Friday, October 23, 2009

what is Christian morality? Part 4

Jesus and the mythology of family

3:31-35 Then his mother and his brothers arrive. While still outside, they send in and ask for him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they say to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers [and sisters] are outside looking for you.’ In response he says to them: ‘My mother and brothers – who ever are they?’ And looking right at those seated around him in a circle, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will, that’s my brother and sister and mother!’ [see also Matt 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21; for other negative remarks about family, see Matt 10:35-37, Luke 12:52-53, Luke 14:26]

This story seems to reveal some family tensions, but the message is clear enough. Of course, it’s not one we associate with modern Christianity. Rather, we associate it with new cults, which Christianity once was – in fact we’ve got a snapshot here of the cult before it became Christianity. The cult becomes the new Family – if others in your family don’t want to join the cult, abandon them and join your new brothers and sisters under God, or the new Messiah, or whoever. Many new cult leaders don’t get on with their own families. Jesus’s family thought he was mad [Mark 3:21], and he very likely felt the need to be clear of them in order to be taken seriously. One can sympathise, but it does raise doubts about the traditional family values theme of conservative Christianity. Such values may or may not be Christian, but they weren’t affirmed by Jesus in this passage. One has always to remember that Jesus himself was never a Christian, though Christianity may have derived from him.

This is a good place to reflect on all Jesus’s remarks about family. Of these, probably the most shocking is the one in Luke 14:26: If any come to me and do not hate their own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – they cannot be my disciples. Seems fairly clear-cut. In order to be a follower of Jesus – what was later called a Christian -you have to hate every member of your family, as well as yourself. I wonder why this passage isn’t more well-known? On the basis of this passage alone, one would surely have to conclude that Jesus was completely opposed to ‘traditional family values’. Or was he just having a little joke?

In Matthew 10:35-37 [and similarly in Luke 12:52-53] Jesus claims that he has come to bring conflict rather than peace, and especially conflict within families: I have come to pit a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A person’s enemies are members of the same household. Jesus is by no means a family man. It’s unlikely that even the most ingenious sermonisers could spin that one around. For example, you won’t find much in the way of off-setting positive remarks about family to cherry-pick [but see Mark 7:9-13 below]. Clearly, ‘family values’ conservatism does not derive from the teachings of Jesus, it just thinks it does.

4:3-8 The parable of the sower.

This is the first recorded parable of the canonical gospels, repeated in Matthew 13:3-8 and Luke 8:5-8. I won’t quote it in full here, nor will I comment on the lengthy explanation of it that follows [Mark 4:13-21]. The story, well-known enough, is about a farmer’s seed falling in four different places; by the path [eaten by birds], on rocky ground [it sprouted quickly but couldn’t take deep root and was burned off by the sun], among thorns [where it couldn’t compete and bore no fruit] and in good deep soil [where it thrived and bore fruit]. Jesus’s explanation reveals, or strongly suggests, that he’s talking about his message – i.e. God’s imperial rule. In some people it will take root, in some not. In the broadest sense it’s about receptivity to ideas, but I don’t think there’s any great ethical dimension to this.

4:24-25 And he went on to say to them: ‘Pay attention to what you hear! The standard you apply will be the standard applied to you, and then some. In fact, to those who have, more will be given, and from those who don’t have, even what they do have will be taken away!’ [see also Matt 7:2, Matt 13:12, Matt 25:29, Luke 6:38, Luke 8:18, Luke 19:26]

This is another troubling passage, oft-repeated, which would require some sermonising work, to make it ‘obvious’ that Jesus isn’t talking of material possessions here, he’s probably talking of, say, holy spirit. If you have lots of holy spirit inside you, you’ll be given more, come God’s imperial rule. If you haven’t enough, what you do have will be taken away – perhaps to render you fit for eternal damnation. Clearly, those with lots of the holy stuff inside them are morally superior to those with little, but this doesn’t offer us much in the way of moral guidance.

7:5-13 the Pharisees and the scholars start questioning him: ‘Why don’t your disciples live up to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with defiled hands?’ And he answered them, ‘How accurately Isaiah depicted you phonies when he wrote: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart stays far away from me. Their worship is empty, because they insist on teachings that are human commandments. You have set aside God’s commandment and hold fast to human tradition!’ Or he would say to them, ‘How expert you’ve become at putting aside God’s commandment to establish your own tradition. For instance Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘Those who curse their father or mother will surely die.’ ‘But you say, If people say to their father or mother, “Whatever I might have spent to support you is korban”’ [which means ‘consecrated to God’], you no longer let those persons do anything for their father or mother. So you end up invalidating God’s word with your own tradition, which you then perpetuate. And you do all kinds of other things like that!’ [see also Matt 15:1-9]

This passage provides an interesting example of Jesus as unorthodox rabbi. Certainly Jesus in this gospel spends far more time arguing with the traditionalists over ritual matters [as well as exorcising demons and performing miracles] than he does pontificating on real moral issues.

It’s worth noting though that, in this dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus picks out the ‘honour your parents’ commandment as being defiled by them. The basic idea is that the Pharisaic notion of ‘korban’, consecrating certain goods to God, allows those goods to be subtracted from whatever is owed to the devotee’s parents. Whether or not Jesus’s accusation is correct, he seems to have forgotten that he himself has refused to even recognize his own mother. I’m sure Socrates would never have been so glaringly inconsistent.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

What is Christian morality? Part 3

1:15 The time is up: God’s imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways, and put your trust in the good news! [see also Matt 3:2, Matt 4:17, Matt: 10:7, Luke 10:9-11]
This is Mark’s summary of the message of Jesus, placed before he actually starts telling Jesus’s story. It morally exhorts people to change their ways – pretty vague - and provides a rationale. That is, if you don’t change you’ll miss out, because with the new rule will come God’s judgement, presumably. It’s the old story of year zero, renewal, the blank state – one of the oldest tricks in the book, and not original to the gospels or the Bible. Matthew [3:2] puts more or less the same words in the mouth of John the Baptist.
1:17 Become my followers and I’ll have you fishing for people! [see also Matt 4:19, Luke 5:10]

This is the first, and probably most well-known, of a number of calls to possible recruits, made much of in subsequent sermons. To be a good Christian you have to spread the word. Hard put to find anything ethical in this, though it might require bravery and self-sacrifice.
2:5 Child, your sins are forgiven [see also Matt 9:2, Luke 5:20, John 5:14].

This isn’t so much about right conduct, but I think it’s crucial. The remark, directed at a paralysed child, whom Jesus also cures, is soon followed by outraged comments from some scholars listening in. They question, not surprisingly, the moral authority of Jesus. It also, of course, suggests a connection commonly made in this era, but rejected by the modern world; a connection between ‘sin’ and sickness or injury.
When we’re young, the moral authority generally comes from our parents. They have a near-absolute power to punish us or forgive us. Who hasn’t experienced the fear and anxiety of waiting for their judgement? When, say, you’ve broken something precious in the family home. They might just forgive you if you have a good explanation or show sufficient remorse. And their response will have some effect, however slight, on how you behave, and how you justify your behaviour in future. Of course, your parents are unlikely to say, we forgive you for everything bad you’ve done in the past, and you probably wouldn’t know how to take it if they did. You may well even lose respect for them, for this undiscriminating forgiveness. Does this mean they’ll forgive you for all the bad things you do in the future too?
The point is that forgiveness isn’t really what we want, or need. What we need is justice and consistency, together with an understanding of and sympathy for our human frailties.
2:17 I did not come to enlist religious folks but sinners! [see also Matt 9:13, Luke 5:32, Luke 19:10]

This remark emphasises the Christian appeal to outsiders – the sinners, the lost, the marginalised. Also the sceptics, and those who were dissatisfied with the current Judaic orthodoxy. As a recruiting slogan, it’s probably quite effective, and I’m sure missionaries use it still. But even if we choose not to treat this openness cynically, it tells us little about the moral behaviour expected of those recruited.
2:22 And nobody pours young wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and destroy both the wine and the skins. Instead, young wine is for new wineskins [see also Matt 9:17, Luke 5:37-39].

This ‘common wisdom’ remark is made in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist regarding religious traditions, especially fasting. Assuming Jesus was a real person, his fame or notoriety during his lifetime would’ve sprung from his religious heterodoxy. The Messianic and deistic claims would’ve come later, largely. Jesus here is comparing himself to a young wine, which needs a new container or framework to be fully appreciated. Again, this is about renewal and year zero. However, in Luke 5:39 Jesus adds this assertion: Besides, nobody wants young wine after drinking aged wine. As they say, ‘Aged wine is just fine’. This is of course generally true of wines, but how does it relate to Jesus’s ‘new’ teaching and the traditional teaching of the Pharisees? It’s completely confusing, and has no doubt been ignored by sermonisers, but these are the anomalies that the sceptic has to highlight. No doubt it can be explained by the gospel writers’ own confusions as to what they’re trying to say, or get Jesus to say.
2:27-28 The sabbath day was created for Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve for the sabbath day. So, the son of Adam lords it even over the sabbath day [see also Matt 12:8, Luke 6:5].

3:4 On the sabbath day is it permitted to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it? [see also Matt 12:10-12, Luke 6:9]

Probably Jesus’s most interesting remarks so far, again made in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees, this time over the sabbath. Essentially it’s a liberal v conservative dispute, with the conservatives emphasising tradition and the liberal Jesus emphasising freedom and the priority of people over tradition. We should be in charge of tradition, tradition shouldn’t be in charge of us. I’m not sure if this is an example of Christian morality, but it’s worth reflecting on in the light of the Catholic Church, for example.
3:28 I swear to you, all offenses and whatever blasphemies humankind might blaspheme will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit is never ever forgiven, but is guilty of eternal sin [see also Luke 12:10].

This is the first nasty pronouncement. To a modern reader, it might seem almost meaningless. What is the holy spirit anyway? Have I just blasphemed against it by wondering what it is? Why are other blasphemies forgivable? A blasphemy by definition involves using the name of a god in a non-religious way, or in a way disapproved of by religious authority. Of course by this definition, god’s name is used blasphemously far more often than in any other way these days, at least in this part of the world. Jesus seems to be saying that a blasphemy against a god is forgivable, but one against the god in its manifestation as the holy spirit is not. It might be argued that he’s distinguishing between the letter of god and the spirit, it being much worse to blaspheme against the spirit, or the very idea of god. That, however, would surely be an unacceptably modern take on Jesus’s actual words. Such passages seem to me to indicate the obvious; that Jesus, however constructed, was a creature of his time, and all too human.
Perhaps more interesting is the distinction here between eternal sin and the ordinary garden variety. Eternal, unforgivable sin presumably dooms you to the forever fires of hell. So you’d better brush up on your holy spirit, brethren. We’re very far here from the gentle, forgiving Jesus of Christian spin.


pavlov's cat