If you’re one of the few who has been holding out on Paul Zahl’s The Merciful Impasse: The Sermon on the Mount for People Who’ve Crashed (and Burned), the audio collection that Mockingbird released this past Fall, hold out no longer! Here are a few soundbites to whet your appetite. The only aspect of the set they don’t capture is the truly laugh-out-loud humor:
What I’m really talking about is the roots of the problem of being human. Why are we the way we are? What causes us to be intractably defensive, and resistant, and feeling terribly vulnerable to people’s judgments and criticisms? Because, in fact, we live inside. The true “battle of life” (an expression Charles Dickens used) is inward.
This is the power of the Sermon on the Mount: Christ pitches it high. People think because I talk about grace that I’m lowering the demand of the Law – quite to the contrary. I’m increasing the bar; I’m lifting the bar of the demand so you can earlier begin to say, “I cannot do it” …I’m telling you that the demand actually is higher than you know, and that allows you to go on your knees more quickly.
Deep down, we’re so incredibly consumed with anxieties and fears. And so the point of the Sermon on the Mount is simply to express the truth of human life – that the truth of human life is an inward conflict between what I ought to be and what I am, and this causes enormous anxiety, fear, trouble, guilt, and anger, just to name a few. When I talk about this, people think I’m saying that He’s attacking you. But all He’s doing is exposing the fact that before the Law, or the standard of God, the only possible response is humility. Before what God is really speaking to human beings, instead of trying harder, the only possible way of dealing with it is humility.
The thing about the Law, or the demand of God, in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, is that it is a killer. It kills all attempts to establish one’s own self in any safe or identified or autonomous sense. Jesus is not about divorce here; He is about the idea that we all have that we have anything to stand on. And this is why it is so very heavy. The Sermon on the Mount is not an attempt to pitch it high; it’s an attempt to pitch it so high that no one could possibly even begin to fulfill it. Then, as T.S. Eliot says in the Four Quartets: “The only way to live is on your knees because humility is endless.” So the purpose here is not to attack you if you’ve been divorced, or to upset you if you’re contemplating a divorce, or to make you feel guilty if, like 60% of everybody else, you’ve had a divorce. The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to demolish all attempts to believe that we have anything of our own that we can achieve or contribute to the divine equation.
The moment that I recognize that I by my own efforts to atone, or to expiate, or to do better, or to fly right, or to do more, or to work harder, or to be nicer, are doomed to perdition – at that moment there is a release. And the release spells joy, power, significance, exuberance, happiness, creativity, love, and – come to find out – holiness.
As an added bonus, we’ve embedded the first talk from the series, “Introducing the Schoolmaster”: