Fisking the Sermon on the Mount

“Fisking” is a term I used to see a lot on the internet, which sadly seems to have fallen out of use. It means a point-by-point critique, and they can be a real joy to read. Today, I give you a fisking of the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

These are some warm and fuzzy thoughts, unfortunately they seem wildly optimistic. No really, I’m not just saying that out of a commitment to criticize whatever’s there, for the sake of a blog post premise.

It really is true that sometimes people mourn and are not comforted, the meek don’t inherit anything, thirsts for righteousness aren’t filled, the merciful don’t receive mercy, nobody and nobody sees God. Not every nice thought is an accurate description of the real world, and it’s important to live in the real world.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Flattering Jesus, very flattering. The thing about letting others see your good works is good advice, but you shouldn’t do it so that people will glorify God, you should do it so that other people are more likely to do likewise. Also, this seems to contradict what Jesus says elsewhere about giving alms in private.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Given how awful the Old Testament is, this paragraph should totally disqualify the Sermon on the Mount as any kind of repository of wisdom. Yet even Sam Harris has nice things to say about the SotM. I think this says a lot about how far people’s perceptions can be distorted by the fact that everyone around them believes something.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.

No. Just no. Especially the part about hellfire for saying “you fool.” Or even for saying whatever the insult was in the original language. I don’t know how severe the particular insult was, but it can’t have been that bad.

But it’s not just that part that’s problematic. Because yeah, of course we should be angry at people for doing bad things. In fact, reading the Bible you could sometimes get the impression that Jesus sometimes got angry at people for doing bad things.

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

It would be nice if reconciling with people were that easy, that you could make a commitment to always being willing to drop whatever you’re doing to reconcile with anyone who has anything against you.

(In fact, I’m pretty sure that would be a horribly self-destructive practice in some cases. Let’s face it, some people are toxic.)

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Okay, maybe the thing about plucking out your eye was hyperbole, but equating thought crime with an actual crime is crazy talk either way. Especially when it manifests in such a horribly sex-phobic way.

It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

I don’t think I even need to explain why this is a terrible policy. We all know people who’ve divorced and been the better for it, right?

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

On the contrary, oaths are a really useful practice, letting imbue our statements and promises with varying degrees of seriousness. Fun fact, though: while fundie pseudo-historian David Barton is mostly lying about the Constitution being based on the Bible, this is one passage that’s legitimately reference in the Constitution. The reason the Constitution gives presidents the option to say “affirm” in the oath of office is to accommodate Christians who were sticklers about this passage.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

I’m against “eye for an eye” punishments, but resisting evildoers, and not giving people everything they ask you for, are often good ideas.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The argument that we should love our enemies for the sake of being better than the gentiles is a pretty crappy one. That said, maybe you could defend the “loving your enemies” policy somehow. As long as that doesn’t entail not resisting them when they try to do evil to you.

Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Okay, this is what I meant when I said contradicting himself about whether you’re supposed to do good works publicly. Also he’s wrong about giving alms in secret.

Admittedly, noticing that people give alms in order to be seen giving alms is an important insight. But the solution to that is to put some effort into optimizing your almsgiving for actually helping people, not continuing to do what you were doing before, only in secret.

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The idea that many people pray in order to be seen praying is, again, an important insight. I discussed that a little bit here.

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Pray then in this way:

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,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

If God is omniscient, not filling your prayers with a bunch of things he already knows seems like a win for logical consistency. But if God is omniscient, why pray at all?

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

It’s really odd for God to be so focused on one thing. I mean, forgiveness is nice and all, but should it really be the sole deciding criteria in whether God forgives someone?

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Again, worthwhile insight about the reasons people do certain things.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Alternatively, don’t store up treasure anywhere, just worry about other people’s well-being.

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

Huh?

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God[aa] and his[ab] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

I’m down with not being greedy, but what’s this “therefore”? “Don’t be greedy, therefore don’t worry at all about your physical well-being”? That’s terrible advice. Even if your ultimate goal is something else, food is kinda important.

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Now obviously hypocrisy is bad, but trying to avoid hypocritically judging others by never judging anyone ever seems like a massive over-correction. And I’m guessing that Jesus wasn’t the first person to notice that hypocrisy exists, though I’d be interested to hear someone who actually knows about pre-Christian texts railing against hypocrisy.

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

Um, okay.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

This is all empirically false. Prayer, as far as we can tell, never works. Also, if you imagine how scummy these words would sound coming out of the mouth of a Peter Popoff, it reinforces the idea that Jesus may have been the ancient equivalent of such modern “faith healers.”

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

The first part is good advice, but it isn’t actually a good summary of the Old Testament.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Well that sucks. Wouldn’t a loving God want to do something about that, so that more people could be saved? And an all wise and powerful one actually be able to succeed?

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the 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. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

I guess that’s a good principle, but without advice on how to identify “good fruit,” it’s kinda useless. Also, you kinda gotta wonder what the bit about trees being cast into the fire means.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!

Actions are what matter, I can get behind that. Seems to contradict what many Protestants believe about being saved by faith, though.

Okay, so in summary, Jesus is right that hypocrisy is bad, actions are what matter, and many people give alms, pray, and fast mainly in order to be seen doing those things. But the Sermon on the Mount also contains an astonishing amount of bad ideas for something that’s often held up as the pinnacle of wisdom, and that even Sam Harris has nice things to say about.

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