By Matthew L. Skinner
Eye-opening numbers about the Super Bowl…and how they stack up against other things going on in America.
If the outcome of Sunday’s Super Bowl comes down to the game’s final play, and you find yourself inclined to ask Jesus to help your favorite team win, remember: It’s quite possible he doesn’t know squat about tackle football.
At least, when we read the opening sentences of his Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew 5:1-12), it seems his values are light years away from the confident and muscular ethos that football teams rely on for success. He directs attention in this passage toward the weak, powerless, and vulnerable elements of humanity. Consider these some of the groups he embraces:
• The poor in spirit: referring either to humble people or to those who are broken and have lost hope.
• Those who mourn: those who suffer loss and the feeling of emptiness that follows.
• The meek: those who are gentle and unobtrusive, who refuse to use power over others as a tool to make things happen.
• The merciful: people who willingly surrender their privileges or otherwise go out of their way to improve others’ well-being.
• Those who are persecuted: people whose refusal to give up their quest for truth or virtuousness results in the taking away of their rights, wholeness, or dignity.
Careful, Jesus, or you’ll get blamed for contributing to the wussification of America.
The kinds of people Jesus highlights tend to dwell beneath society’s radar. They often stay out, or are kept out, of public view. They possess little power. Most of us can find no good reason for aspiring to join these groups.
Jesus Announces His Plans
What does Jesus say about these people? All of them are “blessed” — not a helpful word, since we don’t use it much in ordinary speech. Another possible translation is “happy,” but not in a cheery, shallow sense. Think of “blessed” as “unburdened” or “satisfied.” Jesus, then, names categories of people who usually appear in the eyes of others as needy, harassed, or scorned, and he declares them to be the opposite. Once he gets to them, they become secure and complete. They receive grand promises: comfort, mercy, intimacy with God, and so on.
Since these verses present Jesus’ first teachings in Matthew’s Gospel, they set the stage for all that follows. They lay foundations for how we might understand Jesus, his message, and his priorities.
Several different ways of understanding this part of the Sermon on the Mount have been proposed. Some have taken Jesus’ declarations as ethical instructions, as if he tells people to shape up and live humbly and mercifully if they want to receive God’s gifts. Others see Jesus trying to expose where true contentment resides, not in self-preservation and striving for more, but ironically in a humble embrace of simplicity, suffering, and disadvantage.
I side, however, with a third perspective. Jesus, here at the outset of his public life, identifies the kinds of people he intends to “bless.” Who will be made content and gratified by participating in what Jesus offers now and in the future? The kinds of people who suffer brokenness and grief. The people taken advantage of by friends and strangers. The people who always come out on the losing side, whether the field of play involves their economic well-being, their social respectability, or their physical health. Jesus announces he intends to invert our taken-for-granted expectations about where happiness and achievement can be found.
The Things We Value
In drawing a contrast between football and those whom Jesus targets for his benefits, I don’t mean to read too much into the spirit or principles of the game. (It is, after all, just a game, right?) Nor is my point to single out the all-American sport as a unique offender. Football merely offers an expression of society’s collective values: domination and violence, but also teamwork and incredible athleticism. Not all of these lead us in the wrong directions. Yet, the game’s focus on sheer force and control — advantages that mourners, the meek, and truly impoverished souls can hardly imagine enjoying — highlights Jesus’ efforts to reorder our values through his commitment to fill up the very people we assumed were destined for emptiness.
Especially this week, football also provides a token of our society’s obsession with power as a close partner of runaway wealth. Organized football is an expensive game, just ask any rec league organizers or high school principals. Maybe the high costs and sense of extravagance are a reason why football looms large in American identity and civil religion. We’ve got resources, and we aren’t afraid to use them. Need helmets? America can afford lots of those. Lose a linebacker to a knee injury? We’ve got plenty of huge, fast, strong guys to take his place. Want a memorable pregame ceremony? We can do something cool with a bunch of those stealth fighter planes we aren’t using today. (Note to Jesus: Please don’t let them use drones for the flyover this year.)
If you want to see real wealth on Sunday, look elsewhere in the stadium. The commissioner of the NFL has “earned” a salary of $30 million in one year, working on behalf of the rich owners of the league’s 32 teams. Full-service luxury suites for the big game are renting in the neighborhood of $500,000, and some could go for much more in secondary markets. God knows what a beer in a souvenir cup will cost you. All this will be taking place less than ten miles from Newark, where, according to recent figures, over a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. How many Newark residents would be able to watch the game in person?
Talking about values can be slippery. Certainly we don’t all value the same things in the same ways. Our individually-held values are composed of unique mixtures of our commitments, virtues, and vices. But Americans live in an environment that too often trains us to look in the wrong places for definitions of success and for evidence of the good life. When that happens, we risk misunderstanding where God’s true priorities lie.
That’s something worth praying about. Do so in any way you choose. Tebowing is optional.
For Further Reading
William J. Baker, Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, 2007.
Gregg Easterbrook, The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America, 2013.
Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920, 2003.
“Pope Francis Urges Davos Elite at World Economic Forum to Serve Humanity with Wealth,” The Huffington Post, 21 January 2014.
For Further Reflection
- Who are the poor in spirit, the meek, or the persecuted in contemporary society? Can you put specific names, faces, and conditions to those you think are included in these categories?
- What behaviors and goals, exactly, does your society value? How does it celebrate, enshrine, or otherwise promote what it values?
- It’s easy to criticize “power” as something that leads to people’s oppression. But what ways of exercising power, or what types of power, have beneficial effects and are truly necessary to protect or improve the lives of people who are vulnerable or broken?
- Why doesn’t Jesus promise that everyone will be “blessed”? Why is or isn’t it right for him to single out these specific groups of people?
Matthew L. Skinner is a native Californian who now braves Minnesota winters, serving as Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. His research interests focus on the Gospels and the book of Acts, the cultural world reflected in the New Testament, and the Bible’s potential for shaping the theological imaginations of its readers. Sought-after nationally as a teacher for conferences and congregations, he helped create the free site EnterTheBible.org and contributes frequently to WorkingPreacher.org. He’s part of the team that produces Sermon Brainwave, a free weekly podcast for preachers and others exploring the biblical texts assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His most recent book is The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament, and he coedited Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible. For more information and more of his writings, visit MatthewSkinner.org.
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