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.



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