Why is the Sermon on the Mount so often upheld as the ultimate in ethics? Surely we have progressed ethically in 2000 years.
Whoever is angry
The first specific instruction in the Sermon on the Mount warns listeners against getting angry. The rule is a blanket one. No exceptions allowed. I suspect such a rule can only come from someone who wants people to keep their place and never be tempted to rise up against unjust authorities. Anger against those who abuse their power to oppress or cheat others is right, healthy, good and necessary to promote a better society.
But what is the reason given for maintaining a catatonic exterior while denying ourselves the right to be angry with those who do harm? Hell and damnation! Jesus threatens anyone who loses his temper with hell and suffering from a higher power. He does not extol it as a quality that is good for its own sake. It is an instruction that must be obeyed for fear of hell. It has the same ethical standard as a parent threatening a child with punishment if it loses its temper.
But the biggest irony (hypocrisy) underlying this is that God himself is threatening to get angry and kill you if you let yourself get angry! Yes, well…. one rule for the master, another for the sucker….
Anyone who “lusts”
What a silly rule this is! How can anyone legislate against chemistry?
Jesus teaches that anyone who lets himself feel this normal physical emotion will go to hell. He says that anyone who looks with sexual desire on a woman is an adulterer. How much torment must this precept and accompanying threat have caused so many true believers? This is a Taliban like instruction that denies the reality of human nature and speaks volumes about the insecurities and fears of the one who teaches it. All normal healthy people know sexual desire, and most normal healthy people are able to control their feelings. Feeling sexual attraction for another, even for your best friend’s wife, is not wrong if you control the feeling, and most people do for the sake of maintaining normal healthy relationships that are important to us.
So a woman who has a drunk and violent husband has no chance of a better future for herself by being allowed to remarry. I see nothing high minded about this teaching.
Turn the other cheek
It would be cruel to teach a young child not to stand up to bullies at school. On top of the bullying the child would have to cope with torments within over his own impulses and parental teaching backed by the threat of hell from God, not to mention long-term depression that generally follows failure to rise above bullying from one’s early years. This instruction, as many commentators acknowledge, is the morality for an occupied people. It is a survival tactic to get along with occupation forces when a liberation struggle is out of the question given the disparities of power. People have a social responsibility to stand up against those who abuse their power.
Love your enemies
This is the most hypocritical of all the precepts in the Sermon on the Mount. The admonition comes with the command to “be perfect like God is perfect”. Yet we have just been reading that God who teaches that one must never lose one’s temper or God will lose his! This god who makes his sun to shine and rain to fall on the good and bad alike has just been said to be waiting to throw people into hell for feeling anger or sexual desires.
So we must be perfect and love enemies because God does that — yet we know God hates his enemies too. Unless we change the meaning of hate and call it love when he throws people into hell. Either way, we must learn to live with Orwellian contradictions in our minds: hate is love, the vagaries of the weather and the indiscriminate rising of the sun on all are expressions of “love”.
By all means seek peace with our enemies. But to take this command as expressed on the Mountain seriously is to shut down our more discerning faculties.
Giving in secret
This sounds a nice ethic, until one continues reading to find the reason given for embracing it. We are to give without hypocrisy so that we will get a special reward from God himself.
Again, this also sounds beautiful, and it would be if Jesus only knew when to shut his mouth. He had to spoil it by threatening hearers that if they didn’t forgive others then God would not forgive them. So once again the ethic is a self-interested one.
The day of judgment comes
The final words of Jesus (Matt. 7) refer back to all that he has said since Chapter 5. If you don’t actually do everything you have been told about in this Sermon on the Mount then you will suffer judgment at the last day. If you do them, you will stand in the final judgment.
So the ethic is the most basic one that motivates little children: reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience. It is every bit worthy of the same author who wrote that God would burn people alive like weeds as they scream in torment (Matt. 13:42).
That may have been one of the best standards around 2000 years ago (although not all ancient philosophers would have agreed), but it is surely well passed its use-by date now. Surely fewer of us today need carrots and sticks to do good for our fellow humans.
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