Like the Beatitudes themselves, Erik Kolbell’s reflections on the eight statements are alternately encouraging or disturbing, but they will not leave one untouched. In What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life (Westminster John Knox Press) Kolbell draws from his rich experiences as a psychotherapist and a minister to offer a highly engaging encounter with the words of Jesus.

While not a commentary in the typical sense of delving into historical backgrounds and detailed exegesis, Kolbell’s commentary thrusts the reader into the original setting to hear anew the penetrating words of the Teacher and interprets them for life today. Kolbell encourages the reader:

Embrace the words themselves, but beyond this divine the intention behind them. Immerse yourself in that intention, let it penetrate your inmost being, wend its way into your soul, and then emerge from you in attitude and action. (p. 22)

That final step, allowing the intentions of Jesus’ words to emerge in attitude and concrete action, is the strength of this book. After an opening essay on the value of the Beatitudes, Kolbell examines each of the eight sayings and the impact they should have on everyday life.

He unfolds what it means to be merciful in a world where aggression and superlatives are glorified. Meekness is found in “our staunch refusal either to lay down in submission or to rise up in violence before those forces that oppress us” (p. 59) and is demonstrated in fearless, persistent, yet nonviolent confrontation of oppression. Spiritual poverty “has nothing to do with material poverty–and absolutely everything.” (p. 30)

Kolbell will not tolerate the self-indulgent spirituality that rationalizes, “It’s enough for me not to care about the possessions I have, I tell myself, there’s no need to part with them for the sake of others.” (p. 33) Instead, true disciples, who claim to live a life of detachment from their earthly comforts, must be willing to part with some of them for the sake of others in need.

Few have done a finer job of exhorting the faithful to let the good news impact how they interact with their world. But is there something missing here? What is the source of this significant reshaping of the external life? Isn’t Jesus also speaking of the radical change that is necessary to the interior of a life so that the exterior becomes an authentic expression of inner transformation?

Kolbell does speak of the common grace in which everyone who seeks God lives. But the call to show mercy seems more rooted in self-acceptance of one’s own flaws, with the accompanying ability to accept others, than in the shared status as divinely forgiven sinners.

While addressing the first Beatitude Kolbell is drawn irresistibly back to the idea that poverty has to do with material possessions, either their acquisition or the attitude towards them. But this seems to ignore the focus of poor in spirit. Surely being poor in spirit means more than the willingness to examine the roots of perpetual acquisition and the willingness to share. What does it mean to be poor in spirit in relation to God?

At the heart of each of the Beatitudes is the realization of our limitations and the call to turn to Him. Each of the Beatitudes requires a response; a response which must become incarnate in daily life. But at the core of the response is faith towards God.

Another of the interesting facets of the book is Kolbell’s regular attempts to find the roots for Jesus’ teaching in Hebrew Scripture. The connections are intriguing, at times even promising, but usually underdeveloped, leaving a desire for more.

At times, though, he tends to overstate Jesus’ dependency. Kolbell begins the book by stating, “Anyone who thought it was Jesus’ intention to found anew religion need look no further than the Beatitudes to realize that he was merely trying to remind his followers of the brilliance of an old one.” (p. 11)

It is doubtful that Jesus had much interest in developing the various corporate institutions of religion that have appeared over the last 2,000 years. But it would also seem that he was out to do more than draw back into a more pure form of Judaism. Rather, as with all good communicators, he was starting with something recognizable in order to move the listener to something new, and something capable of renewing them.

Kolbell is a powerful writer. With perceptive, at times almost poetic, descriptions he helps the reader relate the Beatitudes to life experiences. In one of his finest sections, Kolbell describes typical life transitions, and the loss associated with each of them, as a means of identifying the universal experience of mourning. His work is filled with poignant stories of people who live out their faith and a generous sprinkling of quotes from a wide range of religious and secular persons.

What Jesus Meant provides an excellent description of a life lived by the Beatitudes. It is capable of generating self-examination, group discussion, and, hopefully, meaningful action. But it is light on the essential connection between the disciple and God. Or, since it is the season, Kolbell clearly crosses home plate, but he missed first base.

David Benjamin is pastor at Kings Cross Church in Tullahoma, Tenn.

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