The Sermon on the Mount for Factory Workers
In the summer of 1985, I was working as a platemaker in the darkroom of a printing company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In August I would leave to begin studying at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. I had recently learned New Testament Greek and was eagerly reading the gospels in their original language. At the same time, I was thinking a lot about my “strange vocation” to bring the word of God to working people in our day. Here is something I wrote in one of my notebooks at the time.
The Sermon on the Mount for Factory Workers (A Meditation Written 6/25/1985)
During my time here at the printing company I have agonized with those who hate their jobs and their lives. What can I say to them, especially to those who feel they’ve been wrongfully deprived of promotions and raises? I don’t feel at all right about encouraging them to seek other employment, especially the older ones. They just get more and more bitter, and while they seem to appreciate being able to talk about it, it doesn’t help them. I have felt so powerless! Christ’s main work was among the poor and underprivileged, and He helped them. He uplifted them, gave them strength and courage to face their daily trials, showed them that life could be an adventure. But how do I do that? How can I encourage people in a modern industrial setting? In those cases where their grievances are severe and seemingly based in fact, perhaps I can try to influence management to improve conditions. But that isn’t really the issue. What these people are complaining about is the daily grind, their disappointment at the meaninglessness of their work lives and a pervading cynicism about the work itself and about their importance in the overall picture. I have always felt that, yes, Christ would make them feel comfortable talking to Him about their dissatisfactions like I do, but that would only be the beginning. In His own remarkable way He would fasten His eyes upon them and say, “Follow me!” And by the sheer power of His personality and philosophy He would give them a whole new tour of the plant. He would show them their work in a new way—give them a new revelation of their importance, individually and in the total picture. Somehow He would get them to stand taller. At first, yes, they would complain about their lives, but by the time Jesus was done with them, they would be men and women! They would be empowered! They would want more than anything to get up in the morning and pursue their calling at work!
I come back repeatedly to that vision of Christ in the modern workplace. I am convinced that, for all His compassion, He would not feel any more pity for the working man or woman today than He felt for the impoverished, subjugated peoples of His own day. He would call them, not just feel sorry for them. He would reveal to them the possibilities for great and noble living, right where they are. He would not shake His head and sigh and agree with them that life sucks.
But how would He proceed? I have been unable to answer this question. I myself do shake my head and pity my fellow workers. I do not know what else to do. How do I cross over into that dynamic vision I have of Jesus, of what He would do? How do I stop feeling sorry for them and start genuinely helping them?
I have been startled in the past week by my emerging Greek translation of the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps it is because Jesus’ words are stronger in the Greek, more freighted with meaning. Or perhaps, just because I am translating it, I am thinking more deeply about the message He’s communicating than I normally do if I’m just reading it in the English. But for whatever reason, I am being startled anew by the Sermon on the Mount.
Here is Christ sitting on a hillside talking to poor people. They are always going to be poor. Their lives are tedious. Their country is occupied by a foreign government. This hill from which Jesus is speaking is full of folks just like the ones I work with. They’re nobody. Nothing of real importance is ever going to happen to them. They’ve got nothing in life and nothing at all to look forward to. Their children’s destiny will be the same. And their grandchildren’s.
I cannot believe Christ’s audacity, what He says to them. How awe-struck these “nobodies” must be as they listen. He starts right out talking about how to live a great life of high adventure. Without hesitation, He claims that they can become a tremendous force for good without ever leaving home or switching occupations. He says that the tide is going to turn in human affairs, and they are the ones who are going to turn it! Oppression, injustice, and hatred have had their day. Now. . . here on this hillside, in the hearts of these “nobodies”. . . the change is going to start. It’s going to take years—maybe thousands of years—but it’s going to start here with them. They are the ones who will bring this light to the world! They are the salt that will season humanity! They are the heroes and heroines of God’s story! God knows them—each one individually—and is calling them to change the world!
More startling yet is the means by which they will accomplish their great mission. There is no pity in Jesus’ sermon for the awfulness of their present existence. He challenges them instead to use the worst that happens to them as a means of strengthening their relationship with God. He does not tremble with rage at the injustice of their being compelled to carry heavy burdens for their Roman taskmasters. Do more than is required of you, He counsels. Go beyond the limits of law and compulsion. Discover the freedom of love and forgiveness.
But what is really surprising is that it happened. The “nobodies” did their job well. How do we know about Jesus today? How do we know about His Sermon on the Mount? How did Christianity become a major historical force? Because of the “nobodies.” They remembered what He said on that hillside. They talked about it, argued over it, were thunder-struck by it. Some of them even tried to live by it. And these were truly “nobodies.” Other than Christ’s few close disciples, we don’t have the faintest idea who they were, what their names were, or what they did to advance the cause. Most of them probably didn’t leave town, nor did they switch jobs. But somehow they changed the world!
The change, however, has only been partial. Christ knew it would take time, and He was satisfied with the fact that each generation would make its small contribution to the turning of the tide. The world is politically and religiously different now from what it was when He preached on that hillside, and His Galilean worker friends are to be credited with the beginning phases of that world transformation. But the overturning of oppression, injustice, and hatred has not been accomplished, and that was the work Christ assigned to His followers in all ages, starting with His hillside listeners. The sublime adventure of Jesus continues with us.
His word still goes out to the “nobodies”: the people who have nothing in life and nothing at all to look forward to. The people whose lives are tedious and who can’t do much about it. The people who have nothing more important to think about than their petty quarrels and complaints. These are the people Jesus still calls by name and says, “Follow me!” He wills to make them the unsung heroes of this era. He has plans for them in the factories, highways, and office complexes of the modern world. He claims, without hesitation, that they can become a tremendous force for good without ever leaving home or switching occupations. He is counting on them to change the world!