Rachel and Todd talk about Flannery O’Connor. We discuss the unusual way that O’Connor developed Christian themes in her stories making use of violence and the grotesque. We look closely at four of her stories in particular, at her Southern regional style and humor as well as common themes like intergenerational conflict, urban and rural culture clashes, and racial tension as well as religious themes like depravity, redemption, grace, revelation, and the Holy Spirit.
In two competing accounts the origin of human rights has been framed as a product of Christian moral teachings or as a process of rejecting and overcoming oppressive religious superstitions. Where do human rights come from? The Christian origins are significant but a more complete account should also address additional historical factors that helped to activate and further shape our conception of human rights in modern times.
In a previous episode on the Nature of Divine Law I talked about Christine Hayes’s historical study of the biblical tradition and Greek thought and her comparison of their conceptions of the nature of divine law, along with some comments on my own perspective in response to both of these conceptions. As a recap, the difference as she framed it, was that in Greek thought “divine law is divine ‘because it expresses the profound structures of a permanent natural order’… Divine law is an element operating within the physical world and our natures, rather than something imposed upon the world by a god from without.” Whereas in the biblical tradition “the law is divine ‘because it emanates from a god who is master of history’… It is the expression of a personal divine being’s will, which can take the form of detailed written instruction and legislation.” Another way of saying this is that in the Greek conception divine law is internally justified. It is self-contained and right in virtue of itself, much like a logical or mathematical proof. Whereas in the biblical tradition divine law is justified because it is declared from the mouth of God. It is right because God says it is right. Personally I’ve found a synthesis of these two positions most tenable, as I talked about in that earlier episode. But I’d like to pick up on these ideas and look at them with another set of questions.
One of the issues I’ve been considering a lot recently is the problem of fitting together two highly contestable ideas that both seem right to me but that don’t fit very well with each other. The first idea is that the biblical tradition forms the basis of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights. The second idea is that the our modern ideas of human rights only really took off after seventeen hundred years of Christian history. So what took so long? That’s the big question for me. If Christianity is foundational to human rights why didn’t the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerge in the first century rather than in the twentieth century?
I mentioned that both of these ideas are highly contestable. So it’s worth addressing the matter of whether they’re even true in the first place. First then, does the biblical tradition actually form the basis of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights?
There was a debate over this question between Tom Holland and A.C. Grayling in 2019, with Holland arguing that Christianity historically gave us our human values and Grayling arguing that it did not. Tom Holland actually wrote a book on the subject called Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, in which he made a detailed case for this. Steven Pinker by contrast, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, is very dismissive of religion as a force for peace and human rights. In his view the decline in violence and rise of respect for human rights has occurred apart from and even in spite of religion and in spite of Christianity in particular. In fact he argues that it’s often been a process of overcoming and rejecting Christianity’s illiberal tendencies. I’ve read both Holland’s and Pinker’s books and recently watched the Holland-Grayling debate. I actually think both sides make some good points. Neither side is completely wrong. But neither side is completely right either. So I think the fuller picture is more complex.
What about the second idea, that the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights only really took off after seventeen hundred years of Christian history? This idea is also contested by defenders of Christianity. And much of this may be as a reaction to the excesses of anti-religious and anti-Christian polemics that have distorted the historical narrative, particularly in popular consciousness. The historical distortion is not new. Even going back to Petrarch, who lived from 1304 to 1374, Renaissance figures tried to contrast what they considered their enlightened and open perspective to what they portrayed as the medieval “Dark Ages”. And this narrative has persisted and been repurposed through the Enlightenment and into the present day. And a counter-reaction has been warranted. The negative portrayal of the middle ages isn’t fair. They weren’t the bleak dystopian nightmares they’ve been made out to be. Many of the purported anti-intellectual offenses of Christianity, destroying libraries and burning classical texts, are either distortions or fictions. Tom Holland as well as David Bentley Hart, in his contentiously titled book Atheist Delusions, address many of these popular misunderstandings.
Something both Holland and Hart address as well is that it’s really just not the case that no change in values took place in the first century. One of the important features of the preceding classical moral outlook is the different value it placed on the lives of different classes of people, ranging from nobles to slaves. It wasn’t the case that all human lives were of the same value or equal dignity. The highest value was for “the best”, the ἄριστος (áristos) in Greek, from which we get the word “aristocracy”. That was just natural. But then Jesus came along and taught, in quite a revolution of values, that what matters is how we treat “the least”, the ἐλάχιστος (eláchistos). A complete reversal and a conceptual revolution. So that was a big change that indeed started in the first century. So it’s not like nothing happened for the first seventeen hundred years.
Still, I think the biggest changes have come about in the last two or three hundred years. What’s interesting to me as a Christian is that I think we’re closer now to living consistently with the teachings of Jesus than at any other time in history. We still have a long way to go. But we’re closer. Closer than at any other time in the centuries leading up to modern times, at least at the scale of large states. I think modern critics of Christianity like Grayling and Pinker have a point when they say that Christianity has indeed coexisted with and even encouraged a lot of cultural values and practices that have been illiberal and offensive to our modern ideas of human rights. But when I look at the ideas of Jesus, at just a conceptual level, as in the Sermon on the Mount, they seem not only consistent with human rights but even surpass our modern notions of human rights. So what might that imply?
In general, what are a few ways we could say that one thing has caused another, like Christianity leading to human rights? Say A causes B. Just as abstract variables for a moment. Say we have B. B occurs. Consider three ways of looking at the relationship of A to B, given that B occurs:
1. B would not have occurred if A had not occurred.
2. B would not have occurred if either A or C had not occurred.
3. B would not have occurred if both A and D had not occurred.
Those are abstract so let’s apply it to the issue at hand. What does it mean to say that Christianity led to the development of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights?
Let’s take case 1, where B would not have occurred if A had not occured. The application here would be that without Christianity human rights would not have developed; we wouldn’t believe in human rights and there would be no such thing. I think we really need to entertain that possibility. One of the things Tom Holland said a few times in his debate with A.C. Grayling is that it’s important to recognize that our values of human rights are contingent. We could easily not believe in human rights in the way we do. And I think that’s true. We might imagine that we would just inevitably deduce human rights naturally through reason, but I find that highly unlikely. Moral philosophy through the Enlightenment has basically been a process of trying to back-calculate and rationally justify the values that we had already inherited through tradition. And even having a cheat sheet, knowing the “right answer” that we were supposed to arrive at, none of these efforts has been especially convincing. Some of them have been internally consistent and viable by their own standards. But they fail to conclusively ground the human rights we want them to ground. In other words, these rational systems don’t exclude the kinds of actions we would want to consider unjustifiable, to be violations of human rights. Utilitarianism, for example, can rationally justify many violations of human rights of individuals for the benefit of a larger number of people. Which is fine if you don’t care about human rights. But it’s a problem if you do. Alasdair MacIntyre gives an extensive overview of this in his book After Virtue in his chapters on “The Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality” and “Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail”. This is one reason I think we wouldn’t just rationally deduce our notions of human rights if we didn’t already have them.
Another reason I think we would not, out of necessity, just arrive at human rights without some kind of traditional basis for them is that many cultures in the past and even today just don’t believe in human rights in the way we do. So it’s definitely a human possibility. Not only a possibility but a human reality. It might be hard for us to imagine our own culture not believing in human rights because we are so embedded in it as a culture that it just seems normal. Everything that shapes our imagination, including our ability to imagine our culture being other than it is, is also influenced by the culture itself. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to think outside our cultural horizon. But it’s a challenge. So I think Holland is right to say that human rights are contingent. And maybe without the historical heritage of Christianity we wouldn’t believe in them.
Let’s take case 2, where B would not have occurred if either A or C had not occurred. In other words, if A does not occur B might still occur, but for some other reason, such as if C occurs. The application here would be that even without Christianity, something else might have inspired our belief in human rights. Maybe some other tradition. A.C. Grayling noted that Christian ideas like the Golden Rule have been expressed in other traditions and that many religions of the Axial Age (8th to 3rd century B.C.) had ideas that could lead to human rights. I think that’s a fair point. I’m a Christian but I know that many of the same insights of Christianity are found in other traditions. And I think that’s a good thing. And I certainly think it’s possible for human rights to be grounded in other cultures through these traditions. That’s actually important to think about as we try to generalize human rights worldwide. Still, I think it is the case that in the West it was Christianity that was the traditional vehicle for these ideas, even if it might have been otherwise.
And now, let’s take case 3, where B would not have occurred if both A and D had not occurred. The application here would be that Christianity is one factor that leads to the development of human rights, but it’s not the only one and it’s not enough by itself. Other factors are needed to contribute to this development. I want to focus on this case from here on out because it’s the one I find most convincing. Recall my two ideas that are in tension with each other: that Christianity forms the basis for human rights in the West and that human rights only really took off after seventeen hundred years of Christian history. Why? This third case gives a possible explanation. Christianity was one vital component, but the human rights revolution, in which societies made dramatic shifts toward actually putting the ideals of Jesus’s teachings into practice, required additional circumstances that did not come about before the eighteenth century.
This is basically the position of German sociologist Hans Joas in his book The Sacredness of Persons: A New Genealogy of Human Rights. Joas gives a historical account and philosophical explanation of the “genealogy” or historical origin of human rights by way of a process he calls the “sacralization of the person”, a process in which every human being comes to be viewed as sacred. In his book Joas sets up the same problem I’ve proposed for understanding the Christian foundations of human rights:
“Traditions do not perpetuate themselves but are sustained through the actions of individuals. Even if we concede, at least retrospectively, that human rights may to some extent be considered a modern rearticulation of the Christian ethos, we must be able to explain why it took seventeen hundred years for the Gospel to be translated into legally codified form in this regard.”
For Joas a proper historical explanation must refer to changes in values, institutions, and practices, as well as their historical precursors such as demographic changes, movements of populations, economic and political developments, etc. It’s not that human rights aren’t a modern rearticulation of the Christian ethos. He believes they are. But it’s a question of what caused this modern rearticulation when it happened.
Joas sets up a contrast between two perspectives on human rights that I find similar to the two perspectives on divine law that Christine Hayes identifies in the biblical tradition and in Greek thought. For Joas the two perspectives on human rights are those typified by two great German philosophers: Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. For the Greeks, according to Hayes, divine law is rational and beyond historical contingencies. Whereas in the biblical tradition divine law is given by God acting in history, to particular groups of people, at particular times and places. Joas similarly contrasts rational and historical bases for human rights in the Kantian and Nietzschean schools of thought. By pursuing a “new genealogy” Joas is following the Nietzschean school of thought. But unlike Nietzsche his genealogical project is affirmative rather than destructive. He doesn’t wish to undermine human rights, but rather to show how they have emerged historically, so that we can better understand them.
In contrast to the Kantian position Joas says he does “not believe in the possibility of a purely rational justification for ultimate values.” But he also says that “unlike Nietzsche, [he does] not assume that discovering the genesis of values removes the scales from our eyes to reveal the false gods and idols we have believed in.” That’s why his genealogy of human rights is affirmative. He says: “As a narrative, such an account makes us aware that our commitment to values and our notion of what is valuable emerge from experiences and our processing of them; this shows them to be contingent rather than necessary. Values no longer appear as something pregiven that we merely have to discover or perhaps reestablish.”
This kind of contingency of morality and rights, that they might have been otherwise or might not have been at all, is another thing I’ve thought a lot about recently both in philosophy and in theology. Philosophically my primary resource on the subject of contingency is Richard Rorty. And theologically my resource on contingency is James K.A. Smith. Smith is quite interesting because he also gives insightful commentary on Rorty. And I think both have ideas that cohere well with Joas’s points about the contingent, but still valid nature of human rights.
Rorty addresses contingency and its implications for liberalism quite directly in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. In spite of the contingent, non-essential nature of human rights we are not prevented from standing in solidarity with each other and affirming those ideas anyway. We can still make that choice. James K.A. Smith, in his book Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood takes this idea of contingency, appropriating many ideas from Rorty directly, and applies them to Christian ideas of creaturehood and community. Smith affirms the theological notion of our contingent existence, as opposed to God’s necessity. God exists of necessity. He cannot not be, by his very nature as the one who is: אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (ehyeh asher ehyeh), “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14). We however, do not exist necessarily. We are created. And so we are contingent. We could not exist. But we do exist because God created us. Much like human rights, I think. Human rights could not exist. They don’t exist out of necessity. Even morality, or “The Law”, as in certain expressions of the biblical tradition, is created. But from this we don’t need to despair that morality and human rights are merely arbitrary. In the biblical tradition The Law is covenantal, but it is not lesser for that fact. From a certain perspective that gives us the benefit of being invested in it by taking the direct action to enter into that covenant. Whether by covenant, in the biblical view, or by solidarity, in Rorty’s secular view, the contingency of morality and human rights can be just as compelling as ever.
So if human rights are contingent and have historical origins what are those historical factors that have contributed to their development into the form we hold them today? I’m more convinced of the idea that there are such historical factors than I am about any particular set of factors. But I have some ideas. And I’ll share the ones put forward by Hans Joas in his book that I find most convincing. I’ll mention four: the Protestant Reformation, the American Revolution, American slavery, and the two World Wars.
I’ll start with the American Revolution and work my way back chronologically to the Reformation because the two are closely connected in Joas’s account. And actually Joas is basing his ideas off the work of another German scholar, Georg Jellinek (1851-1911). In his book The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens: A Contribution to Modern Constitutional History, Jellinek had argued that the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, was significantly influenced by and modeled on the American Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence and American Bill of Rights. This is interesting, not just as a matter of patriotism (yeah, I’m a proud American but Joas and Jellinek are German), but it’s interesting as it relates to the question of why certain ideas of human rights took off as they did in Europe after the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century rather than, say, five hundred years earlier, or one thousand years earlier. France and the Ancien Régime, the “Old Regime”, had, as the name implies, been around for a long time. But the situation in America was comparatively novel. Obviously the continent itself wasn’t new. It had very ancient peoples and civilizations. But there was a radically different and new demographic situation on the ground in which large populations from Europe were colonizing the continent, bringing ideas and beliefs from Europe into these regions that were geographically separated from Europe. There were just a lot of new factors at play.
Jellinek’s thesis was that one important feature that characterized the American colonies was how highly they valued being able to practice their own religious denominations. Some communities had been organized specifically for that purpose. And this related to an idea that carried over from the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was many things. It involved several issues of doctrine that are very interesting and important. But for the purposes of the issue at hand the most significant is the issue of authority. All these denominations continued to have ideas of ecclesiology, the theological study of a church organization. But the critical move was separating the authority of God from the authority of Rome. It wasn’t the eradication of authority. But by separating from Rome the Reformation passed over earthly authorities and looked to transcendent authority in God. And once you have that you’re moving toward something that looks like human rights.
For example, Martin Luther is reported to have said at the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Note his appeal to reason. That almost sounds like the Enlightenment. Luther is claiming a freedom of conscience above and beyond anything codified by earthly authorities. And that is a challenge not only to the proper exercise of authority but also to the legitimate extent of authority itself, at least apart from God. That’s starting to look a lot like human rights that neither illegal nor legal authority can violate.
Here’s a passage from Joas on this point: “[Jellinek] was also correct to point out that there is a difference between theories of natural law and the legal codification of specific individual rights intended to hold for all people and removed from legislative authority. ‘The assertion of objective moral and legal limits to all worldly powers,’ writes Hasso Hofmann, agreeing with Jellinek, does not itself equate with ‘a theory of subjective rights. The idea of constitutional freedom and security against illegal tyranny is not equivalent to the human rights idea of basic, individual freedoms and protection against legal tyranny.’”
Once you bypass that earthly seat of authority, as in Rome, you place your source of authority above earthly powers, not only in theory, as it always had been, but also in practice. After the Reformation we’re in an era where people can actually disobey the papacy and its authority, get away with it, and truly believe that they’re authorized in doing so. That’s a new experience. And of course that all started and happened in Europe but in America it gets intensified. People are not only living under cuius regio, eius religio, the system in which you could have different religions in different kingdoms, depending on the religion of the ruler: “whose realm, their religion”. In America we get smaller, purposefully created communities with localized religious authority.
On this point Joas also refers to the work of German theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) who “recognized the transformative effects that Enlightenment thought exerted on Protestant Christianity in North America.” This unique situation in the American colonies also produced a curious synergy with religious thought and Enlightenment thought. I can see from Luther’s appeal to reason how this would come about. In the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the doctrine that Christian scriptures are the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice, the new necessity was for individual Christians to read the Bible and to understand it for themselves. And it is in this reading and interpretation of the Bible that we find the ultimate source of authority, rather than in Popes and priests. That is substantial breakthrough for independent thinking. And this is how the American colonists learn to think, as independent readers and thinkers. “In a well-known phrase, Americans in the eighteenth century learned their Enlightenment from the pulpit.”
So we could point out two things here. One, and this was more the point that Jellinek was making, is that the Enlightenment in America was highly religious in nature. But another point that I think addresses my question, is that religion in America was also highly Enlightened, it had a strong Enlightenment flavor that was new in Christian history. Christianity in America was wrapped up in supporting notions of independence from earthly authorities and independent, rational verification of the meaning of Christian doctrines through the actual reading and study of scripture. Something that literacy and the availability of printed Bibles no doubt also enabled. So you’ve got a whole set of new historical developments: technological developments, movements of large populations, major shifts in the balance of political powers. And these things are producing novel situations that influence the way Christianity is practiced and thought about. And that feeds back into the way Christianity influences the culture, so that Christian ideas that had been dormant before will start to exercise more live influence.
So we have the Reformation and the American Revolution, which influences the French Revolution, which shakes up all of Europe. Another factor Joas touches on is American slavery. He talks about this in a chapter titled “Violence and Human Dignity: How Experiences Become Rights”. This is the same chapter in which he address the two World Wars and the Shoah (or Holocaust), which we’ll get to next. The idea he proposes in the chapter is that our conception of human rights is also contingent on particular historical experiences of atrocity, or trauma. We respond to these atrocities in the way we develop our ideas about human rights. And the implication of this contingency is that if certain atrocities that happened in history and that appalled people in certain ways had not occurred or if different atrocities had occurred, that our conceptions of human rights would be different than they are. So what are some of the great atrocities that had these significant effects? American slavery is an important one.
Joas lists three components for his explanation as to why conceptions of human rights moved decisively against the institution of slavery in the nineteenth century. It might seem obvious that any notion of human rights should oppose slavery. But this was clearly not the case since, significantly, slavery was countenanced and even defended in America, in many cases by the same people who so forcefully defended what they understood to be the rights of men. The French Revolutionaries went a little further, at least in theory, in their pronouncements against slavery. But when it came to actually ceasing to think of human beings as property, as in the French slave colony of Saint-Domingue, today Haiti, they fell far short. So what set this particular advance of the “sacralization of the person” in motion? The three components Joas lists are:
1. “Intensification of the motivation to put into practice a universalist morality that already exists in principle.”
2. “A sociostructurally induced expansion in the cognitive attribution of moral responsibility.”
3. “The practical transnational organization of moral universalism.”
As in the case with the Reformation, trans-Atlantic colonization, etc., we’re looking for factors that make something happen that didn’t happen before. In this case an expansion of conceptions of human rights against slavery. And these three factors are the ones Joas identifies as the novel circumstances that produced that new development.
Joas acknowledges that a universalist morality already existed in principle in Christianity. For example, we see a universalist message in Acts 10 with Peter’s vision of a sheet with unclean animals on it, descending from heaven. Peter is told to eat the unclean animals and he resists because it goes against his traditional dietary laws. But he is told: “What God has cleansed, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). There is no longer to be that kind of separation. Peter was instructed to open the ministry to all people, regardless of ethnicity, to Jew and Gentile alike. We also see a strong universalism in Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. For Paul the Gospel was for παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι (pantí to pisteúonti), “everyone who believes”, he says to the Jew and to the Greek, i.e. everyone (Romans 1:16). In the Epistle to the Ephesians it is said: “You are no longer strangers and foreigners, [ξένοι καὶ πάροικοι (ksénoi kai pároikoi)] but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Such distinctions are being broken down. So the universalist ideas are there. That morality already exists in principle. But Joas claims there’s an intensification of the motivation to put this into practice.
He attributes this intensification in the nineteenth century United States to the particular revivalist form of religious practice taking place there:
“Slavery was declared a sin, while resistance to it signaled that individuals meant to live a life that truly reflected Christ’s moral demands. They tended to be particularly outraged when slaveholders and their supporters opposed the evangelization of the slaves and thus Christ’s Great Commission. The antislavery movement became part of the intermittent revivalist movements. These movements cannot be described simply in terms of their religious content; above all we must consider their specific dynamics. Here prophetic speakers castigated misdeeds as sinful and interpreted them as an occasion for repentance. Such discourse may set in motion major collective processes of moral reorientation that we cannot trace back to the interests of those involved. Indeed, through such processes they learn to completely redefine their interests. Here the adoption of religiously practiced forms of the public confession of sins and assurances of a moral rebirth helped politicize moral objectives.”
Joas sees this revivalist form of religious practice working hand in hand along with the second factor, the sociostructurally induced expansion in the cognitive attribution of moral responsibility, i.e. awareness of increased global interconnectedness. With slavery being part of the domestic and global economy it was impossible not to be a participant in it.
“Our conception of our own moral responsibility depends on cognitive preconditions. If we are to feel responsible, we must make empirical assumptions about the connection between our actions and misdeeds elsewhere. Does what we consume really come from a country in which slaves or forced laborers are involved in production? Also lying on the cognitive level is how we assess our possible intervention… All of our moral positions are embedded in a context of empirical and thus fallible assumptions about the conditions, means, and consequences of our action and that of others and about causal connections between our action and that of others. On the basis of these insights, American historian Thomas Haskell has ingeniously connected the rise of industrial capitalism and the concurrent advance of a ‘humanitarian sensibility’… From this perspective, increasing global interlinkage of social relations, on economic grounds, is a precondition for a movement such as abolitionism. The same process that, for example, allows businesspeople to expand their utility-oriented action across the world, in the slave trade itself but also other activities, enables others to relate a formerly consequence-free moral repudiation of abuses in other places causally to their own conduct. They thus experience a sense of responsibility for putting a stop to these abuses–as a realistic option for action and de facto moral obligation. So with the expansion of market relations, the space for moral responsibility becomes larger, and this is relevant to our actions.”
So here’s another novel situation. The economies of the world are becoming more complex and interconnected. That’s a new material situation on the ground that has implications for the ways that people live and think about their actions. So you can take the same Christian preconditions that were always there and by putting them in this new situation certain issues become much more salient and live issues.
Joas’s third factor for why conceptions of human rights moved against slavery is the practical transnational organization of moral universalism. This is related to the economic factor but there’s also feedback. Once these antislavery ideas start to intensify other nations start looking at each other. Britain ends its slave trade but still depends on it economically through U.S. cotton imports. Then during the Civil War Britain has to decide if it will give military aid to the Confederacy. Well, the whole world is watching now. So they end up rejecting that idea. Slavery is becoming more internationally unacceptable and that accelerates the development of public opinion in other individual nations.
When I think about the historical contingency of slavery and the abolitionist movement one of the things that stands out to me is the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed in 1868, shortly after the Civil War and the end of American slavery. The Equal Protection Clause of this Amendment has been one of the most significant Constitutional passages in the history of U.S. Supreme Court cases and the American history of civil rights:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
This text is part of our identity as a people now and it’s been a model around the world. And it was created in response to the atrocity of American slavery and subsequent, often successful efforts to curtail the rights of former slaves. Certainly it would have been better for slavery never to have happened. But just as a way of looking at the history of the way human rights developed, it’s noteworthy that it had a major impact on the kinds of things we consider central to the nature of human rights today.
This kind of historical memory embedded into our morality reminds me of the refrain in the Torah, כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם (ki gerim hayitem be-aretz mitzraim), “for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”.
“You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)
“The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
“Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
The memory of Egypt and their slavery in it is ever present in the Torah. The Lord repeatedly reminds the people of it. Far from something ahistorical, the Law given by the Lord is given explicit rationale in the events of history. Certain commandments are given in the form that they are, explicitly and self-consciously because of certain events in the past, even great catastrophes, like intergenerational slavery. In this respect I think many of the forms our modern values of human rights take are not so different.
The last events and atrocities of historical significance that I’ll mention in the development of our modern notions of human rights are the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Memory of these events was also explicitly mentioned in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, another canonical text today in our modern understanding of human rights and what we consider to be rights. The Shoah, also known as the Holocaust, certainly stands out as especially significant in our memory and conscience. And that’s definitely a major influence. But there were also many other atrocities even prior to that during these decades that got people thinking about what kinds of rights human beings should have, extending all the way from the rude awakening of World War I to the horrendous events of the Shoah. The influence is mentioned explicitly in the preamble of the Declaration:
“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…”
The articles of the declaration are clear responses to these outrages. Here’s an overview of antecedents to various articles in the declaration from Joas:
“The emphasis on the unity of the human race in Article 1 is consciously intended to counter the destruction of universalism in racial theories. The emphasis on the ‘right to life’ in Article 3 was just as consciously inspired by the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ of the disabled. Article 4 opposes slavery and ‘servitude’ in part as a means of denouncing the forced labor among citizens of conquered countries of the kind that occurred during the Second World War in Germany. Article 5 not only declares a ban on torture, but also ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment’ in order to preclude crimes such as the medical experiments carried out by National Socialist doctors on death-camp inmates and disabled people. The declaration of the right to asylum in Article 14 (‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’) can be traced back directly to the mass expatriations of the Third Reich… Article 21 declares the right to political participation. This was aimed directly at the fascist doctrine that the true will of the people should be embodied in a leader with unchecked power… Article 30 provides the beginnings of an ‘internationalist’ interpretation of human rights that makes the international community collectively responsible for policies and envisages a legal system consonant with human rights in individual states. This is bound up with the fact that the struggle against National Socialism in Germany before the war was by no means regarded as the responsibility of other states.”
Again we might ask, how would we think about human rights today if history had been different? If the World Wars and the mass scale of carnage had not taken place? Certainly it would have been better if these things had never happened. But it’s another case where we can consider the way particular historical events have shaped our values and how they might have been otherwise. It’s interesting how the ideas of racial sciences and eugenics, which had been very intellectually fashionable in the early decades of the twentieth century, dramatically fell out of fashion to become not only unfashionable but even reprehensible. And we have these strong, visceral reactions to euthanasia of the disabled, medical experiments, and any kind of compulsory “camp” because of the experience and memory of seeing these things being done. For instance, I imagine the internment camps of Japanese and Japanese-American persons during World War II, look a lot different after Auschwitz than before Auschwitz. And we probably react more strongly to the re-education camps of the Uyghurs currently operating in China because of association with the camps of Nazi Germany, though I’d say our reaction is still not strong enough in that particular and ongoing case. We can’t really know these kinds of counterfactuals. But it’s instructive and useful to understand these historical antecedents to our modern ideas of human rights.
So getting back to the issues at the beginning of all this – that the biblical tradition forms the basis of the liberal values of Western culture and our modern ideas of human rights and that these ideas of human rights only really took off in their present form after seventeen hundred years of Christian history – I still think both are true and that there are historical reasons for the delay and eventual emergence. Like I said, I’m more convinced that there are historical reasons for the delay and eventual realization of human rights from their latent form in Christianity than I am about the particular historical accounts I’ve shared here, borrowing from Hans Joas. But I do find his ideas plausible. I still think Christianity is conceptually foundational to the emergence of human rights, even if a number of features were dormant for a very long time. So I don’t think the accounts of human rights that attribute their origin to exclusively Christian or secular ideas are going to be accurate. I find a more complex story more convincing. And as a Christian I appreciate the genius of Christianity in both its realized and its potential forms. And I believe many aspects of Christianity have yet to be realized still. In fact that’s pretty much an assumption of eschatology, the theological study of future and end times. I also appreciate, as a Christian, that God acts in history. Christian morality doesn’t have to be ahistorical. Much as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to particular “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” I can appreciate how the Torah hearkens back to when “you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”. That’s the nature of all this. And I believe thinking about the history of our values can enrich our commitment to them.
This is the last in a three-part series on the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7 Jesus taught: “Judge not”, “Ask, and it will be given to you”, “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them”, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life”, “You will know them by their fruits”, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven”. As Jesus teaches about the narrow gate and difficult way consider what it means to live according to “The Way” as a disciple of Christ.
This will be the third and last episode of this trilogy on the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve decided to give the Sermon on the Mount special attention for personal study. Preparing and presenting my thoughts on these passages has been a good way for me to organize and record my thoughts. I hope it’s also of some value to readers and listeners. I see the New Testament as the central text of Christian life and the Sermon on the Mount is among the most important sections of the New Testament. Definitely in the top tier. This is where we really get to see who Jesus is and what he is about. And also who God is and what God is about. As Jesus said: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). By studying the Sermon on the Mount we’re learning about Jesus and we’re learning about God. We’re learning about “The Way”, ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos), which is also Jesus Christ (John 14:6), “I am the way” – Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos). The Sermon on the Mount shows The Way we are to live as followers of Jesus Christ. And as we will see in Matthew 7, The Way is strict and narrow, so it’s important to pay close attention to it’s exposition in scripture.
Part of what got me into a close reading of this sermon in particular is what I perceive to be something of a Christian identity crisis. “Who are we?” and “What are we about?”
I’m thinking especially of Christianity in the United States but I’m sure similar challenges occur in other countries. It’s by no means a settled conclusion that just by calling ourselves Christians or followers of Christ, by making a declaration to the world and to ourselves that we are his followers that that makes it so. As we’ll see in this chapter, that is often not the case. How to find our way? In the Bible certainly. And I think the Sermon on the Mount especially is a great place to look for the fundamentals.
So let’s dive in.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
This is a tough one. How do you not judge? And what does it mean to judge? This is one of those verses like Matthew 19:24, that it’s “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” where we always want to say, “hmm, it must really mean that.” And soften it somewhat to make it more practical. It’s probably apparent that I’m skeptical of that method of interpretation. But that’s not to say it’s not at all legitimate or can’t be justified. Jesus was, afterall, a very nonliteral, metaphorical and parabolic teacher. So sometimes his teachings shouldn’t be taken literally. But this passage doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for that kind of interpretation. The message seems pretty clear: do not judge – Μὴ κρίνετε (Me krínete). So how does that work in practice?
Part of what makes this passage difficult is that it’s certainly not the case that just anything goes. There is still such a thing as right and wrong and understanding the difference is a form of judgment, if not of individuals, than at least of certain actions, even if abstracted from specific instances and specific individuals. So for example, if someone says that it’s wrong to do something it’s not sufficient to just say, “Oh, don’t judge!” That wouldn’t be consistent with the rest of Christ’s teachings. So, don’t try to use that as a lame excuse for your own bad actions. Jesus taught tons of things to do and not do. Even saying “Judge not” is saying not to do something. In terms of actions it’s making a judgment about judgment. So this isn’t some kind of loophole to get away with whatever you want; it’s not a shield for your own sins. There’s still right and wrong, even as Jesus says, “Judge not.” So how does this all fit together?
Let’s work our way back from the end of the passage where Jesus says: “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” So we’re not supposed to just leave things as they are with everyone. We are supposed to help each other and that includes moral help, helping people to repent of their sins and change for the better. We might say that involves some kind of judgment. But it seems to be a different kind of judgment than the kind Jesus has in mind when he says “do not judge”. What is the difference?
One pitfall is hypocrisy. “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite!” So one problem is not having your own self in order before going out to reform others. I struggle a little with this because even in this case the motivation seems honorable. “Let me remove the speck from your eye”. The person has a speck in their eye. They need help. What’s wrong with trying to help someone else out with their moral problems even though we have our own or maybe even worse moral problems? Can’t we just say we’re all screw ups trying to straighten ourselves out together? I think maybe we can, as long as we’re not pretending. Or, if I can make up a word, as long as we’re not hypocrite-ing, one meaning of the verb ὑποκρίνομαι (hupokrínomai) being “to pretend”. The problem here may be less having a plank in your eye than pretending that you don’t have one. But of course, better still is to actually “remove the plank from your own eye” as Jesus says, to be even more effective in helping others to remove the specks from their own eyes. And maybe to be on the safe side, to be in more precise alignment with Jesus’s teachings, one ought just to be complete that process first. It might be like how they say on the airplane that with a loss in cabin pressure you should put on your own mask first and then help others put theirs on.
All of this I think should be understood in reference to that first commandment in the chapter, “Do not judge,” which I see as a kind of center of gravity for all the rest of this. Whatever interpretations we may make of the other parts of the passage, they should conform to that. Not judging is the baseline rather than an afterthought.
There’s a similarity here of the teaching that “with what judgment you judge, you will be judged” to the supplication in the Lord’s Prayer in the previous chapter that God “forgive us our debts, as – Ὡς (Hos) – we forgive our debtors (Matthew 6:12). There’s a similar consistency in the measure – μέτρον (métron) – used. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) How strictly do you want to be judged? Do you want to be judged harshly or laxly? Do you want your words to be interpreted in the worst possible way or in the most charitable way? If we want to be judged laxly and charitably we should be lax, charitable, and forgiving toward others.
“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”
On one level the meaning here isn’t too hard to grasp. Some things are special and should be treated as special. Special things should be separated from common things. This is an idea that runs throughout the Bible. On another level though it’s not entirely obvious why this verse is here. What does it have to do with the verses that precede and follow it? Is it to be understood as a separate saying in isolation or does it relate to the other verses?
First on the subject of specialness or separation, looking at the cultural context in the ancient Israelite thought, in Hebrew the word for “holy” is קָדוֹשׁ (qadosh), which also carries the sense of separation. The anthropologist Mircea Eliade theorized that many cultures have this concept of separation between the “sacred and profane”. By “profane” Eliade just meant not sacred, something common or part of normal daily life, something not special or separate from the usual. The Torah talks a lot about how priests and people would need to be cleansed before coming into sacred spaces like the tabernacle. So this idea here that Jesus is getting at, that you don’t just mix special things with normal or dirty things, has a very rich cultural background.
Does this saying connect to the others? It’s not totally clear. But we can speculate or try to make an (I think) acceptable interpretation, whether or not it was originally intended. The most plausible connection I’ve seen is that pearls represent the “brother” who we might be inclined to judge. And that in judging a brother we are treating them dismissively as not-special, as common and profane things. Reminds me of a little alliterative maxim I have, “people before principles”, which I justify from Jesus’s teaching that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Principles are important but it’s also important to remember that they exist for people. Sabbath violation was one of the things Jesus and his followers were always being judged for and he repeatedly told people to step back and think about the bigger picture, what the Sabbath is and how it serves man. Can be applied to other commandments as well and that’s something to think about when there’s that temptation to judge.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
This saying reminds me of others in the Sermon on the Mount, like in chapter 6 about the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field just being taken care of without having to worry. It seems like a similar kind of childlike trust in God providing. “You need something? OK, just ask.” Jesus even compares it to a parent-child relationship. When a child needs something the parents take good care of them and give them what they need.
Now the first thoughts I have reading this are: (1) I’ve asked for things before and haven’t gotten them and (2) kids ask for things all the time that parents either don’t give them because they shouldn’t or don’t give them because they can’t. My daughter has asked me for a “real” spaceship or a “real” magic wand but those are currently either outside my budget or outside the constraints of reality (as far as I’m aware).
A few thoughts on this. One is that, thinking of this saying in relation to the sayings about the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field, those earlier sayings were, in part, about simplicity. We aren’t supposed to even worry about what to eat, drink, or wear. That’s pretty basic stuff. Jesus just says we’ll be taken care of. But you’d think we shouldn’t expect any great extravagance in what we’ll be provided, at least not in terms of worldly expectations. So that might apply as well to the “Ask, and it will be given to you” saying.
Another interesting thing here is that there’s a similarity to the Lord’s prayer from chapter 6, where Jesus says that we should ask to be forgiven our debts, in accordance with the way we forgive our debtors; that there’s a symmetry here between the way we treat others and the way the Father treats us. And we see that here again. The “Golden Rule” verse is often taken in isolation, and I think that’s fine. But it’s worth noting that the verse has a “Therefore” – οὖν (oun). So it’s a kind of conclusion taken from the previous verses. “Therefore, whatever you want men (οἱ ἄνθρωποι) to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” What is this being concluded from? Just before this Jesus had compared the Father to earthly fathers who give good things to their children, like food. Fathers give “good gifts” – δόματα ἀγαθὰ (domata agatha) – to their children. It would seem that this is what we should all be doing to each other. We all desire to receive good gifts, therefore we should also give good gifts to mankind – οἱ ἄνθρωποι (hoi anthropoi).
“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
This is an important saying in relation to the theme I’ve been using to frame the whole sermon, that the Sermon on the Mount shows us The Way, ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) that is Christianity and that is also Christ himself. What does Christ here say about ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos)? Essentially it’s no cakewalk.
We learn here that ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) is something that most people do not follow. Instead, most people follow the way of ἀπώλεια (apoleia), destruction. I think here again of the contrast between our animal human nature and the καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), the “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Way taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is not really compatible with human nature. That’s why we need to die to sin and rise as new creatures in Christ (Romans 6:1-11).
I think this should be simultaneously and paradoxically both unsettling and reassuring. On another occasion Jesus also spoke of the narrowness of ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos) saying it would be easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24). Well that’s certainly unsettling. So his disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus said, “With men this is impossible but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26) That’s why it’s both unsettling and reassuring. It is impossible for our human nature. But we don’t have to rely on our human nature. The human being becomes a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation” in Christ by the power of God, through whom all things are possible.
That it’s through God that we are enabled, rather than through our own strength, might help to understand this in comparison to another of Jesus’s somewhat different sayings:
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
This saying about things being “easy” and “light” sounds different than the other about things being “narrow” and “difficult”. And that’s why I bring it up, because I want to get the comprehensive view scripturally with all its complexity; to avoid facile proof texting. As a tentative explanation I speculate that the difference has to do with entering the kingdom and on whose strength it can be accomplished rather than with the severity of the path, independent of the destination. If you’re just wanting a good time and not seeking the kingdom of heaven the “wide” and “broad” way is much more agreeable. But if you’re trying to enter the kingdom of heaven the wide and broad way is literally impossibly difficult, i.e. impossible. But to enter the kingdom of heaven the narrow and difficult way is, somewhat surprisingly, infinitely easier by comparison because it’s actually possible and because it is done through the strength of the Lord.
It’s interesting that Jesus said of the wide and broad way, “there are many who go in by it.” I wonder if since there are so many more that follow that path it starts to seem like the dominant and even natural human tendency. And that anything else could seem anomalous or a deviation. I think we scientifically enlightened moderns might be inclined to look at the Sermon on the Mount and think, “Oh, that’s nice and quaint but really not consistent with a more realistic, honest understanding of human nature from modern psychology and economics, etc.” The nature of human nature is a point of contention on many fronts, scientifically, ethically, and politically. And that’s all useful stuff to consider in terms of stuff like secular public policy or running a business. But it doesn’t really impinge on or detract from the Sermon on the Mount or ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos), The Way of Christ, because Christ doesn’t work within the constraints of human nature as it is. He completely transforms it.
I don’t think this is just fideistic or wishful thinking. This is something we can actually observe to have happened both in the lives of individuals and in entire civilizations. The world of classical antiquity, of the Roman Empire, is a vastly different world than the one we know today. And I don’t just mean because of developments of science and technology. Even more significant has been transformation in the way we think about the value of ordinary people. This is a cultural change that scholars like N.T. Wright and David Bentley Hart talk a lot about in their books.
It’s worth considering, going back to that secular public policy and running a business, how to live as a Christian in those settings, since we presumably shouldn’t “check our religion at the door” when we enter secular spaces. The Way concerns not only individuals but is ultimately about a βασιλεία (basileia), a kingdom. Jesus’s pronouncement, his Gospel is that the βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (basilea ton ouranon), the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is coming. All of society and its institutions are to be transformed into a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation”. The alternative is ruin, a path that leads to ἀπώλεια (apoleia).
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
I remember reading this saying in a class in college and some of the students thought it didn’t make much sense. Nowadays that actually seems like an appropriate response to a saying of Jesus. That’s how the people who listened to him back then reacted too. What seemed off was the idea that good couldn’t come from bad and that bad couldn’t come from good. Because that seems contrary to experience. I like that observation because I think it highlights something that we might otherwise pass over, either out of familiarity or respect for the text. If what Jesus said is right something deeper than our surface-level experience must be going on here.
I wonder if this points to a distinctly Christian ethic. What seemed odd to me and my classmates was that actions and agents should be so tightly linked. We usually think about the goodness or badness of actions independent of the goodness or badness of the people doing them. But Jesus seems to be speaking of things differently. Recall that the action of giving alms, thought of independently would seem to be a good action. But for Jesus it’s not so simple. It also depends on why a person is giving alms, which seems more closely related to the moral character of the person. Are they the type of people who are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people they serve or the type of people who are just seeking praise? Similar thing with not committing adultery. You might say not committing adultery is a good action, or non-action as it were. But for Jesus, again, it’s more complicated. One can be adulterous in character even without committing adultery in actions.
But that wouldn’t explain everything because Jesus also teaches this as a way to distinguish true prophets from false prophets. How can you discern the character of someone claiming to be a prophet whose outward actions seem good, if their internal character is actually evil and deceitful? The two types would seem to be indistinguishable from the outside. Another scripture that may help with this is in Acts 5, when people are worried about all the people that are following Jesus’s apostles and if they should actively persecute them to try and stifle it. You could say they’re worried about people following a false prophet. But one of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel, proposes something different:
“Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. And he said to them: ‘Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.’” (Acts 5:34-39)
What stands out to me here in Gamaliel’s very astute counsel is that he’s taking the long view. It seems that false notions have a way of imploding on themselves, while truths are self-sustaining and endure. There’s a similar idea of an underlying rationality to history in which it works out its own logic, negating or confirming different ideas through large-scale and long term trial and error. This was roughly Hegel’s philosophy of history. Gamaliel pointed out that there were a lot of intense but short-lived religious movements, that sparkled and fizzled. But truth endures. And I think the author of Acts gave an account of this story, basically to say, look, Gamaliel’s prediction was right and Christianity did endure, which is a testament to its truth.
Another aspect to this is that sometimes false prophets can seem convincing in the short term and, on the flip side, true prophets can seem eccentric and erratic in the short term. A lot of people thought Jesus was crazy. Those closest to him said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21) A lot of prophets in the Hebrew Bible did some pretty weird stuff. But, their teachings endured. So the short term, close-up view can be insufficient. And it doesn’t even mean that everything the prophets did makes sense or was good. Again, a lot of prophets in the Hebrew Bible not only did some weird stuff but also did some morally questionable stuff. But the things that they taught endured.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
I had a conversation with a friend recently where we were wondering if the reputation of Christianity has been irreparably tarnished by association in popular thought with materialism, militarism, and various forms of prejudice. It’s that Christian identity crisis I mentioned earlier. We both think that Christianity is an important foundation for many of the liberal and tolerant values of Western culture. So what happens if Christiany becomes discredited in the West? Will liberalism and tolerance eventually go with it? How long can liberalism persist only on inertia and habit?
But I’m cautiously optimistic. I do think that Christianity is being discredited in the eyes of many people but that’s also happened many times in history and will probably continue to happen many more times. But I’m optimistic because, even though we Christians have repeatedly not lived up to the teachings of Christ, we haven’t been able to sink it, and Christ’s church repeatedly bounces back in spite of us. Thank God Christianity can withstand the liability of its sinful adherents.
Another reason I am optimistic is because Jesus said that claiming Jesus and devotion to him has little to do with actual discipleship. In this passage Jesus said there would be people who prophesy, cast out demons, and do many wonders in his name, yet he will not know them. So invoking the name of Christ is not sufficient.
In another chapter, Matthew 25, Jesus told a parable in which he says to the righteous – οἱ δίκαιοι (hoi díkaioi):
“‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
They didn’t even know. The primary meaning of this parable would seem to be that the way to serve and love Christ is to serve and love the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi) – through them. But another meaning, I suspect, may be that many people serve Christ without even being aware of Christ or thinking about Christ, but nevertheless they are serving Christ because they are serving the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi). Is Christ harmed if his name is defamed but many still follow his teachings? I see Christ’s teachings persisting among many good, secular people.
Now, my optimism isn’t boundless. There have been periods where abandoning the “constraints” (as they seemed) of Christ’s teachings predictably coincided with dehumanization and brutality. This is a contestable take but I don’t think it’s incidental that the mechanized, industrialized warfare and systematic genocide of the World Wars were preceded by a zeitgeist, a wave of culturally fashionable ideas that abandoned the notion of all humanity being, equally, made “in the image of God” – בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (betzelem elohim). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized Jewish and Christian morality as “slave morality” (Sklavenmoral) because of its respect for the the “least of these” – οἱ ἐλᾰ́χῐστοι (hoi eláchistoi), the kind of people that earlier, more heroic cultures would have dismissed as pathetic. Nietzsche’s characterization very well may have been a contributor to the dehumanizing zeitgeist. Or it was at the very least indicative of the kind of thinking in vogue at the time.To compare with my earlier comments on Gamaliel and the “fruits” of certain ideas, philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, argued that the Enlightenment, with its instrumentalization of rationality, contained the elements that led to the developments of fascism, genocide, and mass technological warfare. It seems that people in the West felt severely chastened for some generations after that. But there’s nothing to say it can’t happen again. So it’s something to be vigilant and watchful for. There need to be valiant Christian Dietrich Bonhoeffers to face the Hitlers of the world.
But getting back to this passage in the Sermon on the Mount. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” So what is required, if proclamation alone is not sufficient? “But he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” It is required to actually do his will. And so Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a parable on this point.
“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”
This is similar and related to the earlier passage, as well as the saying about feeding, giving drink, housing, clothing, caring for, and visiting in prison the ἐλαχίστων (elachíston), the least. It’s crucial to actually do these things. It’s not sufficient to just invoke the name of Christ in self-servicing actions. That would be a weak and insufficient foundation that will not endure. A strong foundation in Christ’s teachings consists in living according to ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos), “The Way”. How we treat the least, the ἐλαχίστων (elachíston), is everything. It is absolutely definitive of our discipleship to Christ and imitation of the image of Christ, who is The Way.
“And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
People were repeatedly “astonished” at Jesus’s teachings; the words ἐξεπλήσσοντο (eksepléssonto) and ἐθαύμασαν (ethaúmasan), “astonished” and “amazed”, come up again and again, and seem to me like one of the most common reactions to Jesus, anger maybe being a close competitor. Makes you imagine and want to know what it would have been like to be in his presence to hear him teaching.
Even at a distance of two thousand years and through the medium of the testimonies of the scriptures I find myself “astonished” and “amazed” at Jesus’s teachings. They’re life-shaping and life-changing.
The Sermon on the Mount is challenging. It’s the core and the marrow of Christ’s gospel. I think it gives a singular view of Christ, “The Way” that is Christ and that we follow as Christians, as disciples of Christ.
So that’s the last chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve found this close study very rewarding. And if you’ve listened to it I hope you’ve found it useful and edifying. Thank you much!
In this second part in a series on the Sermon on the Mount we go through Matthew 6. The Sermon on the Mount is especially instructive on “The Way” disciples of Jesus Christ are to follow. In Matthew 6 Jesus taught about charitable deeds and fasting with sincerity rather than hypocrisy, about simple, humble prayer, the kingdom of God, forgiveness of debts, devotion to God rather than to riches, and trust in God’s providence rather than preoccupation with worldly cares.
This is the second part of a three-part series on the Sermon on the Mount. Last time I went through Matthew chapter 5. This time we’ll get into Matthew chapter 6.
Before getting into the chapter itself I want to review a few framing ideas. One is that I’m looking at this sermon for insight into the nature of “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos), of Christianity. This is how early Christians referred to what we would call the religion they were practicing. They called it “The Way”. And it’s to understand The Way that I come back to the New Testament for grounding, to see how Jesus taught his followers to live and how they lived. And The Way was remarkable in a couple important ways. For one it was very different from the way people lived in the wider Roman and Hellenized world in which they were embedded, different in a way that’s difficult for us to imagine today because we don’t live in that world. We don’t live in a world where people can think of just going to gladiatorial games and seeing people, people thought to be the expendable, being ripped limb from limb in a bloody spectacle for our entertainment. We would find that horrific. And that’s a testament to the way that the world has been radically transformed. But The Way of Jesus’s teachings is also remarkable because it’s still so different from the way the world is today. Even though our norms in the West have been shaped by Jesus’s teachings, whether we’re Christian or not, they still surpass what we consider practical or sensible. And I find that fascinating.
Also important to remember the significant theological insight that Jesus Christ himself is The Way: Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos) (John 14:6). So this is all an investigation of Christ himself as well as of the way we are to live.
So let’s get into it.
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.”
Last time I brought up this passage as a comparison to Jesus’s teaching to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) There seems to be an important difference in motivation: who is meant to be glorified? Are the good works intended to glorify God or self?
I’m reminded of the difference between an icon and an idol. An icon is an important theological concept spoken of favorably in the New Testament. For example, Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, τῆς εἰκόνος τοῦ Υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ (tes eikónos tou Huiou autou) (Romans 8:29). The elect are to be conformed to the image, or εἰκών (eikón), of the Son. We also read in Colossians that Christ is “the image [εἰκὼν (eikón)] of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). This concept of the icon, or image, shows up in the Old Testament as well. In Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him”. In Hebrew this “image” is צֶלֶם (tzelem), the image of God, צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (tzelem elohim). In the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, this is translated as the εἰκὼν (eikón) of God, εικόνα θεού (eikóna theou). A very important theological concept. So that is a good thing. We should be icons that point toward God. People should see us bearing the image of God, seeing through us, toward God.
An idol is different. An idol is not an image that points toward God but an image that replaces God. And we can be idols in the way we go about doing ostensibly good works. If the motivation is not “Praise God” but instead, “Look at me”, it is the kind of ostentation that Jesus condemns. Jesus says this is the behavior of the ὑποκριταὶ (hupokritai), the hypocrites, play-actors, pretenders, dissemblers. Why do they do their charitable deeds? “That they may have glory from men.” And interestingly enough, Jesus says that that is what they get. “They have their reward”. But the strong implication here is that this is all they get. What they don’t get is the reward of those who do their works out of genuine concern, they don’t get their reward from the Father.
Jesus says to do our charitable deeds “in secret”, which is superior to self-glorifying display. But it’s also useful to remember and compare this to the teaching in chapter 5 that we actually should let our good works be seen by others, so that they glorify God. Something to reflect on.
“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
What is the purpose of prayer? Prayer can certainly be a public act, though it can also be done privately. Praying in a community can bring a church community, in Greek a συναγωγή (sunagoge) or “synagogue”, closer together and at the same time closer to God. But what’s the wrong way to do it? It’s not right to want to be heard for your πολυλογία (polulogía), your “many words”. And that’s definitely a temptation. As I’m sitting here doing my own podcast and literally listening to my own voice I can appreciate the narcissistic appeal of hearing your own voice and the allure of polulogía. But that’s not what prayer is for. It’s not a time for performance. And so Jesus teaches a remedy: keep it simple. And he gave as a model what became one of the most important passages in all scripture: the Lord’s Prayer.
“Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Some manuscripts also include at the end of the prayer: “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
It’s interesting that Jesus says that the Father already knows what we need before we ask, a fact he seems to mention as refutation of the need for polulogía, many words. So we might ask again, what is the purpose of prayer? Is it to actually inform the Father? Seems not. Is it to influence his will? Maybe, but still seems perhaps not. Is it to bring about some change in us? That seems closer to the mark to me. But that’s just an interpretation, for what it’s worth.
The Lord’s Prayer is very simple. Not ornate. It’s quite short. So it’s interesting what Jesus chooses to include in such a short prayer.
One feature is reverence for God. “Hallowed be Your name.”
A second is an expression of the desire that the Father’s Kingdom come. This is a major theme that we see in Jesus’s ministry in the Gospels. If we could give a one-sentence summary of Jesus’s message I’d go with: “The Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). His message was all about “the Kingdom of God”, ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ (he basileia tou theou). Most of his parables were framed as parables of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew it’s expressed as the “Kingdom of Heaven”, ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (he basileia ton ouranon).
“And the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” (Matthew 13:10-11) The parables are meant to convey the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” So, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (Matthew 13:24). “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” (Matthew 13:31). “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” (Matthew 13:44). “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls” (Matthew 13:45). “The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind” (Matthew 13:47).
These all start the same way. Jesus tells these parables to tell what the Kingdom God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, is like. And it’s this Kingdom that we will to arrive in the Lord’s Prayer. I think that one line in the Lord’s Prayer here in Matthew 6 is thematically connected to the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13. And thinking of both together will enhance an understanding of both sections. What is the nature of this Kingdom that we are willing to come? That’s a challenge, I think an exciting and interesting challenge, to understand. Jesus’s parables are quite conspicuously and intentionally difficult to understand. I know they are for me. So when I pray the Lord’s Prayer I feel like I still have some work to do to understand what I’m praying for. But I think at least I know where to look to find the answers.
“Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven.” That’s an interesting line. Is it that we affirm God’s action to bring about his will, on earth as in heaven? Or are we committing to bring about his will by obedience? Or is it both? I think it’s both. And that it’s not just in heaven, but also on earth is interesting to me. This isn’t a wholly other-worldly Gospel. It’s relevant to the world we live in. This world is supposed to be a certain way. And it’s not just disposable. Explicitly not. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:17) This world is supposed to be saved. God loves the world, so we should love it too and work for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. What would this transformed, saved world look like? I think we know quite well what it should look like. It’s “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos). Everything Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the way the world is supposed to be.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” We are physical beings and we have to eat. Jesus will tell us later in this chapter that we don’t need to preoccupy ourselves about that. God will and does provide for our material needs. But we should recognize that it is God who meets our needs. Without nourishment we will die. It’s God who sustains us and gives us life.
“And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors.” Now there’s a provocative statement! It’s important to note here that, as Jesus said in chapter 5 that he is fulfilling the Law that was given through Moses, forgiveness of debts goes back a long way and was an important part of the Mosaic Law. Forgiving debts brings hope, new life, and freedom to people. For people without wealth, debt is a necessity. To get started in life certainly but sometimes even just to survive. And being able to pay off debts is not guaranteed. Certainly not in a Christian worldview. Recall from the previous chapter Jesus’s teaching against oaths: “ Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.” (Matthew 5:36) Christian humility involves understanding that much of our fate, including our prospects for income and wealth, are outside our control.
The Torah also reminds us of this. “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God… lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied… then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’ And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:11-18) We can call this the providence of God, that aspect of things occuring in our lives to our benefit or misfortune, but that lie beyond our control. I think here of the expression, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Perhaps not unrelated to that important fact is the commandment to forgive debts. Also in Deuteronomy: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)
Here in the Lord’s Prayer what kinds of things are being forgiven? I think it could be all sorts of things. Certainly literal debts on our part, as we forgive our own debtors. To God our debts would seem to be in the form of sin, not having paid what we owe to him under the Law. And we might also have debtors in those sorts of intangible ways. People who have not given us what they owe to us, maybe in terms of respect and love. Those are also debts that we can forgive. In Deuteronomy it speaks of there being a “release”, a שְׁמִטָּה (shmita) from the verb שָׁמַט (shamat), to let something drop. I think that’s a great way to think of it. At some point we just need to let things drop and stop trying to keep account. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, trying to keep account of offenses by an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave the world blind and toothless. Reconciliation requires letting things drop. This is the path to reconciliation, both between us and God and between each other.
So how does that actually work? Can you actually forgive debts? Whether they be monetary debts or debts of obligation in conduct like criminal offenses? And this is where we get again into some of the surprisingly radical and seemingly impractical aspects of Jesus’s teachings and the Bible generally. The secular part of me can fully appreciate the dynamic power of finance and investment, of which debt is an essential part. Much of the modern world as we know it today wouldn’t function without loans and credit. Not to mention “usury”, i.e. loaning at interest, which the Torah prohibits. That’s something to think about. How to be a Christian and live in the modern world? And how does that relate to the coming of the Kingdom of God? How are things to change? What is God’s ideal that we will be moving toward? I don’t have conclusive answers. But I’m also reluctant to craft easy answers that compromise Christ’s teachings.
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
This is a similar message to the teaching about charitable deeds, that we do them for the glory of God and out of genuine love rather than for drawing attention to ourselves. Another point worth noting in this passage is that we ought not to make religious practice appear severe and miserable. Living the Gospel can be difficult and Jesus often acknowledges this. But we don’t have to make a grand display of that.
The age of social media has transformed the ways in which we can present ourselves to the world. There are extremes of making our lives look better than they actually are or worse than they actually are. Either one is an act. Philosophically I’m inclined to think that some form of presentation is unavoidable. We are always interpreters, even of ourselves. But we can at least try to prevent excesses in our self-presentation. John Piper, in his book Desiring God, has advocated what he has called “Christian hedonism”, the view that Christian faith should bring us joy. And he argues this point from scripture. For example, Psalms 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the LORD.” This doesn’t mean that we need to pretend to be happier than we are. But we should go about our lives normally. Jesus puts this in terms of regular grooming. Do your hair, wash your face, do the things that you normally do, even when observing periods of fasting. It’s not about trying to look miserable.
I think we can also read this teaching on fasting in light of Jesus’s teachings on the internalization of the Law. Recall Jesus moved the locus of sinfulness from murder to anger, from adultery to lust. Fasting also seems not to be about appearance but about internal edification. To the extent that it is for the benefit of others, that we are letting our let so shine, it is for the glory of God. And it’s also about an internal transformation of the heart.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Here is the first of Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount regarding riches, or what he likely usually called “mammon” (ממון) in his native Aramaic. Jesus also contrasted treasures on earth with treasures in heaven when he told the rich man to sell what he had and give to the poor: “you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21). Treasures on earth are seriously downgraded in Jesus’s teachings, even discouraged if not outright condemned. The relationship is still a little complicated, which we’ll get to in a bit, but it’s pretty clear that Jesus sees treasure in heaven as vastly superior, and that’s where the focus of his followers needs to be.
“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
Because of its placement between the previous passage on heavenly treasures over earthly treasures and the next passage on serving God over mammon, this passage would seem also to pertain to the focus of devotion to God rather than to riches. This is a beautiful and richly figurative saying: Ὁ λύχνος τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν ὁ ὀφθαλμός (ho luchnos tou somatos estin ho ophthalmos) – “the lamp of the body is the eye”. The source of illumination for our whole being is that part by which we center our focus of attention.
“If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.” That’s NKJV translation. The more traditional King James Version is: “if therefore thine eye be single,” which I think is a decent translation too. The greek there is ἁπλοῦς. It can mean “single”, “simple”, and “honest”. So there’s some rich meaning from the gospel writer there conveying both goodness and focus.
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
As I mentioned earlier, “mammon” (ממון) is an Aramaic term for wealth. I like these Aramaic quotations in the Greek text because it gives us a little glimpse into Jesus’s own native voice. This is a succinct summation of the former two passages. Basically Jesus says you have to choose. Your master is either God or wealth. Can’t be both.
I said earlier that it’s a little complicated. But not for the reasons we might usually hear in the form of awkward accommodations, excusing our deviation (my own included) from Jesus’s literal teachings. It’s just that Jesus uses money and riches in his parables a lot. This doesn’t mean that he’s speaking favorably of literal riches. Jesus is after all the master of the nonliteral, and adamantly so. But it’s easy to forget that he may often be talking in such cases about treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth.
One classic example is his parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. And let’s recall here that a talent – τάλαντον (tálanton) – is a unit of measure, rather a special skill as we think of it in English. A man gives three servants five talents, two talents, and one talent respectively. The first two are enterprising and double the principal investment. The third man generates nothing, to his own condemnation. The first two would definitely be better examples to follow in our financial practices. That’s what I try to do in my personal finances. But Jesus’s message would seem to be something other than this literal meaning. He says it’s a parable of the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven comes, without warning, as the master in this story. And we will be made to give an account and must be prepared.
Another, stranger example is the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16:1-13.
“He also said to His disciples: ‘There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’”
“Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’”
“So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.”
“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man’s, who will give you what is your own?
“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
What a strange passage! I love it. What does it mean? Again it would seem not to be meant literally. The parable concludes with the same teaching we see in Matthew 6: “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Yet just a few verses before that it speaks of making “friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon”. It’s certainly strange.
I bring this up because I want to be fully transparent in the way we look at Jesus’s teachings. I think we often proof text to highlight the teachings that conform to our views and conveniently ignore some of the other difficult or strange things Jesus taught when they don’t fit the agenda. The best practice is to actively resist and counter that tendency.
Regarding the parable of the unjust steward, I’ve read a lot of commentaries on these verses and I’m not satisfied that any one of them explains them adequately or at least that any one of them is able to demonstrate any interpretation conclusively. The safest interpretation I’ve seen is that, as the dishonest manager was prudent in using the things of this life to ensure the future, so believers should be prudent in preparing for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. It’s a comparison.
Interesting to note here another example in scripture where shrewdness or craftiness is presented more positively than we would expect. I think here also of Jacob in Genesis, in his shrewd plans to get his father’s birthright and blessing from under Esau and to get the better part of his father-in-law Laban’s flock. The shrewdness of the unjust servant is, in greek, φρόνιμος (phronimos). Jesus uses the same word in Matthew 10:16 when counseling his disciples to be as wise (φρόνιμοι, phrónimoi) as serpents but also innocent as doves. The same word is also used in the parable of the five wise virgins. This kind of resourcefulness, prudence, and shrewdness is, intriguingly, encouraged. But the object or aim to which either wisdom or foolishness apply is important. Using another word for wisdom, σοφία (sophia), Paul told the Corinthians that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). Symmetrically “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We ought to be prudent, resourceful, and even shrewd for the things of God and of the kingdom of heaven.
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?”
“So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
This brings us back to the doctrine of divine providence, that events in our lives can occur to our benefit or misfortune, that lie beyond our control. Appreciating this is important for our well-being and happiness. But I think it’s also just an important part of understanding the nature of reality. And that makes sense. A proper understanding of reality would be conducive to well-being and happiness, at least in the long-run. What is the illusion that this understanding might dispel? The illusion of reality as something that we can direct and control. It’s not a total illusion. We can direct some things to an extent. But there’s always a limit. And remarkably, also fortunately, much in reality that we rely upon just happens outside of and beyond our control or even awareness.
One of Jesus’s parables is especially illustrative of this point.
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)
We know more through modern botany about these processes but there is still a lot we don’t know and, significantly, the more we come to understand about the physiological and biochemical complexity involved in seed germination and plant growth the more astounding it is how all this just happens with minimal input from us. It’s miraculous. And that’s what the whole world is like.
It’s easy to forget this because we are always engaged in activity and it feels like we’re the ones keeping our lives going. And yes, there are things that we have to do. But the vast majority of what sustains us is given to us. Hugh Nibley had this line: “Work we must but the lunch is free”. Playing there off the expression in economics that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” – TANSTAAFL. Work may be necessary but we shouldn’t conclude from this that our work is sufficient for all that we have. The greater part of what sustains us and makes our existence possible precedes us and is beyond our control and awareness. I think this realization is one of the first steps toward sincere piety.
Another side to this is that we preoccupy ourselves much more than we really need to. At least for the things that are needful. Jesus said, “One thing is needful”, χρεία (chreia) or necessary (Luke 10:42). But we preoccupy ourselves – μεριμνάω (merimnáo) – unnecessarily. But Jesus commands: “Do not worry” – μὴ μεριμνᾶτε (me merimnáte). And the list of things for which Jesus says not to worry gets down to what we might consider the most basic things.
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on.” Food, drink, clothing. Those are pretty basic things. Stuff we would say today goes right at the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Is it possible to live like that? I honestly don’t know. I guess I’m in the class of people Jesus calls the ὀλιγόπιστοι (oligópistoi) – those of little faith. I’m not ready to take that kind of leap yet. But I think we can say this: if Jesus says we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with even those most basic things it’s reasonable to suppose that we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with the many far less basic things with which we do regularly preoccupy ourselves. Jesus teaches a much simpler way of life than the vast majority of people practice. Even as oligópistoi Christians, if we’re not able to go all the way to the kind of life Jesus teaches us to live we can at least move in that direction and simplify our lives.
The last verse of this chapter is one I’ve found personally meaningful. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” I’ve found it easy to fall into unhealthy imaginative fictions about troubles the future might bring. Getting fixated on and upset about things that aren’t even real. That is not a good way to live. I get a kick out of Jesus’s half-sardonic, half-optimistic saying: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” We’ve got enough to worry about in the present moment. Don’t multiply worries beyond necessity or reality. But it’s not only trouble that we experience in the present. There is grace, free gifts, to be seen all around us right now. We can see this in the birds of the sky, the lilies of the field, and in countless other free bounties given to us by God. We do not need to worry and should not worry because God is mindful of us and watching over us.