The Sermon on the Mount

 

Is there any evidence of Jesus’ divinity in the passages known as the Sermon on the Mount? If his moral teachings reflected some kind of divine infallibility, we would expect these teachings to express the most advanced morality possible. We would expect Jesus to be a moral sage. And if we found such an advanced morality in his reported words, that would be evidence of his divinity, since only a godlike being could so transcend the morality of his time and place. On the other hand, if his recorded sayings were merely banal or erroneous, that would undermine his claim to be the Son of God. So, how good was Jesus as a moralist?

There are two sides to the question: what he said and what he didn’t say. He said nothing about issues of the utmost moral importance, still less say what needs to be said about these issues. He never says that slavery is an abomination or that capital punishment is wrong or that a man should not beat his wife or that abusing animals is wrong or that racism is bad or that homosexuality is not a sin or that children should not be flogged. These would have been sayings revealing a remarkably advanced moral intelligence, quite out of step with the assumptions of the time, indicative of divine insight: but Jesus says none of these things. Is that because he does not believe them? Or is it that he does believe them but is reluctant to speak his mind for fear of seeming too radical? I think it is evident that he doesn’t say them simply because they have not occurred to him: that is, he has no source of moral insight beyond that of his particular time and place. His moral thinking is not shaped by access to an omniscient and morally perfect God but by prevailing norms. What he says positively is a mixture of oddity and common sense: for example, “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5.31); “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own” (5.32); “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown in prison” (5.25). These are hardly the remarks of a deep and insightful moral thinker: they are highly contestable and advance no radically new vision of morality. He also reiterates the point that you should not advertize your good deeds to others for their approval, because God is always watching you and he will reward you for them, which seems to take back what it enjoins.

But there is one passage that has caught the imagination of generations and is often regarded as the heart of Christian teaching, viz.: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (7.38) This passage does indeed stand out for its novelty and radicalism, and it has the form of a general ethical stance not just advice on practical matters. But it is surely unacceptable as a moral directive: we should seek to prevent evil not tolerate it. Jesus says we should turn the other cheek when slapped—does he extend this doctrine to punching and stabbing? How many times must one invite further assault—until the point of death? If you are against acting violently on principle, what about just running away? And what if the person assaulted is not yourself but (say) your child: should you advise your child to turn the other cheek when slapped in front of you? Should you allow the slapping to go on unimpeded? Shouldn’t you at least remove your child from danger? What precisely is the point of encouraging more evil from the evildoer? Should the legal system contain no discouragement to evil? Should the police turn the other cheek or decline to defend someone who is being assaulted? What if it is just a simple matter of saying, “Stop that”? Jesus baldly asserts, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person”: isn’t that the worst advice possible? Of course we should resist evil—evil is precisely that which should be resisted! What is he thinking—that the evildoer will feel ashamed if we offer him our coat as well as our shirt? What if he doesn’t? Jesus seems to be suggesting that we should not even rebuke bad actors, that we should actively encourage people to exploit and abuse other people. Why is this good? He doesn’t say. What would a society be like that offered no resistance, or even rebuke, to those bent on evil? Should rape be followed by an invitation to more rape? If someone murders your sister, should you suggest murdering your brother too?

True, it is good to minimize violence, but Jesus goes a lot further than that: he seems to be advocating a bizarre kind of masochism. So this directive is simply not defensible as a moral principle. Nor does he offer any justification of it. I really have no idea why he would assert such a thing—it certainly doesn’t strike me as a profound moral insight. I can’t think of any moral thinker before or since who has advocated such an extreme form of moral passivity: even when it would be easy to prevent evil being done, we are enjoined to make no protest and take no preventive action. Presumably Jesus thinks we should praise and encourage good action, but he seems to be against criticizing and discouraging bad action. Nor is it easy to see how this position is consistent with his readiness to insist on other injunctions: he is quite happy to tell people what not to do in matters of divorce and oaths and giving to the needy, so why not tell people not to slap you for no reason? He never says anything expressly against violence in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is surely not his position that we should actively condemn adultery but not violence: all immoral acts should be condemned. Sound morality tells us to prevent evil acts, but Jesus explicitly rejects that idea. And it isn’t that he thinks that non-resistance in the face of evil will lead to less evil–he is not being a peculiar kind of consequentialist. He is not recommending non-violent resistance to injustice but simply non-resistance, non-complaint. Does he think (implausibly) that this will reduce the amount of evil in the world? Or is it that he thinks that we will get our reward in heaven so we need not worry about evil on earth?

All in all the Sermon on the Mount is a mishmash of antiquated, peculiar, and dubious pronouncements, asserted without justification, and often quite opaque in meaning. It is hard to see how these “teachings” could be regarded as evidence of divine inspiration—they show no special moral acuity.

 

3 responses to “The Sermon on the Mount”

  1. […] The Sermon on the Mount, by Colin McGinn […]

  2. Charles Target says:

    Interesting premise to judge Jesus by divine standards. Clearly books could be written about what he did not say. And not commenting on the practice of bear baiting, say, or fox hunting or trial by ordeal is the least of the puzzling omissions. Some guidance on Islam would have been helpful – or whether the protestant schism was worth a single death. Tim Rice ask: Why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land? All very frustrating.

    But interesting that someone can write about Jesus’ morality without mentioning his morality. The great command to love seems to me at the heart of it. And he takes us through it step by step. The Golden Rule. OK. Love your neighbor (non transactionally this time). OK. Love you enemies. Steady on. And the implications of loving your enemies as the foundation of morality are . . . Whoa!

    What are the alternatives? One is subcontracting morality to justice and the courts and Jesus is dismissive of that. The most common morality is the honor code. An eye for an eye. Someone slaps you: you slap them back. But if your morality is based on love, you cannot do that.

    So how do you live a morality based on love – even of those who wish to hurt you? Clearly Mr McGin is having problems with the idea. Shaw’s ‘Androcles and the Lion’ is a useful dramatic exegesis of the issues. As are Quaker statements of conscientious objection. Turning the other cheek has challenged many. The implications are clearly repugnant to Mr McGin and he dismisses it as masochism. But some see the idea that we should base our morality on love as new, extraordinary and maybe even ‘advanced’. Is it evidence of divinity? Who knows? I tell my kids that the idea has not been bettered in the two millennia since and that it is very hard to live by this code in a secular age.

    (Odd also to parse the Sermon on the Mount without mentioning the Lord’s Prayer – especially if one is looking for divine standards for morality. I find the omission of any prayer for the relief of suffering strange and understandable only sub specie aeternitatis.)

    • I do discuss the idea of universal love in “A Religion of Hate” in my book Philosophical Provocations. As to better ideas of morality, what about the entire tradition of moral philosophy–Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Ross, Rawls, and many others? Universal justice is a better foundation than universal love.

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