Those who recite the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer, up until the 2019 edition, have traditionally prayed these words: “O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.” The Litany or General Supplication employs similar language and in the prayer it contains the church addresses each member of the Trinity, asking God to have mercy on them for several specific sins. Evil, mischief, blindness of heart, pride, vain-glory, hypocrisy, envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness– they are the sort of things that might raise eyebrows in ordinary conversation. But in this context, we are not only undisturbed by such an admission, to hear the congregation recite it in unison offers a kind of comfort.
Anybody who has a job is familiar with that yearly ritual known as the performance review. Performance reviews are a common occupational liturgy. Like worship, they usually begin with praise. Your boss tells you the things you do well. But we all know what comes next. The real point of the meeting is the short list of areas where you could do better. I’ve been told that a good performance review is both summative and formative. They are supposed to affirm and inspire. But it never seems to work that way with me. Somehow the pleasure of the praise is always canceled out by the pain of the criticism.
Of course, employers aren’t the only ones who engage in this kind of ritual. We all got report cards when we were in school. Mine always included a section where the teacher checked the box that said “needs improvement.” Somehow knowing that I needed improvement never seemed to motivate me towards improvement. Instead of being the searchlight which illuminates a better path it felt more like a spotlight whose only purpose was to show me my shortcomings. It did not inspire me. It just made me feel bad.
Maybe it’s a personality flaw. I have a friend who used to work as a personal trainer. As far as I can tell, he loves criticism. Knowing he has missed the mark seems to energize him. Why doesn’t it affect me the same way? I suspect the difference between us is a matter of hope. He believes he can change. I am not so sure. Indeed, I’m pretty sure I can’t. Not when the same boxes get checked year after year. Or day after day.
We would like to think that our shortcomings are really only missed targets. All we need to do is step up and take aim again. But sometimes they are more. They are also limits. What if the spotlight isn’t just revealing where we have fallen short but what we cannot become? What do we do when we discover that no amount of practice or well-intended effort is going to be enough to close the gap? In such cases the only thing we can do is mourn. We grieve the loss of what we thought we were or hoped to become.
It is to such people that Jesus addresses His second beatitude in Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Like all these blessings, it is counterintuitive. What Jesus says is unexpected. What kind of blessing can possibly come from knowing what we are not and cannot become? None at all. Not without Jesus’ implied promise that He will close the gap Himself. “Nobody is helped by negatives, even when they are true” someone has said. Especially when they are true.
The Sermon on the Mount, like the Law it illuminates, is not a performance review. It is not a target. It is a reality check. When we read it, we know instinctively that all the checkmarks will fall in the box that says “needs improvement.” It is a diagnosis. We used to think that we were doing well and that our potential was limitless. Now we know it is otherwise. It is a good thing. As Jesus Himself said, it is only the sick who need a doctor.