Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Z is for Zoroaster

Zoroaster founded the religion named for him roughly 2500 years ago. His is the only monotheistic religion that deals successfully with what is called “The Problem of Evil.” The problem of evil is most easily stated in question form: Why does an omnipotent and loving God tolerate the existence of the Devil, the supposed source of Evil in the World? Surely an all-powerful God could destroy Satan simply by snapping his Omnipotent Fingers, and, if He Did So, much of the evil in the world would disappear. But since God allows Satan to remain in existence doing his mischief, He must think Satan is okay or, at the very least, a tolerable nuisance.

Old Zoroaster solves the problem of evil. He believed that there are two equally powerful forces in the universe: The God of Light and the God of Darkness. When the God of Light gets his way, things go well and people are healthy and happy. When the God of Darkness prevails, there are epidemics, wars, massacres, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. Humans can implore the God of Light for help, and, if he finds them deserving, they might even get some. But the God of Darkness is just as powerful and things go his way almost as often.

Ask another monotheist—any believing Jew, Christian or Muslim will do—why God doesn’t put Satan out of business, thereby greatly reducing the level of evil in the world, and you’ll get a lot of hemming and hawing. They can’t answer this question in 25 words or less. And the answers they do give strain credulity far beyond the breaking point.

So, let’s get straight to the point: Why didn’t God do something about the Holocaust? Was He too busy? Was He on vacation? Did He think the Jews had it coming? Were the Nazis doing His Will? Or, perhaps, if the Holocaust hadn’t happened, something worse would have! This last argument, (which Voltaire had such fun mocking in Candide) is simply too preposterous to be taken seriously.

If you read the Torah, there’s ample evidence all over the place that Jews believe that what happens to them, individually and collectively, is based on God’s willingness or unwillingness to help and/or protect them. Way back when, He saved them from the Pharaoh of Egypt. Then He helped drive the Bad Guys out of the Holy Land and gave it to the Jews. But later he stood by and did nothing when other Bad Guys drove the Jews out of the Holy Land. For a very, very long time Muslims owned it. Why did God allow this to happen? Did the Jews deserve to get kicked out? And, having suffered the Holocaust, do they now deserve to have it back? Or, might they have gotten it back sooner or later without the Holocaust?

Maybe the whole notion of “deserving” is beside the point. Maybe the Jews got kicked out way back when because the Babylonians and Romans were simply stronger. Maybe the strength of the Muslims kept them away for a very long time. Maybe they got it back in 1948 because they and their allies were stronger. Maybe they’ll be able to keep it now because they’re stronger than their neighbors. Maybe they’ll be able to keep it forever. Maybe not. Which is more important—being deserving or having power?

Looking at the foreign policy of Israel, one can only conclude that “might makes right“ has become the state religion. If not, what are all those (secretly stockpiled) nuclear weapons for? For no one can make the claim that nukes are nice. They kill the weak and the strong, the innocent and the guilty, without discrimination.

The evidence that bad things can and do happen to good people is overwhelming. Everyone knows many such instances among their immediate circle of family and friends. Watch the evening news on any day in any big city: Something bad will surely happen to some undeserving people. To go on believing that goodness and justice prevail in the face of this overwhelming daily evidence is touching, but it’s alos irrational. Such a belief has nothing to do with faith and a great deal to do with denial.

Theists come back with arguments like this: Sure lots of Bad Stuff happened today but if God had not intervened the amount of Bad Stuff would have been much worse. Sure that little kid was brutally raped and murdered by that deranged killer, but it could have been much worse. Sure those terrorists demolished the World Trade Center, but thousands of people got out alive. If the people who got out alive were a better bunch of people than the ones who died, this argument might have some perverse merit, but many of the people who died seemed to have been very nice people and some of them were surely heroic. God could have made those airplanes miss their targets but He didn’t. At the time, some well-known theologians (I use this term very loosely) offered the opinion that God wanted the World Trade Center demolished as a warning against homosexuality, blasphemy, pornography and all the other depravities they associate with that modern Sodom and Gomorrah we call the City of New York. New York may be a depraved place, but the people who died on 9/11 were not any worse on average than those who survived. Nor were they any worse than those of us who were not in Lower Manhattan that day.

Old Zoroaster would have explained it more simply: The Forces of Darkness won a victory on 9/11. The Forces of Light are simply not strong enough to win every time.

Y is for YHWH (r)

YHWH, the God of the Original Testament, is an angry, jealous, violent fellow. Once, in a fit of rage, He drowned every human being in the entire world except for Noah and his immediate family. Several times He inflicted terrible punishments on innocent Egyptians, who, as we all know, didn’t exactly elect their Pharaohs. But YHWH really flaunts his Dark Side in the Book of Deuteronomy.

As the Jews approach to the Promised Land, YHWH hands down the Ten Commandments.  Then, only a few short verses later, in Chapter 7, we come to this startling passage:

         When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; 2) And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: 3) Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4) For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. 5) But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. 6) For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.

Obviously, the Ten Commandments DO NOT APPLY when Chosen People deal with foreigners. You can do whatever you’d like to Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. YHWH then goes a giant step further and commands the Jews to kill these people, to “utterly destroy” them, to make no treaties with them, to show them no mercy, to refuse intermarriage with them, and to destroy their sacred artifacts.

Even the Mongols of Genghis Khan would have hesitated to carry out such orders. And these commands come from the mouth of the very same YHWH who just a few verses before commanded his people not to kill, and not to steal and not to covet. Of course, we now know that he was speaking only of one’s fellow Jews. The Ten Commandments DO NOT APPLY to outsiders. This YHWH is a fierce Tribal God who demands absolute obedience from his flock and hates outsiders who have no right to exist.

One is reminded of Adolph Hitler’s bitter complaint from the early 1920’s when liberal  -minded German hecklers taunted him for his ceaseless, bitter attacks on Treaty of Versailles by shouting “What about Brest-Litovsk?” “What about Brest-Litovsk?” Everyone knew then that Brest-Litovsk was the city where a very harsh treaty was imposed by the victorious Germans on the defeated Russians in 1917. Hitler could not comprehend such people. To him, Brest-Litovsk was a good treaty because it was good for Germany. Versailles was a bad treaty because it was bad for Germany. Hitler refused (or was unable) to see beyond  “What is Good, is What’s is Good For Us!” Our enemies deserve whatever injustices and penalties we inflict upon them because we are Germans and they are not!

YHWH would understand.

X is for X-Rated

If America’s ministers, priests and rabbis are right, there’s one thing we can be sure about: God hates pornography. And he doesn’t care much for sex either, except for the making of babies. Catholics have long regarded “recreational” sex as sinful. And then there’s sodomy: Any sexual act that cannot possibly result in a fertilized egg. Anal and oral sex are clearly out of bounds. Male masturbation, if it leads to ejaculation, is just as sinful because it wastes perfectly good sperm that could be deposited in someone’s vagina leading to fertilization. Sperm is for fertilization, not for fun. After all, why did God give us the power to make sperm? Certainly not for depositing it willy-nilly in or on just any old place. It has only one Proper Destination, and we all know what this is.

Female masturbation is condemned equally, but what exactly does it waste? No eggs are ejaculated. The female sex drive is not thereby blunted. For all the men who run the Roman Church know, masturbation might even make women (and here we speak only of married women, of course) more receptive to the kind of sex God likes. Penetration tops masturbation but only if it makes use of the proper orifice. Obviously ejaculation into any male orifice is wrong. And by wrong, the religious don’t mean badly aimed. They mean diabolical. Evil. Perverse. Abominable.

Let’s make it a bit more complicated: Suppose one partner is a married couple is sterile. They know they don’t need a condom to prevent pregnancy. They also know they can’t possibly produce a baby. Hence, all their sexual acts are purely recreational. Is it okay for them to have sex? Believe it or not, the standard, God-inspired, Catholic answer is Yes. (Unless one of them became sterilized by choice. Had a vasectomy, perhaps.) And why is it okay for them? Because God might perform a miracle and let them make a baby even when modern medicine (a mere human science after all) says it can’t happen. Here’s this happy sterile couple, screwing the night away, and it’s all A-okay!

But one asks, if God can provide a sterile father and/or mother with a miracle baby, why can’t He also give one to a condom wearing sinner? If sterility is no barrier to the Divine Will, what chance does a thin rubber membrane have? Once you’re in the realm of the miraculous, anything can happen. Let us not for a moment forget the Virgin Birth of Jesus.

If God can make a baby grow in the womb of a virgin, He can certainly divert a sperm or two from any of her bodily orifices to fertilize a waiting egg.

Perish the thought.

W is for World’s End

On Saturday, May 21st, 2011 the End of the World was supposed to begin at precisely 6:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. It is now May 22nd, so I write with absolute certainty that this prediction was inaccurate. It seems that a well-known Christian Biblical expert calculated that it was precisely 7000 years to the day and hour since the Great Flood—the one that only Noah and company survived—so we due to get zapped again. The first time it happened God was fed up with the sinfulness of mankind and decided to start over again with the Noah family. God, despite a perfect knowledge of genetics long before humans even knew such a subject existed, obviously picked the wrong guy because human beings seem to have been every bit as sinful since the Great Flood as they were before.

Nor did the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth among for a few years make much of difference. I remember asking in Sunday School why Jesus came to earth when he did and not sooner or later. It was a childish question put to a Catholic nun, but I have not forgotten her answer. It was along the lines of sinfulness. The Roman empire had become so sinful that God decided a personal visit was necessary to straighten out the human race. At the time I, then a pious ten-year-old, accepted this answer. But later, when I learned a lot more about history, I found it very weak. If there is such a thing as “sinfulness” it is very hard to measure. Judging from what we know of the Roman world, things were going fairly well during the long and peaceful rule (27 BCE - 14 CE) of the Emperor Augustus.

And, we are told, The Second Coming of Jesus was supposed to occur at the same moment as the Ending of the World yesterday. How was He to make his Divine Presence among us known? Was he going to commandeer all the TV stations in the world for one Great Final Simulcast? What language would He speak to us in? Aramaic again? And what about all the people without TVs and the countless millions in Europe and elsewhere who just happened to be asleep at that moment? (Interesting that God would schedule things in accordance with American time. North and South America were a heathen wilderness last time He dropped in.)

According to Christian theology, Jesus and God are co-extensive with the Holy Spirit and this Gang of Three, if you will, have been Together-As-One from the Beginning of Time. So Jesus was “in on” (to use a popular colloquialism) the decision to drown everyone the first time around precisely 7000 years ago. How does that square with His reputation for mercy and forgiveness? And what about yesterday when the Blessed Trinity were about to destroy the entire world killing several billion people for the crime of Not Being Christians (NBC) and hundreds of millions of pseudo-Christians for the equally serious crime Not Being Christian Enough (NBCE). And yet many Christians willingly join in regular, frequent and pious denunciations of the “Godless Trinity of Demons” Hitler, Stalin and Mao for merely killing tens of millions of innocents.

When it comes to really big crimes that are not really crimes, you definitely need God.

W is for Weasels

If you want to take an intellectually safe position—to never run the risk of losing an argument over the existence of God*—then agnosticism is the place to pitch your tent. But that’s all it is—an intellectually safe place to hunker down. No one knows for sure whether God exists, even those who claim to talk to Him regularly. “Knowing” isn’t what makes a person’s answer to the God question meaningful. If God’s existence were subject to scientific proof beyond a reasonable doubt, there would be no agnostics. Anyone who claims to know beyond a doubt—one way or the other—is obviously delusional. What matters isn’t knowing whether there’s a God or not, it’s how you choose to live your life.

We have two “as if” choices: (1) We can live as if there is a Deity, or (2) We can live as if there is not. Of course, this is overly simplified. There are many other possibilities. There might be gods who exist but don’t give a damn about us. These Wraiths may “exist” in some passive way and every 15 billion years or so, arise from their slumber and make a new universe. They don’t reward us, or punish us, or care what we do, or worry about what happens to us. They don’t give a hoot whether we believe in them or not, and they don’t legislate morality, give advice, prevent floods, or answer prayers. If gods like these exist, their existence can be safely ignored. As with leprechauns, for example.

An Activist Deity is the type we need to be concerned about. If there’s a God who intervenes in human affairs, and judges all of us at the end of our lives, and then sends our bodies or souls somewhere for eternity, then we’d be stupid to ignore such an Entity. That sort of God might take being ignored as a personal slight—She might want to be worshipped and prayed to five times each day. You’d be smart to live your life paying Her the appropriate homage and respect and doing whatever She wants you to do. To do the otherwise could be Eternally Dangerous.

Atheism then is the dangerous alternative. After all, it could get you sent to a Very Bad Place for a Very Long Time. Is it really any safer to be an agnostic? Perhaps not. For all we know, an Activist God might find agnostics more objectionable than atheists. She might not like weasels.

Atheists don’t claim to know that God or gods exist. Atheists believe, as a working hypothesis, that God does not exist. They run whatever risks that might be entailed in holding firmly to such a mistaken belief. Does it take courage to be an Atheist? I don’t think so, but there are those who find it scary.

* Singular or plural; male, female or both; include any/all the permutations you’d like.

V is for Virtue

Virtue is its own reward. I don’t know who said this first, but it can’t be said any better. If you read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount you will quickly discover that he doesn’t believe it even for a moment. Every virtue has a reward attached to it and every vice a punishment. In many cases the rewards and the punishments are Very Big.

From this it seems to me that Jesus was either a cynic or what some might call a “realist” when it comes to his estimate of human nature. An idealist, and I claim to be one, would argue that virtue is its own reward and that normal people don’t need to be bribed with a payoff for doing the right thing. The fact that it is the “right” thing, is, for many, sufficient reason to do it. And the same goes for not doing wrong things: The fact that such and such is a wrong thing is reason enough to not do it.

If you refrain from stealing money, or vandalizing property, or molesting children because you’re afraid the cops might catch you, and send you to jail, then you’re not really a very nice person. What you are is a criminally inclined person with a yellow streak. Real crooks, vandals and perverts throw caution to the winds. They “act out” and run the (admittedly slight) risk of getting caught. But the difference between criminals and  criminally-inclined wimps is not very big. It’s microscopic compared to the difference between all of them, and the truly virtuous—those who refrain from theft, vandalism, gossip-mongering, etc. etc. as a matter of principle.

One can only wonder why Jesus ignored the possibility that human beings could rise above themselves and become truly moral. Or did he come only to save those who are unable to rise above the selfish level of What’s In It For Me? For truly moral people, Jesus, with his constant appeals to self-interest, through promises of rewards and threats of punishments, is at best a huge disappointment.

Even when he tries momentarily to get away from rewards and punishments, in the end he always comes back to them. Take Matthew 6:5 and 6:6 for example:

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Verse 5 is fine just the way it is. Don’t be a grandstander showing off your religiosity in public where other people will be impressed. Phonies do that sort of thing. In fact, that’s exactly what modern phonies do with their “JOHN: 3:16” bumper stickers and their demanding public prayers before football games or at high school graduations.

In verse 6, Jesus abandons the moral high ground and sinks back into the gutter. Pray to God in secret because that way you’ll get a Really Big Reward and what’s more it will be received openly (for everyone to see)!

Why not simply pray to God in secret and leave off any mention of rewards? It’s insulting to be told over and over again by Jesus that you’ll get a reward for doing what’s right. Just Do It! Forget about rewards and punishments! Human Beings are capable of behaving much better than Jesus is willing to admit. And yet countless millions of people consider this man Jesus to be an idealist and an inspired moral and ethical teacher.


U is for Unborn

The unborn and their rights have become a very big political/moral issue in the United States ever since the 1960’s. Most advocates for the unborn willingly admit that theirs is essentially a position that derives from religion. Which leads to the following question: Is God’s assent necessary for a sperm to fertilize an egg? (You’ll surely note that this question has been deliberately framed so as to compel a “yes” or “no” answer.)

If one answers the question above with a “yes” then, logically, one has to oppose any and all abortions as violations of the Divine Will. But since rape and incest victims sometimes get pregnant, those who say “yes” cannot deny that God sometimes allows a sperm produced in the testes of a rapist, or a father or a brother, to fertilize an egg. And, since God knows the future, He [or She or It] also allows sperms to fertilize eggs that will produce severely deformed children. One can only wonder why a just and merciful God would allow things like this to happen. (One possibility, of course, is that God is neither just nor merciful, nor extant.)

Now, suppose one answers the question with a “no.” There is no Divine Sanction for fertilization. The “life” produced by the fusion of sperm and egg is a purely random occurrence fully explicable by the science of biology. This being the case, what valid reason can there be for denying a pregnant woman the choice of having abortion? One might argue that she is incompetent to make such a decision on account of youthfulness. And one might wish that the abortion could be performed during the first 90 days of pregnancy. Or, one might insist that the sperm donor, or her parents, ought to have some say in the matter. But these are all procedural questions that can best be settled by elected legislators.

As a practical matter, many people will say that unborn life is “sacred” but, at the same time, they will wish to make exceptions to save the life of the mother or to preserve the health of the mother, or, if the woman was made pregnant by a rapist or as the result of incest. Very few people want to force a victim of rape or incest to bear an unwanted child. But suppose the woman was not raped. Suppose she consented to having sexual intercourse, but the condom leaked. Or, worse, imagine her lover punctured the condom in order to get her pregnant so she would agree to stay home and marry him and give up her plans to go to college. What about cases like these where a woman got pregnant by accident or through deception. Should an accident or a deception be turned into a baby by the force of law?

Those who are against “choice” necessarily believe that the government should use its awesome power to force a pregnant woman to have a child against her will. And that’s a power the government must be denied.

T is for Ten Commandments

Here they are, the famous Ten Commandments:

I I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

II You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

III Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work. . .

IV Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

V You shall not murder.

VI Neither shall you commit adultery.

VII Neither shall you steal.

VIII Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.

IX Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.

X Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Ten simple, time-honored, Judaeo-Christian rules for living the good life; straight from God Himself; delivered, in person to Moses on Mount Sinai many years ago.

Let’s examine each of them closely to see how the Divine mind behind them operates. The first three—obviously the most important ones to God—all concern His Status. He very much wants to be the One and the Only—irrationally jealous of other gods and fearful that His Chosen People might turn to them if not threatened up front not even to think of such a thing. Would a secure God squander three out of ten rules for living a righteous life on his own pathetic ego needs? And besides, these other gods don’t actually exist, do they? And if they don’t exist, how can they deliver? So why are you so uptight Jehovah? I suspect that Moses—oops, I mean God—must have had a seriously troubled childhood to be that insecure.

Then, right after Himself, God gives second priority to parents. Even before getting around to  forbidding us to murder, steal or lie, he wants to be sure that we honor mom and dad. What’s the big hurry? Where’s the need? If parents deserve to be honored, they’ll be honored. Honor is something parents can earn all by themselves—there’s no need for God or anyone else to go around commanding it. Or maybe it was Moses’s idea put parents second, trying to get on their good side. Maybe, like many parents, his kids were giving old Moses a hard time and this was his way of putting them in their place. Parents do not need honoring—they have the money and they have the power. Children are the ones who need honoring; they’re the weak and vulnerable ones.

You can’t argue with the Fifth Commandment. Forbidding murder makes a lot of sense. But it’s kind of obvious. A better-worded commandment would say: “You shall not cause harm to other human beings or yourself.” This would include suicide, assault, and other types of physical abuse along with murder all under one big umbrella. If you’re allowed only ten, you’ve got to cover a lot of ground with each one.

“You shalt not commit adultery.” That’s simple but limited. Since we’re on the subject of sex why not include incest, rape, child-molestation and other forms of sexual abuse while we’re at it? Yet another place where a more sweeping commandment is in order. You want a commandment about marriage? What about “Honor your spouse.” Covers adultery, disrespectful treatment, nasty arguments, nagging, sarcasm and lots of other marriage-wreckers. You want one about sex? Try this: “Only consensual sex and only with adults.”

“You shall not steal.” Good Work Moses! Short and to the point.

“You shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Again, it’s much too narrow. Sounds like it’s only for courtrooms. “You shall not lie” would be a lot better. But, “You shall not intentionally deceive” is better yet, because it covers not only overt lies but also sneaky silences and cleverly worded ambiguities designed to mislead. Things politicians do all the time.

That leaves commandments nine and ten. They forbid coveting and desiring. But coveting and desiring occur only in the mind. Both are completely harmless unless acted upon. Of course “desiring thy neighbor’s donkey” might lead to actually stealing it, but that’s already been forbidden by another commandment. Moses doesn’t seem to understand that actions harm people—not states of mind. You can covet my wife, or my tools, or my house, as much as you want—just don’t mess with them.

If you had any doubt, commandments nine and ten prove conclusively that the Ten Commandments are not the product of a Divine Mind. At best they come from a rather ordinary human one. No wonder old Moses always let Aaron do all the talking.

Listed below are my ten commandments. If you don’t like mine, make up ten of your own. Almost anyone can improve on the original batch.
                        1. Respect those who think and believe differently.
                        2. Respect the earth, the air, and the water.
                        3. Do not harm other human beings.
                        4. Honor and protect children everywhere.
                        5. Honor, respect and cherish your spouse.
                        6. Do not cause animals to suffer needlessly.
                        7. Only consensual sex and only with adults.
                        8. Do not steal.
                        9. Do not deceive or mislead others.
                      10. Help those in need.

S is for Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is taken to be the centerpiece of the religious teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus the Preacher stands alone, high on a mountainside, addressing a vast throng. Unless he had a PA system at his command this would not be possible. In all likelihood the Sermon on the Mount was not really delivered from the side of a mountain. Many Bible scholars take it to be a collection of Jesus’s best remembered sayings that Matthew put together in the form of a speech or sermon. But it doesn’t really matter whether these sayings were meant to form a sermon—what matters is the message of Jesus to his followers.

I will take Jesus at his word and take what he says seriously—two things most Christians refuse to do as they either turn a deaf ear to the impassioned words from a man they take to be divine or dilute what he says by referring to it as “an ideal” not meant to be lived up to.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” A cheerful notion—the poor in spirit enjoying eternal bliss in the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit are not going to be blamed for their lack of spirit but rewarded for it. I see no reason for anyone to object. But what about those who are rich in spirit? What do they get? Is Jesus implying that those who are rich in spirit are rewarded here and now during this earthly life while the poor in spirit will get their reward later in heaven? If that’s the case it makes more sense to be poor in spirit here and now because the payoff is heavenly bliss for eternity. Why should spiritedness matter so much? And what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Is it like clinical depression?

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” A nice thought. Who would wish to deny comfort to mourners. Most of us would prefer never to mourn and need of comforting, but mourning comes sooner or later to everyone and it’s nice to think that comfort will be forthcoming.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” There are many meek people and no doubt some of them have inherited this or that from time to time. And besides who would want arrogant people to inherit anything? Disinherit the lot of them! But what is meant here by “the earth.” How can anyone or any type of person “inherit” it? To inherit means to take possession of or to own—as with a diamond ring or a house. The earth is a thing. As far as I know no one has ever owned it. Different nations and empires have controlled large parts of it from time to time. But no one has ever owned it outright. After 2000 years this prophecy, or wish, or whatever it is, has yet to be fulfilled. It must have some hidden, symbolic meaning. But even symbolically speaking the earth has never been ruled or owned or controlled or even influenced very much by the meek. The powerful and the arrogant and the ambitious have been in charge and have been doing a fairly lousy job. One wishes the meek would takeover for awhile, but I’m not holding my breath.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Another nice sentiment. Peacemakers are nice people. Hard to think of anyone this side of Adolph Hitler who would wish them ill. The next batch of sayings all fall into this same category. Blessings be upon nice people. Besides the Nazis, who could possibly object?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Nice sentiment.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. And they deserve it.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Good for them.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is different. A big reward—a huge reward if you believe there is such a place as the kingdom of heaven—is promised for undergoing persecution for righteousness sake. There can be no doubt what Jesus means by “righteousness” since he sees his movement as the very embodiment of righteousness.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” A further step down the same road. Undergo persecution and you will get a reward. One wonders what reward is waiting for those who were reviled and persecuted and put to death by Christian zealots after the shoe moved to the other foot.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has no taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” Salt that has lost its taste is probably still good for melting snow. A mysterious saying open to many interpretations. Be who you are. Stick with what you believe.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lamp stand. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Do good works and glorify God and other people will take notice, be favorably impressed, and seek to join our movement. Makes a lot of sense and an excellent way for any new movement to gain converts. Obviously it worked very well given the remarkable spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire before Constantine. After him it was a very different story.

“Do not  think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,
 you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Wow! Jesus is telling his followers that they must obey every one of the 613 laws the Old Testament lays down for observant Jews. And not only must Christians obey all of these commandments, but also their righteousness must “exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees” or they will denied entrance into heaven. The scribes and Pharisees were renowned for their strict adherence to the letter of the Jewish law. If we take Jesus at his word there are very, very, very, few Christians who have even a slight chance of making it into the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid your last penny.” Surely anger is not a good thing but getting angry with a brother or a sister ought not keep someone out of heaven. Saying “you fool” should not get you a one-way ticket to hell either. Clearly this is rhetorical overkill. If it’s at all true who would ever get into heaven? It must be incredibly lonely up there. One suspects that Jesus must have had some very serious arguments with his brothers.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Talk about impossibly high standards! This is off the wall! If every man who “looks at a woman with lust” is equivalent to an adulterer then only blind men and homosexuals have a fighting chance of getting into heaven. And if looking with lust is just as bad as actually doing it one might as well go ahead and do it since the punishment—hell—is the same in either case. Clearly Jesus does not have even the slightest insight into the way normal, red-blooded male human beings respond to females. Not to mention the very thinly veiled suggestion that men should cut off their penis should it cause them to sin. God may have sent Jesus to the wrong planet.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Given this extreme definition, adultery beyond reckoning is taking place at every hour of every day in every city, town and hamlet in every one of the fifty United States. I wonder what the punishment for all this is going to be? Will there be room ion hell for all these sinners? Or has Jesus modified his definition since that time? You Christians had better hope he’s changed his mind big time. And for those who believe in gender equality, Jesus permits divorce of the wife by the husband on the grounds of “unchastity” but not vice versa. One would expect a more even-handed view of the matter from the Son of God. Another typical male chauvinist, obsessed by fear of being cuckolded by a cheating wife. And they say Jesus never got married and never had sex.  And what about all those other grounds for divorce we have today including physical abuse, rape, abandonment, incest, and so on? Does Jesus really think none of these offenses is serious enough to provide ample grounds for divorce?

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” So why do we have all this sinful swearing on the Bible instead of just a simple yes and no? The “evil one” seems to gotten Christians to do his bidding. Jesus cannot be pleased.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’ But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Give to everyone who begs! Refuse no one who wants to borrow? Capitalism would be impossible. Life would be impossible! We’d all be forced to lock our doors and cower in our basements to avoid all those people out there with a hand out asking for our money. And we can’t ever say no. But then we could get even with them by turning into beggars and borrowers ourselves. No Christian could refuse us. And for all those Christians who think Jews have too much money now just imagine how much more they would have if Christians handled their finances the way Jesus wants them to! Jews and atheists would all be rich beyond imagination. And we all know those crazy ideas about turning the other cheek, giving up your cloak too, and going the extra mile have never been tried anywhere. Again, Jesus must have confused human beings with much better creatures from some other solar system.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,’ so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. If Jesus thinks for one minute that any human being who has ever lived could measure up to his standard of perfection he’s absolutely nuts. Not even St. Francis of Assisi would make it through the pearly gates. And how hard is it to be “perfect” when you are the heavenly Father? Does God have to fight off the temptation to hate his enemies? Hell no! He can strike them dead or send them floods or plagues of locusts whenever he wants.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” All those motorists with “Jesus Saves” bumper stickers on their cars and all those football fans with “John 3:16” posters in the end zone seats are going to end up empty-handed. This is truly wonderful news. And what of those who put Christmas displays on their front lawns or who wear conspicuous religious medals or crosses?

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have 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.” The main thing is the reward. Jesus might have said “give alms for the sake of the poor” because it’s the right thing to do. But instead he attaches a reward to alms giving. If you need to be bribed in this way, what sort of benefactor of the poor are you? Charity is not charity when it is rewarded. And you thought making charitable donations deductible on your income tax is a good deal.

“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.” Think of all those Christians who proclaim their faith to world by wearing religious medals or by walking around with ashes on their foreheads or pious bumper stickers on their cars. Not one of them will get a thing from God. But those who keep their religion completely private—in the closet, they will get a reward. This is a noble conception and Jesus deserves much credit for proclaiming it to his followers. Too bad so few of them seem ever to have ever heard it much less acted upon it.

“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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” If he knows what you need before you ask him why ask at all? Or does God just like to hear us beg from time to time?

“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 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.” Forgiveness is not a bad way to operate, but holding other people accountable—and being accountable yourself—are good things too. There’s no balance here.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show to 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 not be seen by others but by your Father who sees in secret and will reward you.” Same as with prayer, if you want to get credit where it counts you’d better do it in private.

“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 only way to store up treasures in heaven is by doing, saying and thinking what Jesus wants you to do, to say and to think. In other words he’s prepared to pay you enormous dividends if you follow the straight and narrow path. It’s an elaborate system of rewards and punishments. Do what I say, you get a big reward. Do otherwise and you get zapped for eternity. Remember all you Catholics out there, Jesus never heard of purgatory. It was invented by the Medieval Church. They must have known that without it no one would ever get into heaven.

“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!” The light in you. A veiled reference to the soul perhaps? Everyone is pro-light, anti-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.” More than any other people Americans believe it is possible to serve God and wealth. They stand contradicted. But Jesus didn’t know what consumerism is all about.

“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 of 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.” The very opposite of the oft-quoted American adage “God helps those who help themselves.” Hard to believe that anyone has ever taken any of this seriously. Birds and deer and grass hoppers forage for food and they find plenty of it waiting  for them. They can’t do agriculture. Are all of us supposed to wander about in the woods looking for berries? This cannot be.

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment 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 neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘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 neighbor’s eye.” It would be nice if we stopped judging one another and took care of ourselves but we do need a criminal justice system if society is going to function.

“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.” Why will they turn and maul you? When dogs and pigs are fed food they don’t like their nomal response is to ignore it. What’s the point?

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, 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 give to those who ask him?” Okay Father, I’m asking: Hows about a decent standard of living and high-quality medical care for everyone. And while you’re at, let’s have decent nursing homes for the elderly too. I asked. I’m not holding my breath.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” The Golden Rule. Not original with Jesus and not as well-formulated as the lesser known Silver Rule: Do NOT do to others what you would NOT want others to do to you. Think about it. Among other things, the Golden Rule gives free reign to sexual predators; the Silver doesn’t.

“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.” Based on the requirements described in this sermon the road to “life” is both incredibly narrow and impossibly steep.

“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.” If only false prophets were this easy to spot. What sort of “fruits” do prophets produce? Religious prophets from Moses to Jesus to Muhammad to L. Ron Hubbard would be appalled by many of things done in their name by their so-called followers. Are these among the “fruits” Jesus is referring to or should we construe “fruits” more narrowly? Non-religious prophets suffer from the same problem: Karl Marx for example.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the 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 declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me you evildoers.” Saying “Lord, Lord” would be much too easy but doing the will of “my Father in heaven”—as Jesus has described it here—is far beyond the capacity of any human being. And what’s all this stuff about casting out demons and deeds of power? Are we talking magic here?

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house a rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on the 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 upon 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 that you’ve heard this message you’re doomed unless you believe it and act upon it. Jesus appeals to our self-interest as though we are investors looking to buy stocks. If we are prudent we’ll put all our eggs in the Christian basket. If we don’t we’re like the man who built his house on sand which will surely be washed away in the flood. What ever happened to the idea of doing good for the sake of goodness with no reward attached? Jesus is often criticized for being too idealistic. In fact he is cynical. He is trying to bribe people into doing what he says so that they will receive a heavenly payoff instead of the alternative.
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teachings, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. Very interesting even though the sermon was almost surely not delivered to crowds the description of their reaction is suggestive. It suggests that scribes would have taught them differently—not as having authority. The crowds know that are expected to accept what Jesus has to said to them on the basis of his “authority.” If he were not an authority figure, and had tried to support his points with reasoned arguments, the way a scribe would have, his message would have fallen flat. In other words, even though what Jesus’ sermon makes no logical sense and is totally impractical—for why else would the crowds be “astounded”—they are expected to accept his teachings because he represents authority. In other words, if Jesus isn’t really the Son of God what he says can be safely ignored.