The Gospels (6) ‘Sermon on the Mount – Antitheses’

Continuing to explore the Gospels as literature, let’s notice how Matthew ‘balances’ the “beatitudes”  we looked at last time, with what have been called the “antitheses”. This isn’t really a helpful term, however, since it suggests ‘substituting’ one thing for another, whereas Jesus is rather ‘intensifying’ what’s already there.

What we have in these six ‘intensifiers’, is another reminder that Jesus was a 1st century Palestinian Jew. He’s sometimes said to have ‘set aside’ the Jewish Law, although he’s reported as saying that he hadn’t come to abolish the Law but to “fulfil” it. Like other Jewish teachers, Jesus extends the scope of individual laws by ‘building a fence’, (with a bigger circumference), round about them, to make sure they were not contravened, even inadvertently. He’s also, however, asking for, in addition to outward obedience to the ‘letter’ of the Law, a clear inward embracing of the ‘spirit’ of the Law.

So as well as not committing murder, we must deal with feelings of anger, to prevent these spilling over into violence. As well as not committing adultery, we need to control lustful feelings, to prevent the temptation arising. Instead of needing to put on a great show to ‘prove’ we’re speaking the truth, we should be known to be people whose simple, straightforward word is enough in itself. Instead of insisting on equally exact recompense or revenge, we should be prepared to forgive and forget. Instead of only loving and caring about our friends, we should extend this to our enemies as well. 

In addition to pointing to the inwardness as well as outwardness of the Law, in his actions Jesus demonstrates that in specific circumstances in which, for humanitarian and compassionate reasons, the Law’s ‘inwardness’ needs to take greater precedence, it’s not only permissible, but essential, that its ‘outwardness’ be temporarily set aside. These are commendable positives in relation to Jesus but, since he was a ‘man of his time’, there are, in my view, negatives as well.

He was apparently content to condemn people to “the Gehenna of fire”. Gehenna is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, outside the walls of Jerusalem, where human excrement and rubbish were disposed of and burned. It was also a place where, even by Israelite kings, human sacrifices had been performed to the god Molech. It came to be a symbol of the place of divine punishment for those disobedient, or otherwise displeasing, to God. 

Unfortunately, as is too often the case, symbols can be taken literally and to extremes, and so we have the horrific idea of an eternal hell of fire, with endless pain and torment. I’d like to think that this isn’t what Jesus had in mind. People who weren’t worthy of inclusion in the “Kingdom of God”, where life would be endless, would be excluded and their life would end. The fires in the Valley of Hinnom might be continuous, but the rubbish was quickly consumed. Nonetheless, the God of Jesus still comes across, to my way of thinking, as an unpredictable autocrat, displeasing whom can be disastrous. That needless, endless cruelty not be added to harsh punishment, can only be a minor mitigation.

Then there is Jesus’ refusal to contemplate divorce. The Jewish scriptures permitted a man to divorce his wife if “she did not please him”. It can be argued, therefore, that Jesus is improving the lot of women by allowing divorce only on account of adultery. Perhaps so, but the fact remains that women has less rights than men, and are being condemned by Jesus to remain in marriages that were loveless, and sometimes even worse. Jesus, as a man of his time, has his minuses as well as his plusses.

A big ‘plus’ is Jesus’ injunction to “love your enemy”. This can certainly be described as ‘counter-intuitive’ and challengingly radical. There is, as it happens, no place where the Jewish scriptures tell us, explicitly, to hate our enemies. On the other hand, to take just one example, when God instructs the Israelites, in invading Canaan, to slaughter every single man, woman and child already living there, he is setting an appalling example of ‘hating one’s enemies’ in a very big way, which Biblical ‘literalists’ can use to justify the unjustifiable.

It’s important, then, (as with the Bible as a whole), that the reported teachings of Jesus are to be filtered, rather than uncritically swallowed whole. He was a man of his time, not ours – but still has so much to say that needs to be taken to heart.

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