to still greater self-renunciation.”

Matthew began the Sermon on the Mount simply. When Jesus saw the crowds following him, he went up onto a hill (or mountain) and sat down, signally to his disciples that he was getting ready to teach them. So they gathered round him (Matthew 5:1-2). The Greek word translated here as disciple meant someone who was learning through instruction; someone who was an apprentice. We might even suggest it could refer to a sponsee in 12 Step recovery.

There seems to be a careful, intentional structure to the Sermon on the Mount. There is a beginning (5:1-2) and ending (7:28-29) to frame his teaching. The Beatitudes (5:3-12) and the “salt and light” passage (5:13-16) serve as an introduction. Matthew 5:17-20 declares the righteousness required by those who would follow Jesus—they have to be more righteous than the most religious sect of his time, the Pharisees.

Then within a series of six antithetical teachings on anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and loving your enemies, Jesus contrasts his teaching with “what they have heard” in Matthew 5:21-48. Beginning in chapter six, Jesus contrasted true and hypocritical piety (6:1-18). Next he turns to address social and personal issues regarding money (6:19-24), how we will live (6:25-34), and how we should treat others (7:1-12).

Jesus then ended his Sermon by urging his listeners to enter into life (7:13-14). The gate leading to destruction is wide and its way easy. But the gate leading to life is narrow and the way is hard. He cautions them to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing. You’ll know them by their fruits. Those who enter the narrow gate are those who do the will of the Father—and not necessarily those who did many works in His name. If you hear his words and do them, you will have a solid foundation.

On November 10, 1948, General Omar Bradley gave an address in celebration of Armistice Day. His words fit here as well as speaking to the timeliness of spending time reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount.

With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world by its moral adolescents. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have many men of science; too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Man is stumbling blindly through a spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.

You can find a series of further articles that look at passages from the Sermon on the Mount under the category link by that name. This series is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention in seminary to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery.