2007-08-06

The questionable ethical standard of the Sermon on the Mount

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Divorce forbidden

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.

Forgive

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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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “The questionable ethical standard of the Sermon on the Mount”

  1. Amen. I’m so glad someone else sees it too. I honestly cannot understand how men like Jefferson and even Paine could find Jesus’ preaching admirable when the entire thing was underpinned with a vicious, cruel threat of unimaginable torment if one did not adhere to all of these rules perfectly.

    The reality is that Jesus presumed that the end was very, very near – and when the end is very near, the commandments he makes about forgiving, turning the other cheek, not preparing for the future, etc. make good sense. They were not meant to apply to modern day people today – and Christians who do save up, who do get angry, who do divorce, etc. know this – albeit in practice – even if they refuse to admit it.

  2. Ethics, I believe, are not a mere matter of taste, but can be taught and refined through reason and clarity of thought. — Which explains how ethical views have progressed in the last 2000 years and more. Perhaps in place of judgmentalism you would like to use a reasoned argument to demonstrate that my reasons for not being overly impressed with certain biblical ethics are flawed.

    (You say in another comment that you understand where I am coming from. Unfortunately I do not understand the basis of your accusation that I am simply dumping on ethics I don’t agree with — unless you did not actually read, or skimmed very superficially, the contents of my post??)

  3. Doubt you keep track of this post anymore, but thought I’d drop a comment since I came across this post while looking for some thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount.

    Ignoring the other aspects of your post for the sake of brevity, I just wanted to comment on your interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on anger. You actually make this same mistake in each of the following interpretations as well, but the biggest mistake you make when talking about the anger passage is this: you take it out of context. The verse you refer to is this one, “But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment.” The verse directly before that is this one: “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.'” Have you ever heard of a murder that occurred without anger? Even a cold-blooded murder occurs because the murderer is angry with the victim.

    So what is Jesus getting at? The same thing he is getting at through the whole entire Sermon. He doesn’t care if you outward actions match up with expectations. He cares if your HEART matches up with expectations. If you get angry with a person (YES, that is ONE person, not a whole government, incidentally), and you think to yourself, “Man I’d like to kill that person,” and you actually mean it, then here’s the point: in God’s eyes that is just as bad as actually killing him. Your anger and intent were to kill him; regardless of whether you actually do or not, you are subject to judgment for that.

    Is that a high standard? Yes, very high. Does it mean you don’t fight oppressive governments? Of course not! The command is for personal interactions, between individuals. It has nothing to do with fighting against or being angry with oppressive governments.

    1. Have you ever been involved in a campaign against a government without any focus on particular individuals in that government? It is personal interactions with governments (their agents, their directors) that lead to anger and struggles against them. But the government example was but one of a number I could have cited.

      The Bible teaches a kind of stoicism, a suppression of normal human emotions in both the example of Jesus and the instructions in the epistles. There is no room for anger, period. Anger is exclusively the perogative of God, is it not?

  4. I think when jesus ment “thinking” of commiting a sin such as murder as a way to stop the act from actually happening, if you are stoping your self from thinking about murdering people then you are far less likely to actually commit the act of murder. i see it as sort of a pre caution to stop your self from actually COMMITING sin physically. This is my interpertation of his words. how he really ment it thats for you to decide but i would suggest opening your mind a bit more to all points of view.

    1. Hi Patrick — What you say is the explanation one always hears about Jesus’ words, but look again at the verse and see for yourself what it says. What people say Jesus meant is not what we read in the Bible.

      It is as if many Christians are a little embarrassed by Jesus’ words so they find a way to explain them as meaning something else.

  5. Hi Neil,

    Commenting on a post from almost a decade ago will feels extremely sad, but it contains so many things that need to be questioned that I can’t resist!

    First of all I have a complaint in that, instead of citing the relevant verses, you give paraphrases which are sometimes misleading or even inaccurate.

    Anger: Jesus does not say “you must never get angry”; he warns against getting angry with “your brother” for no reason. There is no prohibition of justified anger, or even of unjustified anger against someone who is not “your brother” (whatever that may mean). Maybe the warning about judgment is not so much a threat as a statement that someone who cannot control their anger, not even with friends, not even when there’s nothing worth getting angry about, is a long way from the kingdom of heaven.

    Lust: I don’t know any Greek, but fortunately there is an analysis of this passage here: http://www.jasonstaples.com/bible/most-misinterpreted-bible-passages-1-matthew-527-28/ It seems it actually means something like “an adulterer is someone who looks at a woman with the intention of coveting her”.

    There are a number of important points here. First, the word usually translated as “lust” is also used to express desire or longing without any sexual connotation, e.g. Luke 15:16 and Luke 22:15. (Incidently, it seems there is no condemnation of sexual desire in itself anywhere in the New Testament, only of it being misdirected and leading to sin).

    Secondly, it’s only wrong if there is an act of will involved – Jesus is not condemning men for looking at women in general (so there is no requirement for a “Taliban-like” separation of the sexes). Nor does he condemn involuntary flickers of desire – there has to be a deliberate act of will. Third, the direction of cause and effect matters – looking at a woman with lust does not turn an innocent man into an adulterer; he looks at a woman with lust because he already is an adulterer.

    The will was regarded by the Greeks as the middle of the soul, between the mind and the appetite, and was associated with the heart/chest area (so “in his heart” underlines the involvement of the will). In a spiritually healthy person, the mind controls the will and the will controls the desires, and the soul is in a state of harmony and balance. However, the adulterer’s will is controlled by his desires, therefore is he is unbalanced and spiritually sick, i.e. in a state of sin.

    Divorce: Men are prohibited from divorcing their wives, except in cases of fornication (perhaps to prevent the “trading her in for a younger model” syndrome?). There is nothing to say that women cannot seek a divorce. [This was in fact possible in 1st century Judaism, although it was not straightforward as the divorce certificate could only be signed by the husband. In practice, when the rabbinical courts considered the wife had a good case, they “persuaded” a reluctant husband to sign by levying ever-increasing fines on him until he gave in].

    Turn the other cheek: This is not a commandment to be a human punchbag or (another common misinterpretation) to ignore wrongdoing. Slapping someone on the cheek was a Jewish insult; offering up the other cheek shows that the person does not have the power to insult you.

    Love your enemies: Most of this is based on points already discussed. Matthew’s alarming descriptions of the judgment and hell are obviously allegorical, but of what? Maybe a kind of spiritual medical examination in which those who are in perfect health will enter the kingdom of heaven with Jesus, the doctor and epitome of spiritual soundness, while the unhealthy who ignored the doctor’s warnings and refused to be healed will endure a grim, colourless afterlife in the Sheol ward.

    Giving in secret: The motive cited is to avoid hypocrisy, which is the theme of the surrounding verses; the reward from God is the consequence of the motive, not the motive itself (I don’t know if the Greek supports your interpretation, but that is how it always seems to be translated). Instead of giving ostentatiously to impress human onlookers with your generosity, you give secretly, out of compassion, and divine approval will follow. Maybe not so much bribery as “what goes around comes around”.

    As with some other passages in this Sermon, it might be more useful to invert the expression and look at it from the other direction: those who give alms in order to gain the praise of their fellow men will not be rewarded by God.

    Forgiveness: If someone refuses to forgive their fellow humans for their failings, isn’t it rather presumptuous of them to expect that God will forgive theirs? (Unless they don’t believe they have any, which is also thoroughly misguided).

    Judgment: No doubt every moral or legal framework that has ever existed could be reduced to a set of punishments and rewards (explicit or implied). I’m not sure this would be a useful exercise, though.

    Just to conclude, I don’t have any particular axe to grind, though I am quite attracted to the Eastern Orthodox view of Christianity (definitely not anything Evangelical or fundamentalist!) and am also starting to get interested in Hinduism. I generally find your posts interesting, well-researched and logically argued, but this one comes across as a bit of a rant, to be honest.

    1. Hi James and thanks for the comment. I agree that my post was written flippantly but even after all these years I still think the points were justified — for the following reasons:

      Anger: Jesus does not say “you must never get angry”; he warns against getting angry with “your brother” for no reason.

      Yet the author of the passage attributing these words to Jesus does not add the qualifier “for no reason”. The prohibition is absolute. This is good old common (at least in the first and second centuries Roman world) Stoic ethics.

      Lust: I don’t know any Greek, but fortunately there is an analysis of this passage here: http://www.jasonstaples.com/bible/most-misinterpreted-bible-passages-1-matthew-527-28/It seems it actually means something like “an adulterer is someone who looks at a woman with the intention of coveting her”.

      Jason Staples makes it clear that he is motivated by a desire to make this Bible passage relevant and acceptable to modern young male readers. By narrowly focusing on one word he has downplayed the context and the emphasis on “looking” and “adultery in the heart”. The author is again using Jesus to preach good ancient Stoic ideals.

      Divorce: Men are prohibited from divorcing their wives, except in cases of fornication (perhaps to prevent the “trading her in for a younger model” syndrome?). There is nothing to say that women cannot seek a divorce. [This was in fact possible in 1st century Judaism, although it was not straightforward as the divorce certificate could only be signed by the husband. In practice, when the rabbinical courts considered the wife had a good case, they “persuaded” a reluctant husband to sign by levying ever-increasing fines on him until he gave in].

      Rabbinical Judaism was a product of the second and subsequent centuries. The text of Matthew may well be from the second century, also. I suspect it is, and that it reflects a conflict between “Christians” of that time and rabbinical Judaism. The author is presenting “Christianity” as a higher ethical system than that espoused by rabbinical Judaism.

      Turn the other cheek: This is not a commandment to be a human punchbag or (another common misinterpretation) to ignore wrongdoing. Slapping someone on the cheek was a Jewish insult; offering up the other cheek shows that the person does not have the power to insult you.

      The passage is again enjoining good ancient Stoic ideals. Ancient Stoics would have looked down upon anyone in their day who embraced the cop-out interpretation you are suggesting here. Matthew’s Jesus would not be considered as representing any special ethical ideals: philosophers of the day would have considered such a Jesus to be very inferior ethically.

      Love your enemies: Most of this is based on points already discussed.

      Again, ancient Stoicism. It was a respected ideal at the time. Still is.

      Matthew’s alarming descriptions of the judgment and hell are obviously allegorical, but of what?

      I don’t see any reason to assume they are allegorical. Why do you think they are “obviously” so?

      Giving in secret: The motive cited is to avoid hypocrisy, which is the theme of the surrounding verses; the reward from God is the consequence of the motive, not the motive itself (I don’t know if the Greek supports your interpretation, but that is how it always seems to be translated). Instead of giving ostentatiously to impress human onlookers with your generosity, you give secretly, out of compassion, and divine approval will follow. Maybe not so much bribery as “what goes around comes around”.

      No doubt. And I think you are actually reinforcing my point. The carrot Jesus offers in return for this “sincerity” is a huge reward. That is, the appeal is to self-interest.

      You appear to be interested in making this two millennia old text relevant ethically for people today and to do so you must do what everyone else does: reinterpret it, add qualifiers, overlook the details of what is not said and what is said and add modern rationalisations or attempts to fit in with a context of “first century judaism” — the very system against which the text is setting itself above.

      I think modern ethics have much more to offer us today than anything said by the literary creators of Jesus.

      Agreed, my post was flippantly expressed. But my interpretation was, I believe, truer to the original meaning intended by the author.

      For other articles on Stoicism in the Gospels see http://vridar.org/category/new-testament/stoicism/

      Cheers
      N

  6. Hi Neil,

    I didn’t realise I had written such a long comment, so thanks for replying.

    [Matt 5:22]

    The prohibition is absolute.

    The prohibition is restricted to anger with “your brother” (or sister – the Greek word has neuter gender). There are various ways this could be interpreted, but it doesn’t appear to include scribes and pharisees (Matt 23:17).

    [Matt 5:27-28]

    Jason Staples makes it clear that he is motivated by a desire to make this Bible passage relevant and acceptable to modern young male readers.

    He doesn’t “make clear” anything like that – it appears to be something you have read into the article. Anyway, his linguistic analysis seems objective as far as I can tell. Where are the errors in it?

    By narrowly focusing on one word he has downplayed the context and the emphasis on “looking” and “adultery in the heart”.

    Isn’t it important to discuss the meaning of a critical word in depth, particularly if you believe it has been widely misunderstood? In any case, he goes on to analyse the grammatical structure and explain in detail the meaning of “in the heart”.

    [Matt 5:39]

    Ancient Stoics would have looked down upon anyone in their day who embraced the cop-out interpretation you are suggesting here.

    The author of Matthew is generally believed to be writing for Jewish readers, or at least ones who are very familiar with Judaism. Wouldn’t this “cop-out interpretation” be the one that would naturally occurr to his intended audience?

    Matthew’s alarming descriptions of the judgment and hell are obviously allegorical, but of what?

    I don’t see any reason to assume they are allegorical. Why do you think they are “obviously” so?

    Should the references to hellfire, for example, be taken literally?

    [Matt 6:3-4]

    And I think you are actually reinforcing my point

    I don’t think so. “Do A in order that B, and then C will happen” is not the same as “do A in order that C”. For example, “do some work that you love and you will get paid” is not the same as “do some work so you get paid”.

    You appear to be interested in making this two millennia old text relevant ethically for people today and to do so you must do what everyone else does: reinterpret it, add qualifiers, overlook the details of what is not said and what is said and add modern rationalisations or attempts to fit in with a context of “first century judaism” — the very system against which the text is setting itself above.

    I don’t believe I am doing that. My interest is in uncovering the meaning of the text (as far as this is possible in our age), to the extent that I look up the original Greek and try to find intelligent analysis of it, even though I barely know the Greek alphabet. Obviously I risk being influenced by my preconceptions and self-delusions, but then so does everyone else.

    Thank you for the link to your articles on Stoicism. My initial reaction is that I think it’s overstating things to claim that all the verses we are discussing are pure undiluted Stoicism and that Philo’s thought strikes me as a more plausible basis, with its mixture of Stoic influences, Platonism and scriptural allegory. But I need to think this through.

    Cheers,
    James

    1. [Matt 5:22]

      The prohibition is absolute.

      The prohibition is restricted to anger with “your brother” (or sister – the Greek word has neuter gender). There are various ways this could be interpreted, but it doesn’t appear to include scribes and pharisees (Matt 23:17).

      Yes, but no “without cause” qualifier is what I meant. Other passages in the same sermon take the application beyond a literal brother and exhort love for all humanity, exceeding the standard of the scribes and pharisees.

      [Matt 5:27-28]

      Jason Staples makes it clear that he is motivated by a desire to make this Bible passage relevant and acceptable to modern young male readers.

      He doesn’t “make clear” anything like that – it appears to be something you have read into the article. Anyway, his linguistic analysis seems objective as far as I can tell. Where are the errors in it?

      By narrowly focusing on one word he has downplayed the context and the emphasis on “looking” and “adultery in the heart”.

      Isn’t it important to discuss the meaning of a critical word in depth, particularly if you believe it has been widely misunderstood? In any case, he goes on to analyse the grammatical structure and explain in detail the meaning of “in the heart”.

      The whole rationale for his article is to make the Bible’s ethics relevant to modern readers. That’s the context he stresses. I am aware he would strongly believe he is being very objective about it and believes the ethics just are relevant – timeless – when “properly understood”. But the interest is clear. He is reading the passage through its applicability to daily lives and feelings of men in today’s culture. That inevitably guides his bias in the stresses he makes, the structure of his argument, etc.

      Forget about relevance to today and what ethical standards govern us and try to read the passage in the same way, with the same detachment, as we might read the Stoic precepts of another ancient author.

      [Matt 5:39]

      Ancient Stoics would have looked down upon anyone in their day who embraced the cop-out interpretation you are suggesting here.

      The author of Matthew is generally believed to be writing for Jewish readers, or at least ones who are very familiar with Judaism. Wouldn’t this “cop-out interpretation” be the one that would naturally occurr to his intended audience?

      This is reading into the text. The context is explained within the Sermon on the Mount itself — to be superior ethically to the leaders of “Judaism”. The influences are evidently Stoic, Hellenistic. Error of method to retroject much later (3rd-4th century) rabbinical contexts.

      Matthew’s alarming descriptions of the judgment and hell are obviously allegorical, but of what?
      I don’t see any reason to assume they are allegorical. Why do you think they are “obviously” so?

      Should the references to hellfire, for example, be taken literally?

      What indications are there in the text that invite readers to take a symbolic interpretation? The literal interpretation is consistent with other contemporary views of after-life judgment, I think.

      [Matt 6:3-4]

      And I think you are actually reinforcing my point

      I don’t think so. “Do A in order that B, and then C will happen” is not the same as “do A in order that C”. For example, “do some work that you love and you will get paid” is not the same as “do some work so you get paid”.

      And if there was no reminder of the good rewards to follow? Or of the many threats of condign punishments?

      To be fair, Stoicism itself promised the rewards and punishments.

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