In an odd coincidence, I happened to be preparing for a class on the Sermon on the Mount at the exact moment when CNN, playing softly in the background, replayed Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s celebrated final briefing on the War in the Gulf. I tried to continue studying but could not; Stormin’ Norman proved entirely too engaging.

After watching the briefing, I turned back to Matthew, and it was then the irony sank in. I had just seen the Beatitudes in reverse. Blessed are the strong. Blessed are the triumphant in spirit. Blessed are the liberated. Blessed are the conquering soldiers.

By no means do I mean to disparage General Schwarzkopf, who embodies perfectly the qualities of strength, leadership, and confidence that our world honors. Rather, the juxtaposition served to remind me of the shock waves the sermon must have caused among its original audience, Jews in first-century Palestine. To a downtrodden people obsessed with emancipation from Roman rule, Jesus gave startling and unwelcome advice. If a Roman soldier slaps you, turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Rejoice in persecution.

“Happy are the bankrupt and the homeless,” Jesus might as well have said. “Blessed are the Kuwaitis under Iraqi rule, and the Kurdish refugees.” “Happy are the unhappy.”

We could dismiss such sayings as rhetorical excess except that they lie at the heart of Jesus’ message and express themes that many of his parables merely expand on. Blessed is Lazarus (the poor in spirit), and the Good Samaritan (the merciful), and the Publican and the Prodigal Son (those who hunger and thirst for righteousness), and the mongrel guests at the wedding feast (the meek). To put it mildly, Jesus was a master ...

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