the Sermon on the Mount – anything but spiritual escapism

Christianity is often regarded as a religion for spiritual escapists — people who feel they’ve been served up such a raw deal here and now that they’d rather trade it in for ‘pie in the sky when they die’.

That’s certainly how German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw it.

According to Nietzsche, Christianity is anti-life, anti-body and anti-pleasure. All because it’s fundamentally anti-materialistic — something that he traces back to what he calls its ‘slave morality’ and consequent ressentiment against whatever’s strong and noble.

This view is widely reflected in the way Christianity is often portrayed in popular culture.

From The Simpsons to cream cheese commercials, those who trust Jesus are typically cast as essentially negative — saying ‘No’ to life and its pleasures because we’re ultimately interested in escaping it in favour of something with harps and clouds.

Worse, more than a few Christians buy into this misunderstanding!

And it’s definitely a misunderstanding.

It’s roots aren’t sunk in biblical soil so much as that fertilised by the thought of the Greek philosopher Plato. (And in my opinion it’s better to sacrifice your children in the fire than be a Platonist.)

Even where Christianity might be expected to be most spiritually escapist — namely, in the arena of money and possessions — it proves to be thoroughly materialistic.

At least, that’s the trajectory Jesus launches us on when he turns directly from outlining true piety to explaining how we relate to our ‘stuff’ in Matthew 6.19-34.

If you find it hard to swallow my suggestion that Jesus is thoroughly materialistic — taking matter much more seriously than we do — then consider verse 24:

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Jesus doesn’t say this because he thinks matter — or wealth — is somehow evil or corrupt. He’s not a Platonist.

He says it because he knows it’s good — so good that it becomes like a tractor beam for our hearts and eclipses everything else in our vision.

We don’t believe him, of course. We think we can have it both ways.

But Jesus is supremely realistic about how our twisted desires latch onto stuff and elevate it to god-like status.

That’s why the remedy he proscribes — in line with the prophetic critique of idolatry — is not to renounce our stuff (that would let world-denying Platonism in by the back door).

Instead, we’re to observe our Father’s generous provision for all of his creation and entrust ourselves to him. For we know that magnifying him — pursuing his kingdom and righteousness — won’t lessen or diminish us. It’ll fulfil us!

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