20 August 2015

The Sermon on the Mount - A Brief Review

Posted by at 10:06 AM Read our previous post
Facebook is very often used as a personal soapbox. I am alternately fascinated and perplexed by the psychological projections that social media ultimatums reveal in people, usually expressed in the form:
"If you believe or subscribe to [idea X], then please delete me."
Idea X can be any number of things that a person might find offensive or disagreeable. It could be some perceived racism. It could be a perceived blasphemy. It could be some particular stance on abortion. It could be a political viewpoint. Whatever the sore spot, such an ultimatum essentially says: "If we disagree on this all-important idea, then you are not worthy of my attention. You are beneath me." This is silly, of course. Such an expression is really just a projection of our egos onto our social interactions. They are inadvertently just funny if anything, and they can usually be dismissed as the selfish primping of our inner Narcissus. Now and then, though, we encounter one of these ultimatums, and instead of ignoring it, the expression sets us on a train of thought, bringing us to some hitherto unthought-of reflection or insight.

This was the case when an acquaintance of mine recently posted:
"If you are against Christianity, read the sermon on the mount (Mathew 5-7). This sums up what Jesus stood for nicely. If you are against that then we shouldn't be friends.

Now if I can only get the Christians to read and adhere to those teachings."
Upon reading it, my initial question was, What would constitute being "against" Christianity?

I mean, a religion can be seen as adversarial by a person only inasmuch as its proponents try to limit or trespass on the liberties of fellow citizens for the benefit of the religion. Until someone crosses that line, most people don't even care what others believe. Why should they?

But say someone were to approach me with the "good news" that God once (fourteen hundred years ago) spoke through an angel to a man in a desert cave and commanded him to recite poetry, ... poetry which is to be considered a socio-spiritual mandate for all mankind (divine and unalterable) for ever after.

... after some consideration of the probabilities, the contingencies, and the implications of this proposition ... let's say that my response is, "Bah, humbug."
Does this mean that I am "against" Islam?

Would a simple rejection of a religion be sufficient to qualify one as a bigot? Of course not. One would have to actively campaign for the subjugation (or the vilification) of that religion, in either word or deed, to qualify, I think. Luckily, this kind of activist religious bigotry is rare, at least in this country, and so most of the time people just go about their daily business without having to even think about it. Most people who reject religion are just too busy with lives, with mates, children, jobs, dreams, aspirations, etc., to spend any time actively "againsting" on some particular sect.

That said, I reject Christianity, but it is not because of any antagonism on my part, but simply because I find it to be obsolete, irrelevant (at least in its traditional, devotional sense). Nevertheless, since the Sermon on the Mount was offered up as axiomatically self-evident and true, it occurred to me that I had never given much critical thought to the precise content of that famous biblical passage, and so I decided to take seriously the invitation from that Facebook post. I went ahead and read G°Matt (ch 5–7) critically, just to see whether I agree or disagree with any of it, just to satisfy my own curiosity, ruminating on each verse as I went. It's something I had never really asked myself this directly before.
Do I agree or disagree with the Sermon on the Mount?  

GºMatthew Chapter 5

(verses 1–2) - These verses frame the scene ... N N
"And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,"

(verse 3) -
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Already, from the git-go, there is ambiguity at hand. What does it mean to be poor "in spirit"? Why did the author of G°Matt feel the need to change G°Mark's unambiguous "poor"? Everyone knows what "poor" means. It's an interesting substitute phrase. While we're at it, why did he similarly change G°Mark's "Kingdom of God" to "kingdom of heaven"? Though I know that valid self-consistent responses are possible within the Christian paradigm, I ask these questions not so much to elicit a response, but only to point out that this verse involves concepts and symbols and theological formulations that are quite nuanced and that need to be unpacked and teased out, and are as such actually far from the self-evident axioms they have been suggested to be by my friend's post. Having said that, inasmuch as this verse has to do with a future reward after death, I have no reason to think the statement is true. X

(verse 4)
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
I'm down with this verse as a simple expression of compassion and empathy and sympathy, for I think they are good things. But viewed as a reference to some future reward for the downtrodden in the after-world, I see no reason to think this an accurate statement either. X

(verse 5)
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
The meek have never inherited anything and that is not likely to change. (Note here that I am not suggesting that one not be meek in conduct, but that one should not expect a reward later. In fact, I think that humility and sobriety in this life are arguably their own rewards.) X

(verse 6)
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
Like verse 3, this one has been abstracted from the original version (G°Mark), which talked of hunger as hunger. Everybody knows what hunger is. Why has the author of G°Matt changed it to "hunger for righteousness"? It's a tangential, rhetorical question, but one I find fascinating: Why is the author of G°Matt so bent on ambiguating poverty and hunger, on turning these urgencies into metaphors for something else, almost trivializing them? At the very least, this verse is not as self-evidently "true" as my friend suggests. X

(verses 7–11)
"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake."
These are pretty much the same promises of reward in a coming after world, reward for having to live such a nasty, brutish, and short life in this one. I would like to note, though, that removed from their afterlife context, framed instead as self contained metaphors, verses 7–9 are actually nicely poetic koans. And so I'll give some kudos to Jesus on this pericope.
I'd be down with all three in that case. X X Y Y Y

(verse 12)
"Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
This verse turns out to be more problematic than one at a first glance might think. It reflects the "O Jerusalem!" admonition. That the Jews had killed all their prophets is a charge that is accepted here at face value and is reinforced by Paul in 1Thess 2 and repeated by G°Matt later in chapter 23 and by G°Luke 13. The problem, though, is that when you go look in the Old Testament for a corroboration of this charge, the only instance we can find of anything like this having occurred is in the case of Urijah, a small-time Jeremiah parrot, who was tracked down, dragged back, and killed by King Jehoiakim (Jere. 26:20-23). Even in this case, the killing was the deed of one Jew and his flunkies. It was not a collective act of society in the sense implied by the "O Jerusalem" theme. Therefore I think that this verse likely reflects an early second century provenance, a time by which "the Jews always kill their own prophets" has become a party line, a talking point for the gestating Christian community. The author of G°Matt makes Jesus say things that are simply wrong about the fate of the prophets. Why?
And why would being proud of this lie be a good thing? X

Thus conclude what are generally known as the Beatitudes, a series of promises (from Jesus to his hearers) that in spite of the pain and suffering that they have to undergo in this life, a blessing is guaranteed to them along with an afterlife in which they will rejoice.
Isn't that nice.
I'm all for it.
I just don't think it likely. I have no reason to.

The sermon continues.

(verse 13)
"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot."
This is a particularly cryptic saying. The ancients used halite (NaCl=sodium chloride=salt), even back then. I'm not sure, but I think the "saltiness" is a metaphor for a thing's essence(?). Otherwise, I don't really know what it means for salt to lose its saltiness. Spices can lose potency with time, but salt is just a mineral that sits there for millions of years before it is harvested (sea salt is the same mineral but harvested differently). Trust me, salt's saltiness ain't going anywhere. A tricky passage, count this verse with those others which belie the notion that the truths within the Sermon are somehow self-evident. X

(verses 14–16)
"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
These three verses I'm totally down with. Removed from their theological context, I think this is generally good advice to give aspirants in any quest. Y Y Y

(verses 17–20)
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."
Bracketing for the moment that this is an exposition of fulfillment theology, which I have always found abhorrent and insulting, this is saying, explicitly, that Torah is still to be followed to the letter. I'm not particularly interested in becoming Christian, but then I'm not really interested in becoming Jewish either, so, in the end, any exhortation to adhere to Torah doesn't really apply or appeal to me. N N X X

(verses 21–26)
"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing."
These verses regarding one's attitude toward murder and toward violence and toward rancor and grudges are generally good advice, I'd say (references to an afterlife notwithstanding), but the hellfire imagery kinda defeats the beauty underneath. Y Y N N N

(verses 27–30)
"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell."
These verses regarding adultery and "thoughtcrime" are a bit harsh in my opinion. While I would agree that it is certainly a good idea to control one's libido, I disagree with the notion that to have prurient thoughts at all is somehow tantamount to having sinned. I don't think it's a realistic demand on one's biological makeup (or at all helpful, for that matter) to condemn oneself for one's natural urges. In fact I think it's pericopes like this (cf. G°Mark 9:45) that would eventually drive some early church luminaries like Origen to do crazy things like castrate themselves in the name of piety and purity. X X X

(verses 31–32)
"It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."
Do I agree with this? I think people are free to marry and/or divorce if they choose to for whatever reason they want to, so I guess I don't agree with Jesus. X

(verses 33–37)
"Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."
I don't have any fundamental objection to oaths. I have no idea why the character of Jesus here thinks they are so bad. I can deduce that he thinks them idolatrous, but that needs some further unpacking. We can thus place this pericope with the others that belie the sermon's "self-evident" claim. N X

(verses 38–42)
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away."
Eye for an eye. While I don't particularly care to defend "eye for an eye" justice, to go as far as saying that one should submit oneself to further abuse from an aggressor is lunacy, in my opinion. I will add, however, that I like the simple altruism of verse 42. X X X Y

(verses 43–48)
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
Love for enemies? I'm happy to love my enemy, but not if he is shooting at me. This pericope, while actually trying make what could be a valid point, fails to make a crucial distinction. Let's say that your brother needs a kidney transplant. Most people would gladly donate their kidney to a family member, I think. That's an easy decision to make. It's making that decision to donate it to a stranger that would be a better test of one's altruism. But why does the author have to conflate "neighbor" with "enemy" here? This conflation seems mean-spirited to me. In a sense, I am in agreement with Jesus, but as a general mandate to love one's "enemy" ... I will say that this pericope's phrasing is less than endearing. X Y

Chapter 6

The sermon continues ...
(verses 1–4)
"Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Giving to the needy. I'm totally down with this part. Even better, not being an ostentatious asshole when we give to the needy. Y Y Y

(verses 5–15)
"‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. ‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
 Hmm. I have no use for prayer in the conventional Christian intercessory sense, but if I take the word to mean "introspective meditation" (or something along that line), then I'm cool with his exhortation to do it in private ... not in a showy self-serving way.
 Forgiving people their trespasses.
Some times it's harder than others (this is why forgiveness is so valuable—because it is so hard), but I generally think that forgiveness is a good spiritual practice. I'm totally down with that, theological affectations aside. Y Y X

(verses 16–18)
"‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
I can see a use for fasting as a spiritual exercise. Again, I'm totally down with Jesus' warning against ostentatiousness in our behavior. Y Y N

(verses 19–24)
"‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Treasures ... Yeah, I more or less agree with these sentiments, theological concerns aside. In fact, I find this pericope to be particularly lovely in its imagery. Y Y Y N

(verses 25–34)
"‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today."
Don't Worry; Be Happy ...
Sorry, but this, along with his exhortation to turn the other cheek and love your enemy, is one of the places where I strongly disagree with the Jesus. I think that Jesus' exhortation against prudence is unwise and impractical. Waiting for a god to take care of everything is not a very good idea. X X X

Chapter 7

The sermon continues ...
(verses 1–6)
"‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye. ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you."
Judging others.
 Hmm ... I don't think that we can avoid "judging" people places and things according to our critical faculties. Such rationalizations are how we navigate our interactions with our world. The general idea that we should be compassionate and empathetic in our judgments, though, is something I can get behind. However, the extreme exclusivism of verse 6, the dismissal of opponents as "swine" (a pejorative metaphor is a problem, not a solution, if you ask me. Think about it ... Is this not the very kind of judgement that is being discouraged?  X Y X

(verses 7–12)
"‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets."
Ask and ye shall receive ...
 Yeah, when I remove its theological overtones, this seems to speak of ambition and a proactive outlook. As such, it doesn't bug me. The golden rule is certainly one of the good ideas. A good general attitude toward life. Y Y

(verses 13–14)
"Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it."
Narrow and wide gates ... Another cryptic passage to add to the pile of "not-so- self-evident" material. I think this is saying that though it is harder to do, living a decent life is preferable to blindly running with the herd. I find this sentiment ironic in a Christian historic context. Regardless, I more or less agree. Y

(verses 15–20)
"‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits."
True and false prophets ... Verse 20 is absolutely brilliant and true as far as I'm concerned. ... It goes for any enterprise in life, in fact (prophethood notwithstanding). Y N

(verses 21–23)
"Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” "
True and false disciples ... This reflects the sectarian divisions at the time of composition. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to agree or disagree with here. N

(verses 24–29)
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. "
The wise and foolish builders ... A cryptic guarantee that what he has just said is true. Verse 28 tells us that the crowds were "amazed" at his teaching. I don't think I would have been amazed. I would have stuck around for the Q & A.  N N N

Okay, so there it is, the Sermon on the Mount broken down into 65 individual literary components that I can vote pro or con or as irrelevant.

So what's my tally?

Pro (Y) = 35.4%

Con (X) = 41.5%

Not Appicable (N) = 23.1%

I can kinda dig three Beatitudes, five other pericopes, and there is a smattering of partial agreements here and there. I'm indifferent to a few pericopes as irrelevant and/or inapplicable. I think that at least one pericope is a historically indefensible polemical anachronism, and that two pericopes are hyper-ascetic, and were very likely the direct inspiration for some very wacky (Encratites, Montanists etc.) sects sprouting up early on.

I outright directly disagree with what Jesus says on about three of these pericopes.

So ... am I against Christianity?


That said, I find a certain symmetry to the fact that my friend focused on the sermon in G°Matt as the litmus test, for this gospel uses the word "against" in a sense similar to the post that prompted this train of thought which now finally is coming to a stop. Referring to G°Matt 12:30 will be a good place to once again bring up and highlight the author's detectable habit of redacting G°Mark.
"He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters."
This is the exclusivist, divisive version that the author of G°Matt preferred, one which reverses and essentially negates G°Mark's original optimistic (un-paranoid) take on that saying (9:40):
"For he that is not against us is for us."
G°Mark's original version is the more beautiful of the two, in my opinion. Moreover, I propose that G°Matt's version is fundamentally mean-spirited and pessimistic (by design!). It is not very useful as a "rule" for good living, I think.
Though I may be 35% in agreement with the Sermon on the Mount, I reject this latter exclusivist way of thinking categorically.



1 comment:

  1. I would like to talk with you about the gospel of Matthew which seems to be the least favorite of Christians except for the "Sermon on the Mount". I'm a former Christian who spent many years studying scripture to find out if it could answer my questions about my faith. Eventually all my questions led me straight out of the religion. I appreciate your comments for the most part but your comments are vaguely like how Christians see the scripture---read word for word to a literal understanding. Most, except scholars dismiss the fact that Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews. For Christians, this Jesus may have been born a Jew but he came to found a new religion. So only the few Jews listed as his disciples understood his message. Anyway, I'm sure I'm boring you but I did appreciate you analysis.


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