the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Monday, August 07, 2006

by his own words let him be judged

Jesus rabbi-ing on. Pay close attention

In my last post I was trying to make the point that it's not really possible to simply ignore the miracles and try to evaluate Jesus purely as some early or dare I say primitive version of a moral philosopher. Not only do the miracles influence all the moral teachings and exhortations, but these exhortations are interspersed with supernatural claims about the kingdom at hand, heaven and hell, the doom that's to come. These gigantic claims and gigantic miraculous acts tend to dazzle the reader into meekly accepting every pronouncement Jesus makes, no matter how outrageous or questionable. Some just strike me as risible - as for example in Luke 21, when he has the hide to warn his audience against 'doomsday deceivers' who turn up claiming they're the One. Peterson's version goes on thus:
"..Don't fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don't panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end."
He went on, "Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Huge earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. You'll think at times the sky is falling...."
And so it goes on for a number of verses - the standard claims of the doomsday deceiver. Some might try to argue that this is unfair on Jesus - the 'real' Jesus probably didn't say these things, just as he didn't invent bogus genealogies for himself, this was the work of the gospel writers who were desperate to raise the guy's profile. Maybe, but we only know Jesus through these guys - there's no 'real' Jesus beyond these texts, so, though you might be happy to select and reject passages in order to shape Jesus into the guy you want need and love, that provides real problems for the organisers of religion, who, once they've made the Big Decisions about what constitutes Holy Writ, are obliged to treat every included word as sacred, no matter how absurd or embarrassing.

As mentioned, it's hard to extract basic ethical writings from heaven-and-hell fare, though it might be worth trying to replace 'these people will go to heaven' with 'these people are doing the right thing' and see where that leads you. Now take the old eye of the needle story, mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Peterson's version, from Luke, we have this:
Jesus said, 'Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who have it all to enter God's kingdom? I'd say it's easier to thread a camel through a needle's eye than get a rich person into God's kingdom."
"Then who has any chance at all?" the others asked.
"No chance at all," Jesus said, "if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you trust God to do it."
You can see here how difficult it is to weed out the promise of heaven or 'God's kingdom' and present a quasi-socialist ethical message. The suggestion here is that if you 'have it all' in a material sense, you won't get into heaven. But the meaning is quite elusive - how do you define a rich person (more importantly, just how poor do you have to be to get in?), and is it all right to accumulate lots of wealth in your lifetime and then divest yourself of it just before entering the 'kingdom'? There's no clear guidance in these matters. And how are we to take the last words of Jesus quoted above? It seems clear enough - you can't get into heaven by your own works, no matter how worthy. You have to trust in God first and foremost. You have to be a believer.

In his intro to the gospel according to John, Eugene Peterson writes '... our words are more important than we ever supposed. Saying "I believe", for instance, marks the difference between life and death.'

Here's where ethics dies the death and faith and 'salvation' take over. Jesus himself underlines this in a passage almost immediately following the one quoted above:
Peter tried again to regain some initiative: "We left everything we owned and followed you, didn't we?"
"Yes," said Jesus, "and you won't regret it. No one who has sacrificed home, spouse, brothers and sisters, parents, children - whatever - will lose out. It will all come back multiplied many times over in your lifetime. And then the bonus of eternal life!"
What is being talked about here has nothing to do with morality. It's all about losses and gains, with a big bonus at the end. It's worth noting that most of the 'items' sacrificed by the followers of Jesus are in fact living and breathing human beings, but that's okay, these 'items' will be multiplied many times over - the followers will get many more siblings and parents and such. They might not be the same ones, but, hey, what's the difference?

Not long after the eye-of the-needle remark, in Luke 19, comes another revealing parable - The Story about Investment, Peterson calls it. It's a little long to quote verbatim, so I'll summarise it.
A man descended from a royal house had to make a long trip back to HQ for authorisation for his rule. He called ten servants, gave each a sum of money, and instructed them to use it effectively till his return. As it happened, the citizens of the area hated him and petitioned against his rule. When the man returned with the authorisation, he asked the ten servants how they'd fared with the money given them. The first said, 'I've doubled it'. 'Bravo', said the ruler, 'For that, I'll make you governor of ten towns.' The second had made a fifty percent profit on the money and was rewarded with five towns. The next servant gave his boss the money back, saying 'I kept it hidden in the cellar. To tell you the truth, I was a little afraid. I know you have high standards and hate sloppiness, and don't suffer fools gladly.' This servant was right, apparently, for the ruler was so angry that he took the money from the trembling servant and gave it to the servant who had doubled his money. When the others began to protest, the ruler said: 'Risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of. Play it safe, and end up holding the bag.' He went on to say, 'As for those enemies of mine who petitioned against my rule, clear them out of here. I don't want to see their faces round here again.'
In no time at all we've moved a long way from the rich man who couldn't get into the kingdom of God. And here again we must ask ourselves where the morality is in this parable. It's certainly one that the Packers and Murdochs of this world would approve of. The would-be ruler, who might stand in for Jesus himself, receives 'authorisation' for his rule, in spite of the will of the people. No social contract here, it's pure despotism. How justified is the hatred of the citizens? How valid is the external authorisation? We'll never know. The real message here of course, is not about the rights of rulers and the ruled, it's about taking risks and going to extreme lengths for the sake of your ruler, your leader - Jesus, in this case. It's about loyalty to the master and effort directed to his cause. It's a parable designed to warm the hearts of cult leaders everywhere.

I don't want to argue that there aren't parables worthy of our attention and our praise, such as the tale of the good Samaritan. What I do want to argue is that we look at these parables and pronouncements critically. They'll repay that sort of effort in surprising ways. If we have our own strong sense of morality, we can use it and our analytical powers to shoot some of the self-serving propaganda of Jesus and the hot gospellers to pieces.


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