What is Christian morality? Part 10
5:21-22 As you know, our ancestors were told, ‘You must not kill’ and ‘Whoever kills will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you: those who are angry with a companion will be brought before a tribunal. And those who say to a companion, ‘You moron,’ will be subject to the sentence of the court. And whoever says, ‘You idiot,’ deserves the fires of Gehenna.
Considering that Jesus himself got a bit shirty with his companion-disciples at times, especially in Mark’s version of events, this condemnation of ill-temper sounds a bit rough. I mean, if you can’t call your mate a moron, where’s the fun in life?
By the way, the term ‘Gehenna’, so much more evocative than ‘hell’, refers to a spot outside Jerusalem where the town’s rubbish was routinely burnt, along with the bodies of crims and the carcases of animals. Some of course dispute such a lowly truth, but they would, wouldn’t they?
5:23-24 So, even if you happen to be offering your gift at the altar and recall that your friend has some claim against you, leave your gift there at the altar. First go and be reconciled with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift.
For those who value friendship, this is a ‘nice’ piece of advice. It also seems typical of Jesus to value substance over form [unless I’m simply creating the Jesus I prefer], and to cock a snook at rigorous and traditional religious practice. Anyway, it’s one of the few of Jesus’s adjurations with which I would wholeheartedly concur.
5:27-28 As you know, we once were told, ‘You are not to commit adultery.’ But I tell you: Those who leer at a woman and desire her have already committed adultery with her in their hearts.
This is a tough one, but we can always rationalize our way out of it. In fact, it’s quite easy. Committing any crime in your heart is vastly removed from actually doing it. Murder is an obvious example. And we don’t punish anyone by law for anything they do ‘in their heart’, for very good reason. I wouldn’t like to guess how many women I’ve ‘committed adultery with’ [I prefer to think of it in fruitier terms] in my heart. Far more than in my bed, sadly. This whole business of thought-criminality is one that should be wholly rejected in my view – and generally it has been. Whether this remark has impacted on western morality, I can’t say. The thing is that lusting after someone who ‘belongs’ to someone, or who is happily devoted to someone else, or who doesn’t know you from a bar of soap, or who actively dislikes you, brings with it a sense of guilt as a matter of course, you feel you are imposing, though since you can convince yourself you’re not imposing that much, the guilt is minimalized and even lends a certain piquancy to the thoughts. Anyway, better a lustful thought than a murderous one. And of course the world of advertising and celebrity culture relies on lust and desire rather heavily – and a surer thing to rely on can hardly be found. I know of at least one female acquaintance who lusts after Barak Obama. Good luck to them I say. Anyway, Jesus just points out that lusting after someone is ‘adultery of the heart’, but he doesn’t call it a sin. Just don’t look at the tenth commandment.
5 33-37 Again, as you know, our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break an oath,’ and ‘Oaths sworn in the name of God must be kept.’ But I tell you: Don’t swear at all. Don’t invoke heaven, because it is the throne of God, and don’t invoke earth, because it is God’s footstool, and don’t invoke Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great king .You shouldn’t swear by your head either, since you aren’t able to turn a single hair either white or black. Rather, your responses should be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Anything that goes beyond this is inspired by the evil one.
Here’s another example of remarks attributed to Jesus that have been ignored by cherry-picking sermonizers down through the ages – though there have been Christians sects, modelled on a return to ‘the true word of Christ’, who have refused to take oaths for religious reasons [e.g. the Waldensians]. And how could any Christian argue with them? In fact, considering the last line here, there’s not much wiggle room for true believers – if you take an oath on the holy book, or on anything, you’re infected by Satan. How could the vast majority of Christians have gotten it so wrong for so many centuries? More positively, Jesus’s message here is that you should just tell the truth and make no fuss about it. Another example of his preference for substance over ritualistic form. Again, not very Catholic.
5: 38-42 As you know, we once were told, ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘A tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you: Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for you shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you; and don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you [see also Luke 6:29-30, Luke 6:34-35].
The scholars of the Jesus Seminar were pretty well unanimous in their conviction that these words about turning the other cheek, offering your coat as well as your shirt, and walking the extra mile, were the authentic words of Jesus. This is quite unusual, they’re generally an admirably sceptical lot. They usually reach such consensus when the words are very striking and paradoxical, when they contain no elements that could be attributed to the struggling, persecuted and sometimes paranoid early Christian community, when they make no exaggerated claims for Jesus himself, when they don’t go on about the Last Days, etc. Of course, I’m a little sceptical myself about whether a ‘real’ Jesus can ever be revealed by the careful removal of what are calculated to be the gospel writers’ innumerable additions and modifications, but the argument for their version of Jesus as a framer of paradoxes and phrases that stick in the mind, creating an oral tradition before the gospel writers got to them and half-mangled them, seems plausible enough. As to the ethical significance of these teachings, certainly they’ve been much sermonised, but few have actually followed Jesus’s advice here. They are much honoured and much ignored ideals. Is that what Christian morality is all about?
Perhaps more importantly, there’s an unhelpful vagueness and lack of detail and context about this advice, which is typical of all Jesus’s pronouncements. What’s meant by ‘the one who is evil’? Someone who annoys us? Someone who steals all our money and murders our children? No distinctions are made. We all know that sometimes turning the other cheek or going the extra mile is precisely the most effective response to mean-spirited or cruel behaviour, but not always, as some people are far less easily shamed than others. Of course, sermonisers often provide the detail and context the gospels lack, but they pull it from their own experience, not from Christ.