Getting Biblical: The Book of Mathew

Let me start out by saying that I am looking at this text like any other and taking it as the text itself. I am not making any claims to divine revelation or understanding. That said, my approach to this text is that it should be read carefully as is, and I will try to look at it critically in light of popular interpretations of it.

The first thing that needs to be said is that Christianity is a hard philosophy to follow. While encouraging forgiveness for others, it is unforgiving to its own followers. At the same time, I think that many of the modern interpretations of the religion, are guilty of picking and choosing things that suit the members’ worldview rather than following the religion itself.

During one of the many pushes by various groups to have the ten commandments placed in a court house, Kurt Vonnegut pointed out that no one ever asked for the beatitudes to be posted anywhere.

“3: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“4: Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
“5: Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
“6: Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
“7: Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
“8: Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
“9: Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
“10: Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“11: Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”

As Vonnegut pointed out, there is not much call for mercy and peacemakers among some of the most fervent demanders of the Ten Commandments. It is amazing how often religion is used to sound the drum beats of war considering this passage.  Obviously this is nothing new to the modern era, but it seems as more people become educated and can read and as books get easier to get, that it should be harder for power-seekers to pervert the gospels.

It is also interesting to me that throughout the book of Mathew that Jesus repeatedly warns against doing your alms and prayers in public. He says that those who receive public recognition for the charity work and prayers they do have already received their reward and will receive nothing in heaven.

“Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
“2: Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
“3: But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
“4: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5: And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”

This to me calls into question much of the behavior I see from people who are constantly talking about their faith and the influence of religion and God in their lives. It seems to me this runs contrary to Jesus’s teachings.  It is the whole question of faith, I think that this injunction raises, which is do you have the faith to wait for your reward in heaven, or from God, or do you need to seek it from the people around you?

The end of chapter 18 also talks about forgiveness and understanding in very clear terms. When I read this chapter I am struck by the story of how the servant who is forgiven by his lord refuses to forgive a fellow servant’s debt to him. It is clear to me that forgiveness is not something that should stop. This also seems to be a perennial problem where people who seek forgiveness refuse to give it to others. We all should cut each other a little more slack, it seems.

One of the injunctions that has always interested me from this book, and that I think shows the difficulty of following the Christian religion is the one below:

“21: And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
“22: But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

Here Jesus is being pretty demanding, considering that he heals some people who just touch the hem of his garment. This has always troubled me, but there are times when I completely understand it.  It is hard to explain, but there are times when it seems that people are not ready to truly accept change that is necessary and unwilling to do it, and at that time one must “let the dead bury their dead.”

Jesus seems to demand more of his disciples than average people, but it is not clear whether Jesus wants everyone to be disciples or believers. Where do we all fit into this? It is not entirely clear to me.  Clearly everyone has responsibilities. Still, one should not claim discipleship if one is not ready to leave behind their previous life.

In the context of the set, it is interesting that the bible readings come right after Plutarch’s lives, which describe how leaders used religion to build states and others claimed divinity. Jesus refers to himself as the son of man. While we see leaders claim divinity or at least piety in Plutarch, in Mathew, we see a carpenter’s son challenge the Roman Empire and the religious leaders of his own people. He created a new religion. It is an inverse of what came before, which also happened with Plato, Aristotle, and Aristophanes. I think that paying attention to these readings show that this conversation definitely has more than one side and there is room for many viewpoints, despite the perceptions that there is one monolithic vein of “Western Thought.”

Next Time: Life After Jesus – The Acts of the Apostles

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