Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Doing what Jesus says.

There was a video (above) which I saw shared on facebook recently. It talks about the importance of “following Jesus” by obeying his commands. It does this by trivializing the alternative of just emptily repeating such commands. The video is somewhat persuasive because in the example used “Clean your room”, we can see how doing what has been asked of us is the only way to respect the asker. We can feel the annoyance that would be generated by anyone merely memorizing “Clean your room” and not cleaning it when asked.

The problem is that Christianity struggles to maintain a list of “clean your room” type instructions from its God. That kind of clear definition of spiritual practice can be found in Buddhism for example with its five precepts for lay practitioners:
1. Do not kill 
2. Do not steal 
3. Do not indulge in sexual misconduct 
4. Do not make false speech 
5. Do not take intoxicants

It can sometimes seem that Christianity has a set of equally clear precepts. The certainty with which some Christians will tell you that sex before marriage is forbidden is matched by the certainty others will tell you that Christians mustn't own a gun. If you search for “Jesus’ actual teaching” you will receive numerous confident declarations. The confidence of these declarations of the ethical “rules” of Christianity can seem to only rise in spite of their disagreements.  

Unlike the Buddha, Jesus not only doesn’t tell us to clean our room, he never actually wrote anything down. His words have instead been remembered and recorded in four Gospels. Other than discrepancies between them there are three main reasons why the Gospels just don’t lend themselves to an easy precept building exercise.


Firstly the Gospels present much of Jesus’ teaching in parable form. Consider Mathew 22:
 1Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying,2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.3“And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come.4“Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’5“But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business,6and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them.7“But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire.8“Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy.9‘Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’10“Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.

Now in this parable Jesus’ Jewish audience are told to equate the wedding feast with the kingdom of heaven. This is the kingdom of theirs and their ancestors’ longing. This parable is warning them not to ignore the call to kingdom. For one thing they must not seize the king of heaven’s slaves and mistreat them. Perhaps what that means is not to abuse the lowest members of Jewish society. If they do, Jesus is saying, then these “invited members” can expect to be unwelcome in the kingdom and even destroyed. Instead the slaves will be welcomed.

Then the parable continues:

 11“But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes,12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless.13“Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’14“For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Ummm… I’m a little with the speechless guy here too. These were slaves who got invited so one presumes most of them wouldn’t have wedding clothes. Why expel one of them for it? Perhaps the wedding clothes signify something other than nice clothes, some sort of readiness perhaps but the metaphor is making less and less sense. No matter how we interpret this it’s pretty clear this bit is not “Clean Your Room” clear at all.  We may be arguing fruitlessly about how to interpret this for ever.


Secondly Jesus’ teachings may be difficult to clarify because they are recorded by people who already had a lot of writing and philosophy backgrounding their discussions. Jesus seems to rely on his audiences’ understanding of that background in some conversations:

"You must not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to complete them. Indeed, I assure you that, while Heaven and earth last, the Law will not lose a single dot or comma until its purpose is complete. This means that whoever now relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do the same will himself be called least in Heaven. But whoever teaches and practises them will be called great in the kingdom of Heaven. For I tell you that your goodness must be a far better thing then the goodness of the scribes and Pharisees before you can set foot in the kingdom of Heaven at all! (Mathew 5:17-20)

However Jesus himself seemed to overturn the dietary laws of the Prophets. (Mathew 15:10-11)  Certainly Christians in Jesus’ name don’t heed those laws. Jesus also gathered grain on the Sabbath and opposed stoning in one instance at least. There is no way that you can read the laws of the Prophets, the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus for example, and suggest that “not one dot or comma” is different in Jesus practice. Therefore although it reads as clear at first, it’s not “clean your room” clear exactly what Jesus means for his audience to assume in Math 5: 17-20.

Some Christians have tried to resolve this problem by saying that there are cultic and universal laws in their Old Testament. The argument goes that cultic rules are extinguished by Jesus bodily replacing the temple. Those laws were time and situation limited. However the non-cultic universal ones remain in place.  This allows those Christians to flesh out Jesus’ teaching with the specifics of the Old Testament while dismissing those laws that Jesus practically overturned or would be ludicrous to try and impose today. The problem is that this is not reflected in the text. It is a distinction added by modern readers and thus easily accused of merely being convenient.

For example "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18) is followed in the very next verse by the law "do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material" (19:19. Should verse 18 be applied as binding, while verse 19 is dismissed as non-applicable altogether? The text gives no indication that any kind of hermeneutical shift has taken place between the two verses.”

We can’t even say that the Ten Commandments are enduring although they are arguably the core of the law inherited by Jesus. I have heard some people describe them as pillars of our civilization. However right in the middle of these “core” instructions is one that most contemporary mainstream Christians ignore:

"Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it."(Exodus 20:8-11)

In fact this is something that according to one story Jesus himself disregarded firstly because he was hungry and secondly because he was responded to another person’s need. . (Mathew 12:1-14)  Jesus is recorded as saying that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” and that “God requires mercy not sacrifice”. I think this means Jesus was arguing that the point of the Sabbath was to give people a rest day and oblige their employers basically to restrain from working them seven days. The Sabbath was not to oblige people to suffer or to justify cruelty.

It’s worth noting that if we were to stand in Jesus’ time with the attitude of a modern Christian fundamentalist then we would come to a strange conclusion. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees about the Sabbath is far less supported by the original text of Exodus than the Pharisees’ own position. Jesus is the heretic while the Pharisees are simply submitting to the authority of the text.

Jesus is telling his hearers to look to the point of the text – not just its plain reading. Specifically we are supposed to find the justice angle – something I feel more and more is the lens via which to read Jesus best. As the following text suggests;
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Mathew 23:23)
This is contrary however to a Christian fundamentalist approach.

Christian fundamentalists can hide from this paradox because Jesus is now also in the text. This enables them to try to make a dog’s breakfast fusion of Jesus and a literal Exodus and claim to follow the whole (literal) bible. In Jesus’ time they would not have had that privilege and would have had to struggle with a living contradiction to the text in their hands - like the Pharisees.


The third reason why it is impossible to make a simple list of precepts from Jesus teaching is… actually there isn’t a definite third reason. I was going to say that Jesus’ commands are the kind that don’t make for a list of explicit rules. However the more I read the more I realize that that position is potentially a cop-out. It’s possible to read clear instructions in some parts of Jesus recorded words. It’s just that you end up with something unusual. Unusual is certainly not impossible.

Arguments like the video at the start of this post draw their inspiration from passages like that at the end of the Sermon of the Mount from Mathews gospel;
21“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.22“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’23“And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’

In Luke’s Gospel the text is virtually repeated but with greater emphasis on doing what Jesus himself says (making it a better justification of the video):
    46“Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?47“Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like:48he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built.49“But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great.”

To understand what these passages mean we merely need to read them at the end of the Sermon on the Mount which contains the “What I say” of Jesus’ “do what I say”.

Firstly this Sermon actually has Jesus summarising the Law and the Prophets allowing us to clear up what is meant by Matthew 5:17-20;
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matth 7:12)

Then the sermon does contain some clear instructions. I’ll use Luke’s version ( in particular Luke 6:27-45) because it’s much (much) briefer. However Mathew’s version (Chapter 5-7) is also worth reading.

 1. your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.. .
2 “Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.
3.“Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back…. lend, expecting nothing in return…   
4.“Treat others the same way you want them to treat you…
6. do not judge… and do not condemn…  first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.

The problem I have with the video at the start of this post is that in the truncated form it was shared in it fails to mention what should be in place of “clean your room”. In such a vacuum I suspect people are not going to fill in the contextually appropriate commandments above. Instead I suspect they are going to add in those things which in their community form the obvious teachings of Jesus – the no sex before marriage or the lack of a gun rules. Or they are going to play arbitrary games with the Law and the Prophets to decide on some “non-cultic” ones to retain.

Those are poor way to respond to the text but I see it as almost inevitable. The rules above don’t feel like they are enough to base a religious life on. In fact they almost seem to be suggesting something in opposition to our religious instincts. No judgment? That’s not very moral.

A life lived according to these six precepts would also look a little bit mad. Lending without expecting in return? Giving up your shirt to whoever takes your coat? All of that seems deeply unsustainable. It’s certainly not pragmatic. It's not even fair.

Behind it however lies a foolhardy optimism that is also repeatedly scriptural. The passage in Luke I have drawn the above precepts from also includes this promise:
“Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.”
(Luke 6:27-36)

And in the middle of Mathew’s much longer rendition of the Sermon of the Mount:
 “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? “And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.30“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!31“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ “For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

    “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

That would be doing what Jesus says.