Friday, January 8, 2016

It begins: demanding perfect behavior (Matthew 5)

Another reason why we return to the Gospels as the source of Western civilization is because religion, Western religion, at least gives us an escape from the power of the unaccountable nanny state. The "divinized" state, as Jonah Goldberg calls it in Liberal Fascism, the state endlessly preaching, governed by an elite endlessly assessing our behavior and endlessly herding us through some new collective crisis for our collective good. If hatred of religion, especially Christianity, is in progressive/leftist DNA from the French Revolution on, what did they so hate and seek to replace, and why? Could it have been, in part, individual freedom and individual responsibility? Was it the simple threat to their own authority? 

Matthew, chapter 5: This is a little bit curious. Jesus sees "the crowds," goes up the mountain -- to avoid them? -- and sits down. His disciples come to him. "He began to teach them." What, the disciples only? It seems so. It seems they alone hear the Beatitudes, the assurances of "blessing" for those who are poor in spirit, merciful, meek, and so on. They alone also hear the last one, "blessed are you when you are insulted and persecuted because of me," and it's this plus the next paragraph comparing "you" to salt, to light, to a city on a hill, to a lamp on a lampstand, that seems to show Jesus speaking only to the disciples. He seems to be preparing them, not the crowds, to set an example. Next comes an assurance that he has not come to abolish "the Law or the prophets but to fulfill them," and then six injunctions to perfect behavior. Almost inhumanly perfect, really. You shall not be angry,* or if you are, you must settle your grudge with whoever it is quickly, because anger is almost as bad as murder. You shall not look at a woman with lust, because that is almost as bad as adultery. Divorce is not just divorce,** it is the cause of more adultery, peculiarly so for the woman. It is not enough to avoid "false oaths," rather you must not swear oaths at all. Here we are not talking about curse words but apparently about promises, vows that you will do or accomplish some task.

After the preceding four, the last two demands are the most impossible. Of course they are two of the most famed phrases in the Gospels, "turn the other cheek" and "love thy enemy." They seem downright suicidal. They follow the pattern that Jesus has been speaking in throughout the chapter: 'you have been taught x, but I say y,' or more accurately 'now I say x to the last and perfect degree.' Instead of the soberly calibrated justice of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the disciples are told to obviate the need for justice at all by behaving preemptively perfectly to those who, normally, would belong in a court of law for a start. "Offer no resistance to one who is evil -- if anyone sues you for your tunic, offer him your cloak as well." And, "you have been told to love your neighbor and hate your enemy" -- this is embarrassing, because the notes to this Bible translation admit the Torah contains no such command to hate -- "but I say, love your enemies and pray for them." Because, to love those who love you, and to "greet your brothers only," is "not unusual," being no more than what pagans or scribes or Pharisees do. The ultimate rationale behind all this is that the disciples must be like their Father in Heaven, who permits rain and sun to fall on both the just and the unjust, etc.

Well, yes, but when it comes to turning the other cheek, our Father in heaven doesn't have to worry about his capital cities perhaps being nuked by an enemy to whom He, being perfect, has offered no resistance. What then? And, the book of Genesis has covered this ground before -- no pun intended: I am the Lord thy God; Walk before Me, and be thou perfect (Gen. 17:1). Which, come to think of it, is curious.



*"without cause," the King James version adds.

**"unless the marriage is unlawful" the modern translation says -- or "saving for cause of fornication" the King James translation puts it. Two entirely different matters, no?



   

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