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.



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