Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Sermon on the Mount: Part I - The Beatitudes

The sermon on the mount is perhaps the most important piece of scripture from the new testament as it basically lays out the foundational philosophy and ethics of jesus, and thus modern christianity. It is found in Matthew 5-7, and a similar sermon (or the same one, depending on your view) can be found over in Luke 6. We will look at both book's passages to break the sermon down and find out if this is really the best god and jesus can do to give us a moral compass.

Jesus starts the sermon with what are commonly called the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11)*:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see god

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of god

Blessed are the those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you

Luke takes a little different angle on the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26)

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven

Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh

Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the son of man

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort

Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry

Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep

Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets
So, what can we gain from these verses? Obviously poverty is a virtue and wealth is a vice. There can be no other way to interpet this, really. It is pretty plain when you look at Matthew and Luke that those who live lavishly and even just contentedly in this world will suffer in the next, according to jesus. There is some attempt to cheer up the listeners who no doubt are poor and suffering and hungry. The commoners of the day lived a brutal life of existence and some of these verses can provide a bit of hope or inspiration. Even though this life sucks for you, there is an afterlife that is proportional in happiness to the despair felt now. An opiate for the masses.

Some of these verses do provide a bit of moral decency in how to act. Showing mercy, being pure in heart and being a peacemaker are all noble things to aspire. In fact, one can argue that these are a reasonable foundation for some morals, but hardly enough. There needs to be more of these if we really are to believe we get our morals and ethics from an omniscient being. These are the only three jesus gives and they are pretty basic, but there should be a lot more if this is supposed to be our foundation. But another issue one can take here is do we only do good things for the reward of heaven? Or because it is good just to do them? It almost seems jesus is baiting us with eternal reward for something that should be second nature. What's more noble? A good deed done for an ulitmate reward? Or a good deed done in spite of any reward?

Still other verses provide fodder for the "woe is me", persecuted christian outlook that we see constantly. Jesus seems to relish the fact that people will be persecuted in his name, and for being persecuted, they will be rewarded in heaven. Christians are told to rejoice in their persecution. These few verses allow the christian to avoid any and all criticism of his or her faith. Any little thing that can be construed as an insult or offensive or a persecution or an oppression or infringement to their religious liberty only reassures them of their seat in heaven and provides confirmation of their beliefs since jesus warns them about it right here. This type of thinking also can provide the basis for religious martyrdom when taken to the extreme.

So, what can we learn here? Instead of really offering valuable insights on how to live, the main theme of the beatitudes seems to be that this life sucks and there's nothing you can do about it and don't even bother trying to enjoy yourself or better yourself or make your children's lives better because in the grand scheme of things, this life is pretty meaningless when compared to eternity in heaven. This is a major theme in the entire sermon really, which I will break down in future posts. To take no thought for tomorrow and don't worry about yourself now because life will soon end and you will be in heaven enjoying the rewards of living a futile existence here. While it may be heartwarming to some who are in complete despair and see no hope of improvement, this is really pretty depressing news, especially when you consider that there is no proof of an afterlife. This is the only one we know we have, and jesus is basically telling you to throw it all away. I don't see many deep moral insights here or at least anything that intimates a higher or more enlightened being authored them. Let's see what the rest of the sermon has to say...

(Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch)

*all text from the NIV version

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