Eric Elnes: Did Jesus Leave Us a Mixtape?


If Jesus could record a mixtape to share with the world, what do you suppose would be on it? Actually, some scholars believe Jesus already made one.

Known in as the Sermon on the Mount -- or Sermon on the Plain, depending on whether you are reading Matthew's gospel (Mount) or Luke's (Plain) -- this "sermon" is so long and densely packed, covering such a wide variety of topics, that some believe it isn't a single sermon at all. Rather, it's a compilation of subjects that Jesus was particularly fond of preaching about, each line or two representing a thumbnail sketch of a full sermon.

Whether or not scholars are correct in this assumption, treating the lines of Jesus' most famous "sermon" like a the titles of a mixtape offers a surprisingly helpful way of understanding what was most important to Jesus -- and his followers.

In the words of John Cusack in the film High Fidelity, the making of a great mixtape is more difficult than it appears. "You've got to kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you've got to take it up a notch, but you don't want to blow your wad so then you've got to cool it off. There are a lot of rules." Looking over Jesus' own mixtape (I'm following Luke 6 here) you might think that John Cusack was a biblical scholar! Jesus' Sermon on the Plain follows a similar thematic pattern -- three "set lists" that work together to express a powerful and revolutionary set of ideas.

I. The Attention-Grabber

What grabs the attention in the first mixtape set (Luke 5:20-26), known popularly as "Blessings and Woes," is the dramatic reversal of fortune found commonly in blues music. The "woes" titles make this most plain: 

"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry" 

"Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep" 

"Woe to you who are rich, for you have (already) received your consolation" (Luke 5:24-25)

These titles could be from the set list of blues musicians from Robert Johnson to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yet just as the blues isn't ultimately depressing, neither is Jesus' message. Have you heard the joke about what happens if you play a blues song backwards? The guy sobers up, gets released from jail, and his wife ends the affair and returns to him! (The same has been said of country music, only the guy's dog is resurrected as well...) Thankfully, you don't have to play Jesus' mixtape backwards to find reasons for hope. You just have to play the Blessings portion. Strong messages of hope for the struggling are found in "golden oldies" like:

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" 

"Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh" 

"Blessed are you when people hate you ...for surely your reward is great in heaven"

"Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled" (Luke 5:20-21)

Whether the reversal is from struggle to satisfaction, or from satisfaction to struggle, taken as a whole the message of this portion of Jesus' mixtape is a bit like the weather in Nebraska: Whatever it's like now -- glorious or gloomy -- just wait a few minutes and it will change.

On the surface, Jesus' message may sound a bit nihilistic -- like good and bad is going to happen to you no matter what you do. Yet I think it's more nuanced and realistic. What Jesus is saying in about the most dramatic way he can is: Don't pin your happiness -- or your faith -- on what the world throws at you, good or bad. Don't wait to laugh until life hands you a reasons to laugh, for instance, because those reasons will vanish soon enough and laughter can be a powerful instrument of social critique. And don't put off being content until your bank account is full. When you discover that God's Realm is as fully present in your poverty as in your wealth, it's always yours.

II. Kicking It Up A Notch

The second section of Jesus' mixtape sounds a bit like Louis Armstrong, featuring variations on "What a Wonderful World." If you've seen the film, Good Morning, Vietnam, where the song is juxtaposed with "real world" images of violent warfare, then you know how a sunny song like "What a Wonderful World" can leave you feeling uncomfortable. The song reminds us that we are nowhere close to living in the world it calls into being. Jesus' mixtape has a similar impact in this set, with vintage numbers like:

"Love your enemies" 

"Do good to those who hate you"

"Bless those who curse you"

"Give to anyone who begs from you" 

"If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also" (Luke 5:27-30)

In these numbers, Jesus is painting a picture of the wonderful world intended for us. Yet as simple and beautiful as they sound, these songs are incredibly hard to sing along with. Even the virtuoso's among us tend to lose the rhythm or sing them off-key. In this respect, they are more bluesy than the first set of songs.

Curiously, Jesus introduces this set with the line, "But I say to you who listen..." When we really consider the world Jesus is calling into being, we begin to realize just how much our deepest struggles -- including those we tend to blame on God -- are self-inflicted. For instance, many people say they can't believe in a God who allows poverty, hunger, and violence to afflict so many in our world. Yet how much of an affliction would violence be in a world that took Jesus' message to "love your enemies" and "do good to those who hate you" with even a modicum of resolve? How afflicting would poverty and hunger be in world that gave more than lip service to Jesus' admonition to "give to anyone who begs of you," or to lend to others even when you can expect no return on your loan? (v. 34)

In this portion of Jesus' mixtape, the fist we have often shaken at God turns on us and we begin shaking it at ourselves. Jesus has "kicked it up a notch" by revealing life's harshest and most condemning reality. Yet just as we're ready to fall into despair, Jesus cools it off in the third section, offering us a way to live faithfully -- and realistically -- even in a world that is so far from God's ideal.

III. Cooling It Off, Offering Hope

In the third section of Jesus' mixtape we find tunes like:

"Do not judge, and you will not be judged"

"Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned"

"Forgive, and you will be forgiven" 

"God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked" (Luke 5:35-37)

While we do a poor job of loving our enemies and blessing those who curse us, these final songs offer hope as they are ones we can actually sing along with. Mostly they are within our abilities because God sings the verses and we join in only on the refrain. In music, a "refrain" is a repeated line or musical phrase that ties the song together. Of course, in the rest of life "refrain" has a different meaning, as in "to abstain from the impulse to say or do something." Both meanings are suggested in this third set.

Even though we live in a far-from-wonderful world, when we refrain from judging others, we ourselves are not judged. When we refrain from condemning others, neither does God condemn us. And when we forgive others (i.e., refrain from exacting vengeance on those who have wronged us) we find ourselves forgiven. And we discover that the song, "God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked" was written just for us. Certainly, this unimaginable kindness was the central meaning of Jesus' life and ministry, his death and resurrection.

So there is Jesus' mixtape. What mixtape are you recording with your life?

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