Tuesday, December 16, 2014

NT: Matthew - The Sermon On The Mount

Before I proceed to whiz through the New Testament, some background is in order.

First, blogging about the NT, even as shallowly as I’m doing here, serves a purpose. It allows me to organize my coarsest-grained understanding of the books, and put them in a place where I can update them and refer to them - over, and over and over.

Second, it serves as an autobiography of sorts. An individual’s thoughts about their place in the universe may include a belief in the supernatural. It appears that this is very common. If I sound too blasé in making the shocking previous claim, it’s because I’m trying to be un-emotional about this. Some people believe that which can be observed is all that there is. These are - without getting into the finer points - naturalists. Some people, in addition to that which can be observed, believe that there are other objects that can affect this world without necessarily behaving in accordance with natural laws. In the most general sense, these people are “supernaturalists”. Mister Obvious has spoken.

I imagine that, absent any prompting from family or friends during my infancy and childhood, I would be prone to belief in some vague “ground-of-all-being” type supernatural realm. Some pantheistic concept that implies that we are all part of one transcendent object that we ought to revere and revel in.

I also imagine that my mom (mostly) planted the thought that there was “God” in heaven looking over us if we were good. Once I started to attend Sunday School, “God” was fleshed out in the form of YHWH and Jehovah.

There’s no need to over-analyze this. Teen age and young adulthood did not change this mind set much, and a brief “born again” period left me unscarred, but newly inclined to be skeptical of people quoting the Bible. So let’s see what happens starting in Matthew chapter 5.

Chapter 5 seems like a candidate for the most-quoted Bible chapter ever. It is, of course, the famous Sermon on the Mount. We hear Jesus in his own words bestowing blessings, advising the faithful on how to carry and display their faith - it is beautiful, moving literature. I can imagine, without claiming that it actually happened to me personally, that someone looking for salvation need only read Matt 1:1 through Matt 5:48 to become filled with the spirit and become born-again. As we noted in my last post, the first four chapters are sparse and fairly uncomplicated. Chapter 5 is a soaring sermon for believers, it could truly transform you. Read it once, you’re a believer. There is, however, some weird shit. Lets look.

12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great [is] your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

No problem with verse 12 above - Jesus seems to be wrapping up a benediction. But WTF is verse 13 about? I probably read this chapter 5 or 10 times, and I bet that verse 13 didn’t bother me until recently. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. And why is "salt of the earth" good?

Jesus gets back to business in verse 14 by telling his disciples that they are the light of the world, and sprinkles some truly memorable phrases in the following verses. Then it gets weird again.

17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach [them], the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

So proceeds a stretch of teaching and commandments that - if you find the Old Testament repulsive like I do - makes you realize that Jesus is selling the same snake oil as that reprehensible old twat YHWH. This sounds harsh, but it is truly my reaction. As a young man, I became born-again, read the New Testament verse-by-verse, and was overjoyed at the soaring beauty of what Jesus had to say. Then I read the Old Testament. Full stop. Much has been written about what a vile monster YHWH is, no need for me to recount it. Let it be said that I now felt that I’d saw Yahweh’s balls off with a rusty nail file if I ever saw him, so hearing Jesus uphold worship of this monstrous dickhead disabused me of any illusions that Jesus was fundamentally different.

From verse 19 through the end of the chapter (verse 48), Jesus tells the faithful how his commands are different and (sometimes) more stringent than the “old laws”.

Chapters 6 and 7 continue his teachings. As I was writing this post, I happened upon a literary summary of the New Testament at SparkNotes. I’m not recommending them as anything more than a nicely organized summary, but it’s there for the reading. For example, they point out the loose organization of Matthew into an introduction (chapters 1-4), The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7),

...The Mission Sermon, which empowers Jesus’s apostles, follows Jesus’s recognition that more teachers and preachers are necessary (10:1–42). The mysterious Sermon in Parables responds to Jesus’s frustration with the fact that many people do not understand or accept his message (13:1–52). The Sermon on the Church responds to the need to establish a lasting fraternity of Christians (18:1–35). Finally, the Eschatological Sermon, which addresses the end of the world, responds to the developing certainty that Jesus will be crucified (23:1–25:46)

...concluded by the Last Supper and Jesus’ Resurrection.

Next time I’ll skip through chapters 6 and 7 again briefly to see what memorable thoughts we can accrue, then I’ll set out into the Mission Sermon.

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