Thursday, November 05, 2009

What is Christian morality - part 6

essential life lessons: Jesus teaches his mates how to curse a tree with a fish-bowl on your head

10:17-27 someone ran up, knelt before him, and started questioning him: ‘Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except for God alone. You know the commandments: You must not murder, you are not to commit adultery, you are not to steal, you are not to give false testimony, you are not to defraud, and you are to honour your father and mother.’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have observed all these things since I was a child!’ Jesus loved him at first sight and said to him, ‘You are missing one thing: make your move, sell whatever you have and give [the proceeds] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And then come, follow me!’ But stunned by this advice, he went away dejected, since he possessed a fortune. After looking around, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘How difficult it is for those who have money to enter God’s domain!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. In response Jesus repeats what he had said, ‘Children, how difficult it is to enter God’s domain! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain!’ And they were very perplexed, wondering to themselves, ‘Well then, who can be saved?’ Jesus looks them in the eye and says, ‘For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God; after all, everything’s possible for God.’ [see also Matt 19:16-26, Luke 18:18-27].

This passage has always struck me as one of the most uncompromising in the gospels, and the most embarrassing, because least followed, for any modern Christian. Luckily, Jesus gives everyone an ‘out’ by readily admitting, in the last lines, that it’s impossible for mortals to be saved, given such conditions, so presumably there’s no point in trying. The last line is ambiguous, to say the least – is he saying that it’s easily possible for God to save himself [which is surely absurd], or is he saying that it’s possible for God to save others, even though they can’t save themselves? Perhaps he’s just pointing out that God is ‘powerful as’, which seems a bit beside the point.

One might argue that the whole Christian monastic tradition sprang from these lines, though there are a number of other ‘inspirational’ passages in the Old and New Testaments [for example, the lifestyle of John the Baptist, described in Matthew 3], and there are people even today who abandon all their wordlies for a life ‘devoted to Christ’, but it’s by no means a popular tradition. It seems that the most popular Pentecostal-type churches of today tend to wallow in their own opulence. Who of all these people can be saved?

The problem here of course is that the wealth/poverty distinction is surely no guarantee of moral worth/worthlessness, however much we might assume that the rich are more ‘corrupt’. Elsewhere Jesus congratulates the ‘poor in spirit’, for they’ll surely inherit God’s domain. Why? No explanation is given. So not only are we offered no moral guidance, but the issue seems to be deliberately confused by introducing anti-materialism as a ‘good’ without providing any grounding for this attitude.

10:42-45 ‘You know how those who supposedly rule over foreigners lord it over them, and how their strong men tyrannize them. It’s not going to be like that with you! With you, whoever wants to become great must be your servant, and whoever among you wants to be ‘number one’ must be everybody’s slave. After all, the son of Adam didn’t come to be served, but to serve, even to give his life as a ransom for many.’ [see also Matt 20:24-28, Luke 22:24-27]

These words are spoken in the context of a couple of disciples bugging Jesus about which of them would be sitting at his right hand ‘in his glory’, that’s to say, in the glory days of God’s imperial domain. The squabbling and dim-witted nature of the disciples is something of a theme in Mark. It’s also quite obviously spoken in the context of Judaea’s colonisation by the Romans. Jesus inverts the expected order, the greatest being the most effective servant, or the lowliest, just as ‘Many of the first will be last, and of the last many will be first’ [Mark 10:31]. Jesus shrewdly promises that the domain of the guy who might be his Dad will be a different kettle of roses altogether, though no bed of fish [just in case you were falling asleep]. There’s also of course the observation that it’s Good to serve, which again isn’t particularly original.

11:12-14 On the next day, as they were leaving Bethany, he got hungry. So when he spotted a fig tree in the distance with some leaves on it, he went up to it expecting to find something on it. But when he got right up to it, he found nothing on it except some leaves. [You see, it wasn’t ‘time’ for figs.] And he reacted by saying: ‘May no one so much as taste your fruit again!’ And his disciples were listening.

11:20-25 As they were walking along early one morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. And Peter remembered and says to him: ‘Rabbi, look, the fig tree you cursed has withered up!’ In response Jesus says to them: ‘Have trust in God. I swear to you, those who say to this mountain, ‘Up with you and into the sea!’ and do not waver in their conviction, but trust that what they say will happen, that’s the way it will be. This is why I keep telling you, trust that you will receive everything you pray and ask for, and that’s the way it will turn out. And when you stand up to pray, if you are holding anything against anyone, forgive them, so your father in heaven may forgive your misdeeds.’ [see also Matt 6:14-15, Matt 17:20, Matt 21:18-22, Luke 6:37, Luke 17:6, John 14:13-14, John 15:7, John 15:16, John 16:23-26].

The best New Testament scholars, who are always on the lookout for the authentic words and deeds of Jesus, supposing there are any, and disentangling them from the propaganda and aspirations of the early Christian community and the gospels writers who were part of that community, are naturally drawn to stories such as this of the fig tree. The story, or at least some of it, has an authentic ring to it. It’s even quite funny in a Pythonesque way. I particularly like the sentence ‘And the disciples were listening.’ Poor old Jesus, caught without his make-up on. I like to wonder what words he used when he cursed the tree. Maybe it was nothing more than ‘you unpleasant, thoughtless little tree’, but then that wouldn’t be much of a curse would it? Of course, the gospel writer wouldn’t have had much trouble transforming this story into a very minor miracle. The tree was probably half dead anyway, but I prefer to imagine it was Jesus whodunit, by shaking and throttling and kicking the tree in his temper [naturally played down in the story]. He’s bad.

I also like the way Jesus ‘recovers’ in the second part of the story, by diverting attention from his embarrassing outburst as well as utilizing it: faith can move mountains [and wither fig trees, but let’s not dwell on that], and uhhh... forgiveness, yes forgiveness, when you ask for things, always remember to forgive everyone a lot, because then God’ll look kindly on you...

But that fig tree, Jesus...

Look, forget the bloody fig tree... think of mountains and... and forgiveness and all that...

But you...


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

What is Christian morality - part 5

The Jesus industry - a $100 book presumably based on a few words in Mark

The book of Mark, continued

7:14-15 Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand! It’s not what goes into a person from the outside that can defile; rather it’s what comes out of the person that defiles [see also Matt 15:10-11].

Again this is more a jibe at orthodox Judaism, with its obsessions about oral defilement and food prohibitions, than a moral truth, though of course it does have moral implications – what we say and what we do, whatever springs from us, is what we should be judged by. In case we don’t get the idea, Jesus elaborates it at some length [Mark 7:18-23], but you could hardly describe it as insightful stuff.

9:42-48 ‘And those who mislead one of these little trusting souls would be better off if they were to have a millstone hung around their necks and were thrown into the sea! And if your hand gets you into trouble, cut it off! It is better for you to enter life maimed than to wind up in Gehenna, in the unquenchable fire, with both hands! And if your foot gets you into trouble, cut it off! It is better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into Gehenna with both feet! And if your eye gets you into trouble, rip it out! It is better for you to enter God’s domain one-eyed than to be thrown into Gehenna with both eyes, where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out!’ [see also Matt 5:29-30, Matt 18:6-9, Luke 17:2]

What are we to make of this famous but strange passage? The last words, about eternal fire, are cribbed from Isaiah 66:24. Richard Dawkins, of course, would applaud the first sentence about misleading children, but the passage generally is just a striking way of saying that we must reform ourselves even if it means deforming ourselves. It would have been particularly striking in Jesus’s day, when deformities were considered abhorrent. Yet, apart from its striking formulation, and the notion of Gehenna or Hell, which is thankfully foreign to most modern sensibilities, the idea is familiar enough. I recall in my younger days that my eyes so troubled me, so guilty did I feel about the ‘male gaze’ so castigated by feminists of the time, that I made conscious efforts, when out and about, to stare at the pavement, or to focus specifically on elements of architecture or interior design, to make myself ‘blind’ to attractive passersby or party guests. Here we have the same idea, rendered apocalyptically. I doubt that my response to my troubles was inspired by this passage. These are issues around desire, temptation and control that humans have wrestled with since long before Jesus’s advent.

10:3-12 ‘What did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses allowed one to prepare a writ of abandonment and thus to divorce the other party.’ Jesus said to them, ‘He gave you this injunction because you are obstinate. However, in the beginning, at the creation, ‘God made [them] male and female. For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother [and be united with his wife], and the two will become one person,’ so they are no longer two individuals but ‘one person’. Therefore those God has coupled together, no one else should separate.’ And once again, as usual, the disciples questioned him about this. And he says to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’ [see also Matt 5:31-32, Matt 19:3-9, Luke 16:18].

This passage, some of which is still used today in Christian marriage ceremonies, has no doubt been influential. Jesus here shows himself to be stricter than ‘Moses’ [i.e. Judaic tradition] on the permanence of marriage – though an exception is made in the case of the wife’s infidelity in Matt 5:32, another example of inconsistency in the reported ‘message’. This may well have led to a tightening of marriage laws once Christianity became the ruling religion in the west. Whether this would have been better or worse for society is of course a huge question – but essentially an empirical one, and thus answerable. Regardless of the answer, though, I’m prepared to concede that the Christian concept of marriage – particularly the heavy notion that these two people have been joined for all their lives by God, has profoundly affected and reinforced notions of commitment and family. This is not, of course, a statement of approval or disapproval, but it’s an acknowledgement that Jesus, or the gospel writers, came out strongly on this matter, with little room for interpretation. Nevertheless, different Christian denominations, and before that different Popes, have chopped and changed on the sanctity or indissolubility of marriage.

10:14-16 ‘Let the children come up to me, don’t try to stop them. After all, God’s domain is peopled with such as these. I swear to you, whoever doesn’t accept God’s imperial rule the way a child would, certainly won’t ever set foot in [his domain]!’ And he would put his arms around them and bless them, and lay his hands on them [see also Matt 18:3, Matt 19:14-15, Luke 18:16-17].

This is one of a few examples of Jesus’s kindness towards children. I don’t think too much should be made of this, as we’re all drawn to innocence, not always for innocent reasons. It will no doubt seem grossly offensive to some that I’m reminded in this context of footage of Adolf Hitler laying his hands on and smiling affectionately at children. I saw this as a child, and it left an indelible impression. It made me aware that these moments of tenderness and affection, which might be quite frequent, are not what we should judge, it’s the totality of a person’s life and actions.

Of course, the call to accept religion like a child, unquestioningly, is not quite as acceptable as it once may have been.


pavlov's cat