Since our readership has rapidly expanded over the past few years, and especially during the past few months, we want to take some time this summer to draw attention to earlier articles for those who may have missed them. Today’s article was one from early last year, yet its clarity in discussing the issues found in the Wisdom Booklets lends it to be an excellent post for re-issue .
Sometime last year I told my wife that the pastoral staff of our church were preparing a series on the Sermon on the Mount. Having not grown up in the ATI world (in the Advanced Training Institute), I had not anticipated her less-than-enthusiastic response: “Yeah, I’ve had enough teaching on THAT to last me my whole life.” And it’s true. If you are ex-ATI like my wife, it’s likely that you were educated in part through Bill Gothard’s 54-module “Wisdom Books,” which uses these three chapters of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaching as a framework for an entire homeschool curriculum.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the Wisdom Books, but in case you’re not, let me illustrate. Did you know that you can take one verse from the Sermon on the Mount and use it to teach not only Bible, but also science, history, social skills, ethics… everything? Take Module 15, for instance: “Ye are the light of the world.” These words of Christ become a launch point for discussions on the Church as a light during the Crusades, the science of the eyeball, the medicinal value of sunlight, biblical citations for each color of the prism, and my personal favorite… found on page 621:
“Learn ten ways to direct the eyes of others to your countenance.”
In other words, if you’re going to be a light, how do you get other people to notice it? There are several suggested tips, including incessant smiling, choosing colors which enhance your skin tones, and avoiding “eye traps.” An eye trap is something that draws attention to a place of the body it shouldn’t be drawing attention to (thereby dimming your light). An accompanying quiz asks, “Are you able to identify the eye traps in these pictures?” As an outsider to the Wisdom Books, I must admit that all six of the women pictured here look decidedly Puritanical to me, but my wife has been well-trained and can identify all six. Can you?
But the bigger question is this: Is this really what the Sermon on the Mount is about? No doubt there is some wisdom in the Wisdom Books, and it took great creativity and effort to frame the different subjects and academic disciplines—from math to history to civics—around Jesus’ famous sermon. If you’re an alumnus of the curriculum, I suspect you learned some helpful things and are likely to remember some positive stories, activities, and illustrations.
But the overall effect is concerning, because of what becomes of the actual Sermon on the Mount. When we force these verses to say things well beyond their original intention, we lose the powerful essence of the sermon’s original meaning. Imagine bringing home an elaborate vintage oil painting, hanging it on your office wall, and then using it as a bulletin board for your various post-it notes, photos, and to-do lists. The pushpins may hold, but the add-ons will quickly obscure the intended beauty underneath.
In the case of the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount, commonly called the Beatitudes, this message is crucial. By using these verses in booklets 3 through 12 to portray character qualities to pursue and principles to master, the Wisdom Books examine the post-its at the expense of the canvas, and all the extras leave us with something less than the words of Christ. As much as the subject matter may be interesting or even necessary for a student to learn, Jesus didn’t bless the meek so we could understand gastric ulcers or bless the mourning so we could use pi to calculate the circumference of Ninevah.
Although a more novel approach, Gothard isn’t the only person to present the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) as a list of characteristics to pursue, a sort of “Eight Commandments for the New Kingdom.” But consider this. If this is simply a presentation of the new Christian morality—the priority qualities of the ‘new regime’—then in the Beatitudes we essentially have an eight-step process on how to engineer your way into the Kingdom. Just be humble, and you’ll be blessed. Just be a peacemaker, and you’ll be blessed. I appreciate Dallas Willard’s words that this approach creates “If not salvation by works, then possibly salvation by attitude.” I’ll be blessed if I can gain the right attitude or—better yet—contrive the right circumstances of sadness or insult or persecution. The usually-unintended result paints Jesus’ words as a place of guilt, a place of excessive law, a place of higher standards and measuring up, not a place of good news, and the message that no one is beyond beatitude.
Stripping away the clutter of post-its for a moment, consider the canvas. If you’re reading this article, it’s probable that you, like my wife, have lost the luster of these verses amongst the educational accoutrements of the Wisdom Books. Perhaps your exposure to the Beatitudes began with that unfortunate parking lot people-judging assignment and ended with a map of U.S. pollen concentrations.
But what if the Beatitudes are far more straightforward than that? In fact, what if they aren’t about the earning of God’s favor at all? When Jesus spoke to this original audience on the mountain, he wasn’t creating a new religious manifesto for them—or us—to attain to. He wasn’t telling them—or us—how to earn points with God. Instead, what if Jesus is saying that in all these places and more—meekness, mourning, persecution, and all the rest—through him we can experience the Kingdom? It’s essential to grasp the gospel message that if a person is in Christ, they already have his favor and blessing. The blessing does not need to be elicited or engineered by maintaining the proper attitudes or circumstances. And if this is true, then the Beatitudes must not be about the earning of God’s favor, but about the experience of his Kingdom. Jesus is explaining the places where we can enjoy and experience the blessings of the Kingdom that are already ours in Christ.
Far from being a place of jaded do-goodism, the original audience of Jesus’ words would have been floored by this. Jesus is speaking on the fringe of Israel to the fringes of Judaism and the very people who would have been defined by the society as the not-blessed. Matthew 4:24 describes the very audience of this sermon as “all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering with severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed.” These were people who knew instinctively to step out of the way when a good Jew came down the street, who knew not to make eye contact because of their condition or their disease, who didn’t hold the positions of power or the successful jobs.
From this milieu came a crowd of disciples; they were healed, gathered, and taught. If the Beatitudes don’t make sense to us, perhaps we need to scoot up into the crowd alongside these folks and listen to Jesus’ words like they would have heard them. “Jesus is saying we’re blessed! We who would never be ritually clean, we who wouldn’t be admitted to the temple, we who have had to go through the streets yelling ‘Unclean! Unclean!’—this new Rabbi is saying that we can experience the Kingdom. That we can be called blessed. That no one is beyond beatitude!” Jesus turned the culture’s kingdom-conceptions upside down with these words. In a culture (not unlike ours) where religious people assumed that virtuous lives would be marked by exterior successes, Jesus encouraged a mountainside full of have-nots with a radically different definition of blessedness: There’s hope for everyone! The Gospel of Christ provides a way for outsiders to be redefined as insiders.
Sadly we have dissected the message to death. It’s easier to indict the Wisdom Books because they did it with greater magnitude, but we are all prone to add to the message, to miss the exuberance of the amazing message of a “gospel for misfits.”
Yes, the Beatitudes are qualities we’re called to pursue. Both the Old and New Testaments call us in many places to live meekly, to be peacemakers, to pursue a pureness of heart. But the beatitudinal nuance is this: I pursue these things not to secure the blessing of God, but to experience the nearness of the Kingdom. The more you pursue the Kingdom the more you’ll see these things in your life, and the more you see these things in your life, the more you’ll experience the Kingdom.
You may love the Wisdom Books and look upon them with great nostalgia. I’m simply trying to get past the curricular exercises to the awe and beauty of the message itself: If we are in Christ, we already have God’s blessing, his beatitude. We don’t want to miss the wonder of the canvas underneath. Jesus is sharing the great news of a Kingdom turned upside down, a new regime that makes a way for the have-nots to have it all. And in the Sermon on the Mount, that’s the greatest wisdom.
 Wisdom Booklet 5, p. 153: “How is our health affected by not yielding our personal rights?”
 Wisdom Booklet 4, p. 131-132. The linear progression of thought here is that mourning means repentance, that repentance often utilized sackcloth, as demonstrated in Jonah 3—and while we’re at it, let’s do some math!
 I take verse 11 as a thought connected with the ‘salt and light’ passage in vv. 13-16. However, if you prefer to treat it as the last beatitude instead, then there are nine, not eight.
 Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn…”
 Matthew 5:11: “Blessed are you when people insult you…”
 Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness…”
 Wisdom Booklet 1, p. 10, “How to Develop the Spiritual Skill of ‘Seeing’ People as Jesus Saw Them”
 Wisdom Booklet 11, p. 450.