Monday, May 25, 2009

Reflections on the Beatitudes from the jungles of Vietnam

(My dad here on the right.)

I was perusing through Michael J. Wilkins NIV Application Commentary on Matthew, particularly the section on the Beatitudes on the Sermon on the Mount (5.3-16), when I came to the "Contemporary Significance" section of this particular section (220-226). I have always found these sections intriguing, but this biographical admission is one of the most stunning I have read, certainly for a biblical scholar. Wilkins is speaking about his frustration on trying to live up to the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes:

In my teens I...renounced my Christian identity and church... I clearly remember sitting in my youth group meetings where the characteristics of the Beatitudes were held up as ideals for us to emulate. I remember snickering in the back row with my buddies as the youth leaders cajoled us to cease being cocky and macho and become meek and mild. The four of us were three-sport athletes in high school, and the picture of Christian life that was held up for us from the Beatitudes seemed lamely pathetic. As I think back, our youthful cockiness and machismo were probably just as pathetic, but the Christian life painted by that church had nothing to offer us as a viable, robust alternative.

Not too many years after ruling out the Beatitudes for real life, I sat under the brilliant stars in a jungle in Vietnam and their significance overwhelmed me. I was a member of a cocky airborne infantry combat battalion. We were a well-trained, exceedingly efficient war machine. One night as I sat on guard duty after one especially ravaging battle, I experienced the reality of what Jesus addressed in the Beatitudes. I had killed gleefully that day. I had ripped the life from other young men without a twinge of conscience. I saw the bodies of my nineteen-and twenty-year old squad members ravaged by other young men who were our hated enemies, yet probably none of us on either side could really offer any adequate explanation for our animosity.

That night I experienced brokenness. I became poor in spirit as I recognized the depth of my depravity and shuddered as I considered the possibility of my fate before God, if he existed. I mourned at the evil in me and at the evil that I saw emerge so quickly in all of us. For the first time in my young life, I understood that I was not the invincible captain of my ship. I could be killed at any moment. So from that very night I began to realize that there was indeed a very different way to live. I did not articulate it that night in these words, but meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity, and peacemaking all became so much more clearly preferable than the way that I had been pursuing significance and success.

This made me think of my father, who served in the Marine corps, (specifically, The Beware Bravo 1st Battalion 12th Marines 3rd Marine Division) and was a forward observer, radio operator, while in Vietnam, 1967-68. I cannot and would not want to imagine the human carnage that my father's eyes experienced. I have heard my dad say on occasion that his daily expectation was that he could die at any time. That is the brutal reality of war.

Jesus' kingdom expectations are a counter measure to the way we operate within our sinful society. Turning the other cheek (Matt 5.39) and the double-edge sword that Jesus carries is located in his mouth, precisely to demonstrate that his battle against evil is waged with the power of his testimony, not the actual wielding of a sword (Rev 1.16; 2.12).

Wilkins' observations above should cause all of us to pause. Is there a better way? Ask the family members who lost a son, a brother, or a husband on the battlefield. Jesus offers an alternative if we choose to hear his message some 2,000 years later.

On this Memorial Day let us honor the huge sacrifices that men and women have made for this country. Let us honor those who paid with their very lives, and those, who like my father were fortunate enough to make it back. But at the same time, let us remember the greatest sacrifice of all, Jesus' death on a cross, and be thankful that in God's kingdom, Jesus wages war against evil and wins (Rev 17.4).

1 comment:

Jason Gardner said...

Great post! In spite of what many may think of the NIVAC, I think Wilkins' contribution to the series (which I find to be one of the best) provides a competent and engaging work that ably bridges the gap between scholarship and ministry. His illustrations and applications I always found to be instructive and enlightening.