The Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth: A Critical Perspective (Part 1)

This series of blog posts is in response to a common Christian argument that the teachings of Jesus are good and noble and beneficial to mankind.  I will be exploring the character of Jesus as seen through the eyes of the authors of the 'Gospels':  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  I am of the opinion that anything beyond John can be safely ignored for the purposes of this perspective, as those books refer to the followers of Jesus and not Jesus himself.  Also, any mention or 'appearance' of the character of Jesus outside of these 4 books tends to be objectively different from the Jesus of the 'Gospels'.  Besides, the teachings of Jesus in 'his own words' should be more than sufficient for the purposes of this series.

I will not be going to any outside sources for clarification of any point - this is purely about the teachings of Jesus and whether or not they are useful and beneficial now.  The quoted material is taken from the 'New International Version (NIV)' at www.biblegateway.com

 12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
 15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
   the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
   Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
   have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
   a light has dawned.”[f]
 17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Matthew 4:12-17
Matthew 4:17 - Jesus begins preaching "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near".
 1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,2 and he began to teach them. 
    He said:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
   11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:1-12
Jesus starts out the 'Sermon on the Mount' with the 'beatitudes' (Matthew 5:3-11) which seem to me to be pretty much just pandering to a bunch of minority groups.  It may have some self-esteem value, but that would be the limit.
 13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
   14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.  Matthew 5:13-16
He goes on to offer some strange and cryptic descriptions of the 'believers' that he is preaching to (5:13-16) - I actually do agree with the initial message in this section (verse 15), as it seems to promote the idea of 'not hiding who you are'.  This seems to be good advice, except that the next verse semi-invalidates the usefulness, because it insists that everyone give God credit for your 'good deeds'.
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister[b][c] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
   23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
   25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.  Matthew 5:21-26
Verses 21-25 show a very strange concept, which amounts to this:  If you think about breaking a law, you are subject to the same punishment as if you had already broken the law.  I don't think that this can be applied to modern society.  There does seem to be a small moral principle in verses 23-24 to reconcile qualms with people, the only useful nugget of advice in this section.
   27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[e] 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.  Matthew 5:27-30
This section of the Sermon is one that I have had problems with for a very long time.  It is certainly an extension of the principle outlined in verses 21-25, but is applied it to the commandments regarding adultery.  It is not clear if Jesus means these things literally or figuratively, but there have certainly been cases where people have taken some of them literally.  It could even be argued that this is a similar argument to the one which Andrea Yates used to justify killing her children:  it is better for her to go to Hell if her kids are guaranteed to go to Heaven.
    31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’[f] 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.  Matthew 5:31-32
This is one of the sillier notions presented in the Sermon:  that someone completely uninvolved can be considered guilty of a particular sin.  Bear in mind that the word 'anyone' is used each time, and seems to leave no room for extenuating circumstances.  This is also very gender-biased, which is not considered a valid practice.
    33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.  Matthew 5:33-36
I can make no sense of this idea at all.  At first, it seems like he is saying "Don't bother offering some kind of qualifier, such as 'I swear by my mother's grave that I will...' but just say 'Yes, I will ....'".  If this is the intended teaching, then I completely agree and would argue that such qualifiers are meaningless anyway.  However, the second half of verse 37 is peculiar - he says that somehow doing so 'comes from the evil one', which really doesn't make any sense.
    38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.  Matthew 5:38-42
This section at first seems very innocuous and peace-loving, which would certainly be practical in most cases. However, it is very specific about the fact that there is no limitation or point at which you are no longer expected to comply.  Examples would be:  Do you allow someone to rape you?  Also, are you morally obligated to give money to literally anyone who asks?
     43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  Matthew 5:43-47
 This may be the only innocuous advice given in the entire chapter:  Be the bigger person and don't worry about hating people.  Good advice!
 1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
   2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  Matthew 6:1-4
Ignoring the fact that this directly contradicts Matthew 5:16, it actually does seem like good advice:  Give to the needy, but don't prop yourself up because of it.
 
Verses 5-15 are regarding prayer, which has already been shown to be as effective as chance, so we'll skip past them.  Verses 16-18 are similarly about religious ritual.
    19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
   22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c]your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
   24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.  Matthew 6:19-24
This seem to indicate that money should not be your focus, which is good advice.  However, it does not seem to allow for the 'storing up of treasures' in order to provide for your family or your future descendants.
    25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?
   28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  Matthew 6:25-34
If verses 25-34 sum up to mean 'Don't worry so much' it's a huge mouthful to do so.  Also, this section could lead some people to stop planning for the future, which would not be considered a positive result.
 1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
   3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  Matthew 7:1-5
Verses 1-2 seem to be saying that, if you judge someone against a particular measure, you will yourself be judged against the same measure.  "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" makes more sense written as "Don't bother judging someone unless you can pass scrutiny in the same area".  This would only seem to apply, however, in situations where you are guilty of whatever you are 'accusing' another person of.  An example might be:  I can't judge a thief if I have ever been a thief myself.  The logical extension to this is:  I can judge a murderer because I have never murdered anyone.
6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.  Matthew 7:6
 I don't understand the purpose of this teaching.
    7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
   9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.  Matthew 7:7-12
This section seems to reiterate the idea of being generous to those who ask, and to not be a dick about it.  Pretty good advice, all things considered.
     13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  Matthew 7:13-14
This strongly reminds me of what I call the 'diamond effect':  call something rare and valuable, and people will pay more for it on that basis alone, or perhaps work harder towards it.
    15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.  Matthew 7:15-20
Unfortunately, this teaching has been discredited time and time again.  High-profile religious leaders have been found to be guilty of a variety of crimes throughout recorded history.  For example, would a homeless shelter built by Kent Hovind be considered 'bad fruit', even if it is completely legitimate?

This marks the end of the 'teachings' given in the Sermon on the Mount.  The next post in this series will continue through the book of Matthew and will start to involve the 'parables' that Jesus uses to convey his ideas.

Comments

  1. I am a pretty militant atheist and admire your writing, but I must tell you that most of your interpretations, for each of these teachings here in this post, are easily refutable by any educated intelligent Christian. You have some good ones and some really funny ones...cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the comment! I know that most of this can be 'interpreted' in various ways, but that really doesn't help a Christian's argument very much - ambiguous teachings are less than useful.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Atheist / Christian T-Shirt Challenge - Given by The Atheist Advocate

The Problem of Evil, Free Will, and God's Not Dead.

Response to Facebook Conversation