Tuesday, October 25, 2011

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.

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