What is Christian morality - part 5
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.
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