Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What is Christian morality? Part 9

the good irenic stuff


4:1-4 Then Jesus was guided into the wilderness by the spirit to be put to the test by the devil. And after he had fasted ‘forty days and forty nights,’ he was famished. And the tester confronted him and said, ‘To prove you’re God’s son, order these stones to turn to bread.’ He responded, ‘It is written, “Human beings are not to live on bread alone, but on every word that comes out of God’s mouth.’ [see also Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-4]

This testing is very briefly referred to in Mark, but Jesus’s response here doesn’t help us that much. The first part is a commonplace, but the second part is the real issue. God doesn’t talk to us much, though some Christians might disagree. In any case, priests talk to us a lot more. Interesting to find that God has a mouth – Jesus should know. Of course he originally said it in Aramaic, but I notice that the word is used in all translations, so it’s the beginning of a picture. We also have ‘the eyes of the lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth’ [2 Chronicles 16:9], so the guy’s starting to look almost human. I’d be willing to bet though that his mouth is much bigger than any of ours.

5:3-10 Congratulations to the poor in spirit! Heaven’s domain belongs to them. Congratulations to those who grieve! They will be consoled. Congratulations to the gentle! They will inherit the earth. Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice! They will have a feast. Congratulations to the merciful! They will have mercy. Congratulations to those with undefiled hearts! They will see God. Congratulations to those who work for peace! They will be known as God’s children. Congratulations to those who have suffered persecution for the sake of justice! Heaven’s domain belongs to them [see also Luke 6:20-21, Luke 6:24-25].

These are the first words of the sermon on the mount, the good oil. There’s little here to be objected to, except perhaps that it seems to offer rewards only in the next world, or some future world. The term ‘poor in spirit’ might suggest ‘mean-spirited’ or even ‘not very bright’ to a modern reader, but I’m assured that it simply means ‘poor’, which again suggests that Jesus just didn’t like the rich much. For the rest Jesus puts himself squarely on the side of those who suffer or are likely to suffer – the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers. Of course you could argue that these are the people most easily exploited by false prophets. Why would someone like Jesus go around offering a bright future to those already satisfied with their lot? I’m quite mystified myself as to what he’s up to.

Of course, being poor is not a sign of morality, nor is being in a state of grief. The best spin we can put on it is that he’s setting an example. We all should love the poor, and the grieving, and the gentle and so forth. Is this the foundation of Christian morality, the moral underpinning of Western civilization? If it weren’t for a lot of people becoming convinced that Jesus was a god, I doubt if these words would’ve rung down through the ages. Many similar sentiments have been expressed before and since – for example, scholars have pointed out that Matthew 5:5 [on the gentle] is a reworking of Psalms 37:11.

5:11-12 Congratulations to you when they denounce you and persecute you and spread malicious gossip about you because of me. Rejoice and be glad! Your compensation is great in heaven. Recall that this is how they persecuted the prophets who preceded you [see also Luke 6:22-23, Luke6:26].

Most scholars of the Jesus Seminar would argue that when persecution is the subject, it’s the early Christian community speaking, not Jesus himself. This seems fair enough, but there are obvious problems with always attributing the less palatable, or simply less memorable and striking remarks to the gospel writers rather than to Jesus, as it involves working from a pre-conceived notion of Jesus’s brilliance, or consistency, or particular orientation. If we accept, however, as Christians are expected to do, that every word attributed to Jesus in the gospels was actually spoken by him, then we must accept a contradictory and often confusing ‘teacher’, one more concerned with the political events of his time than with providing an ideal of human behaviour for all time, as well as one subject to moods and variations. The more human, the less ideal and worthy of imitation.

5:13-16 You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its zing, how will it be made salty? It then has no further use than to be thrown out and stomped on. You are the light of the world. A city sitting on top of a mountain can’t be concealed. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket but on a lampstand, where it sheds light for everyone in the house. That’s how your light is to shine in the presence of others, so they can see your good deeds and acclaim your Father in the heavens [see also Mark 4:21, Mark 9:50, Luke 8:16, Luke 11:33, Luke 14:34-35].

We continue the sermon on the mountain, which isn’t just about morality but, as in the above passage, also about ‘rallying the troops’. Passages such as this tend to be slated home to Jesus rather than the gospel writers [by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar] because they contain memorable imagery, but unless you think being a member of some elite [or being told you are] makes you a morally better person, I can’t think how such exhortations might contribute to right conduct.

5:20 Let me tell you: unless your religion goes beyond that of the scholars and Pharisees, you won’t set foot in Heaven’s domain.

Here, the term ‘religion’ is virtually synonymous with ‘morality’. In the verses preceding this sentence, Jesus exhorts his hearers to follow Judaic law and the wisdom of the prophets – a ‘back to basics’ approach which is always popular. Jesus would surely have turned Protestant had he lived long enough.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

What is Christian morality? Part 8

12:28-31 And one of the scholars approached when he heard them arguing, and because he saw how skilfully Jesus answered them, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ Jesus answered: ‘The first is, “Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord, and you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul [and all your mind] and with all your energy.” The second is this: “You are to love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ [see also Matt 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-29]

Both of these ‘most important commandments’ can be found in the Old Testament [Deut 6:4-5, Lev 19:18]. The first reiterates what is evident throughout the earlier scriptures, that God is a jealous god, who demands lots of attention and lots of worship. The second is something of a commonplace. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus, or ‘Mark’, was merely echoing the teaching of the famous Rabbi Hillel, an exact contemporary of Jesus. Challenged by some wag to teach him the whole of the Torah while he [the wag] stood on one foot, Hillel provided a version of the golden rule: ‘What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole of the law. Everything else is commentary. Now go learn that.’

Some have argued that ‘neighbour’ here means only Jewish neighbours [certainly it does seem to mean this in Leviticus]. That’s to say, it was a call to Jewish solidarity. I don’t think so. To give him his due, Jesus seems genuinely to have reached out beyond his own community. This, I think, is brought out more clearly in the famous sermon in Matthew, as well as some important passages in Luke.

12:38-40 During the course of his teaching he would say: ‘Look out for the scholars who like to parade around in long robes, and insist on being addressed properly in the marketplaces, and prefer important seats in the synagogues and the best couches at banquets. They are the ones who prey on widows and their families, and recite long prayers just to put on airs. These people will get a stiff sentence!’ [see also Matt 23:5-7, Luke 11:43, Luke 20:45-47].

These remarks may have been directed at the Pharisees or other Jewish functionaries, who might’ve been compensating for their lack of any real power under the Romans by doing dress-ups and bumping up the pomp and circumstance, much as the Catholic Church does these days. The final comment about divine justice sounds more like retribution [and wishful thinking] to me.

12:43-44 ‘I swear to you, this poor widow has contributed more than all those who dropped something into the collection box! After all, they were all donating out of their surplus, whereas she, out of her poverty, was contributing all she had, her entire livelihood! [see also Luke 21:3-4].

This observation by Jesus is of course pleasing, but hardly original. As scholars have pointed out, they can be found in rabbinical, Buddhist and ancient Greek texts, and people make the same observations every day, for example on the disproportionate burden upon the poor of a flat tax, without needing to invoke Jesus or Christianity.

That’s about it for Mark, moral-wise. What follows is a passage known as ‘the little apocalypse’, in which Jesus, or ‘Mark’, gives his account of the last days. This is followed by an account of Jesus’s arrest, trial, execution and resurrection. Of course many Christians have drawn sustenance from a description of Jesus’s stoicism through these events, but it’s hard to see how his behaviour provides us with any specific moral guidelines. The stoicism of heroic figures in adversity was of course a commonplace long before Jesus came along, and it’s hard to see how the gospel writers would’ve gotten away with depicting him in any other way. Also, if we take the view that the gospel writers were inheritors of the eyewitness accounts of the disciples, it’s worth noting that the disciples dispersed after Jesus’s arrest, and they certainly weren’t eyewitnesses to his demeanour and remarks during his trial, supposing there was one. That part of the story is as mythical as the accounts of his birth.

Before going on to Matthew I should say that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, though often divided among themselves, generally take only a fraction of the above [and following] sayings of Jesus to be authentic. Most of the sayings they believe to be the creation of the early Christian community, given a twist by the particular preoccupations and character of the particular gospel writer. For example, Mark seems to emphasise the weakness and obtuseness of the disciples, and often has Jesus castigating them for not listening, for not ‘getting it’, and for being concerned for their own status [eg Mark 10:35-41]. Matthew has a near-obsessive tendency to tie Jesus’s sayings and doings to Old Testament prophecies, for obvious reasons. Luke, generally assumed to be a non-Jewish author, emphasises good works and broader sympathies, as in the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son parables, whereas John, or the Christian community writing under John’s name, is primarily concerned with Jesus’s status as ‘saviour’. All the gospel writers are, of course, concerned to make claims for the significance of Jesus that he is unlikely to have made for himself. I haven’t been so concerned myself to separate an ‘authentic’ Jesus from a constructed one, partly because I’m sceptical about this being possible, but mainly because I’m looking at the impact upon Western moral praxis of every remark and action attributed to Jesus in the canonical gospels, regardless of their authenticity. In other words, I’m assuming that throughout the history of Christendom, until very recently, everything attributed to Jesus in the New Testament was taken as gospel.


Friday, December 25, 2009

What is Christian morality - part 7

lashings of Jesus

11:15-19 They come to Jerusalem. And he went into the temple and began chasing the vendors and shoppers out of the temple area, and he turned the bankers’ tables upside down, along with the chairs of the pigeon merchants, and he wouldn’t even let anyone carry a container through the temple area. Then he started teaching and would say to them: ‘Don’t the scriptures say, ‘My house is to be regarded as a house of prayer for all peoples’? – but you have turned it into a ‘hideout for crooks’!’ [see also Matt 21:12-13, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17].

This passage is indicative of Jesus’s adopted role as an unorthodox, reforming rabbi. Clearly, he’s committed to the Judaic religion and wishes to purify it of these course elements. The dark mutterings of the scholars after this event are enough to reveal the danger Jesus was getting into with his uncompromising stance.

Of course there’s an issue around the violence of this episode. It’s dealt with perfunctorily by the gospel writers, but in John an interesting detail is mentioned – he made a whip out of rope and drove them all out of the temple area... [John 2:15]. The pre-meditated decision to fashion a whip suggests more than just a sudden fit of pique. We will never know of course, but there’s surely a hint here of a deliberately confrontational nature. And how does this apparent defence of the orthodox use of the temple fit with Jesus’s unorthodoxy as regards the Sabbath and handwashing? It’s a mystery.

I’m sorry that none of this specifically relates to any unique Christian morality, but I’m afraid there just isn’t that much meat to pick at.

12:1-8 The parable of the leased vineyard [see also Matt 21:33-39, Luke 20:9-15]

This is an interesting and tragic story, repeated in Matthew and Luke, but it’s hard to draw any clear moral from it, other than ‘watch who you lease your vineyard to’.

A farmer leases his vineyard to some other farmers before going abroad. Later he sends a slave to collect his share of the harvest. They beat him up and send him away with nothing. So he sends another, and the same thing happens. Next time he sends someone the person is killed. He sends more slaves, and they’re all either beaten or killed. Finally he sends his beloved son, thinking this time some respect will be shown, but they kill him, hoping that, with the heir out of the way, they will inherit the vineyard.

Of course the story almost begs for an allegorical interpretation, with Jesus as the beloved son, in which case the moral might be that we humans are ungrateful sods, never satisfied with what the good lord gives us, ready to kill for more. It would also have prophetic implications, and you know how these gospellers love a prophecy. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Jesus was simply telling a hard luck story about a guy he knew.

The parable is immediately followed by a question and answer from Jesus: What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come in person, and do away with those farmers, and give the vineyard to someone else. Here we seem to be moving very much into allegorical territory, with the vineyard representing ‘God’s imperial domain’. Moral: if you do bad, no domain for you. Jesus follows this up with a verse [22] from psalm 118: A stone that the builders rejected has ended up as the keystone. It was the Lord’s doing and is something you admire. Presumably this means that God is full of surprises, he moves in mysterious ways, but always ends up making the right decisions. So just follow God. I’m not sure if this helps much for human decision-making.

12:13-17 And they send some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to him to trap him with a riddle. They come and say to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are honest and impartial, because you pay no attention to appearances, but instead you teach God’s way forthrightly. Is it permissible to pay the poll tax to the Roman emperor or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?’ But he saw through their trap, and said to them, “Why do you provoke me like this? Let me have a look at a coin.’ They handed him a silver coin, and he says to them, ‘Whose picture is this? Whose name is on it?’ They replied, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them: ‘Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God!’ And they were dumbfounded at him [see also Matt 22:15-22, Luke 20:19-26].

Let me give some background to this famous episode. The Romans imposed a special tax on the Jews, which no other colonized peoples had to pay. This might seem discriminatory, but what the Jews received in return was the right to worship their own god. Generally, the Romans expected, as a matter of course, that defeated peoples would adopt the Roman gods as their own, as a symbol of their subjection. No doubt they turned a blind eye to what these people did in the privacy of their homes, as long as they displayed fealty to the Roman gods in public. But the Romans met surprising resistance from the Jews. Not that they were in any way a military threat, but they simply refused to betray their own god, who, as we know, was particularly jealous of other gods, inveighing against them as false idols. The Jews’ attitude was – kill us all if you like, but no way are we going to bow down to those gods. The Romans had no desire to inflict a massacre; it would cause bad blood among other subject nations, and might cost more than a few Roman lives. So they hit upon the idea of a special tax – a win-win situation.

Of course, as is the way with these things, not all Jews were satisfied with this solution. The more radical Jews urged defiance of the Roman authorities and their tax-collecting Jewish proxies [hence the low esteem in which tax collectors are held in the gospels]. Among these radicals were the Essenes, of Dead Sea Scroll fame. They’ve been described as the Taliban of the period [replete with their own cave hideouts], and it’s even been argued that Jesus was one of them, but that he turned his back on them to take a more populist, but also more idiosyncratic, middle line, as represented by this particular story. The Pharisees and Herodians, essentially collaborators, were spying on Jesus and testing him to see where he stood politically. Jesus’s response has been hailed as a prime example of wily evasiveness, while also, of course, carrying an anti-materialist message. Some have also interpreted the message as anti-political, or at least apolitical. It’s an important issue, as the separation of church and state is often defended by the citing of this passage, though I would argue that this separation doctrine, which is only a couple of centuries old, arose out of bitter experience in Europe – for example, the incredibly brutal Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, as well as the English Revolution, in which the insistence upon the divine right of kings meant that a questioning of the ruler’s authority entailed a disobedience to God. Jesus becomes a useful ally in the development of such a doctrine, but the fact remains that his words are ambiguous.


pavlov's cat