The Sermon on the Mount
by Carl Heinrich Bloch.
The Sermon on the Mount is the popular name for a sermon attributed to Jesus, as written in Matthew 5-7 . Many Christians consider it to be one of the greatest messages ever delivered, some even going so far as to considering it proof of the divinity of Jesus.
The sermon is portrayed in the book of Matthew, chapters 5 through 7, though it parallels the Sermon on the Plain presented in Luke 6:17-49 as well as some passages from Mark. Scholars are uncertain about the precise origin of the sermon but the parallels between the synoptic gospels as well as non-canonical texts like the Gospel of Thomas have lead many to conclude that the shared material may have come from the hypothetical Q document.
The sermon begins with the beatitudes (a series of claims that many conditions which are discomforting in this life will be rewarded in the life to come), gives insight into Jesus' views on Jewish law and the Ten Commandments, gives instructions on prayer (including what is commonly known as the Lord's Prayer) and general instructions on how to live. These instructions are viewed by many Christians as a manual for living life as a "true Christian" — by following the specific instructions of Jesus.
One key element of Christian theology is that the Bible is divinely inspired or, to some, the literal word of God. A common apologetic claim used to establish the Bible as divine in origin and, therefore, authoritative is that the themes present in the book transcend the wisdom and intelligence of the era in which they were written. Some apologists cite the Sermon on the Mount as an obvious example of the divine nature of Jesus, asserting that one need only read and evaluate the sermon to see that these are the words of an unusually wise being.
While some of the passages in this sermon have been considered sage advice by readers of varying beliefs, the sermon includes many passages which seem to contradict the claim that the author was wise beyond mortal men. Many people have pointed out that rather than being the ultimate instructions for how to live life, the sermon contains several passages that would typically qualify as bad advice and projects some philosophical positions that are typical of the era and not indicative of a wise, transcendent being. A detailed, verse-by-verse look at the message in this sermon follows below.
As a whole, the Sermon on the Mount is, to put it bluntly, a bad sermon. Beyond giving some bad advice, it doesn't have any underlying theme. It is a hodgepodge of bottled wisdom. No section leads into another section, and often the advice within the sections are contradictory (Matthew 5:16 vs. 6:1 , Matthew 6:7 vs. 6:8-13 , Matthew 7:20 vs. 7:21-23 ). Some sections switch justification for the advice midstream: Matthew 6:25-26 suggest you don't need to worry about food because God even looks after the lesser animals, then later in Matthew 6:31-33 the suggestion is that God knows what you need and if you believe you will have them "added unto you". On the whole, the "sermon" is roughly as coherent as just reading all the aphorisms of Poor Richard's Almanac.
According to the two-source hypothesis the Sermon on the Mount is taken from the Q document, and primarily consists of bits taken from an unrelated non-gospel source. If this is the best Christianity can do, it seems rather ironic that it is likely borrowed from a different source.
Any exercise in Biblical criticism is bound to raise objections from believers, as there are many possible interpretations and an individual's understanding may be steeped in nuance and subtlety. In this commentary, we try to present orthodox views, common understandings and direct literal observations that, in our opinion, best reflect the text.
Due to copyright concerns, this analysis quotes the King James Version of the Bible. This seventeenth century text is not always easily understood by the modern reader and there are disputes over the authenticity and accuracy of a number of its passages. These issues lead to other problems, which may be addressed elsewhere. For the purposes of this commentary, we will attempt to clearly and accurately represent the meaning of difficult passage in modern English by appealing to other translations.
- Matthew 5:1-12
- 1And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: 2And he opened his mouth, and taught them,saying,
- 3Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- 4Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
- 5Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
- 6Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
The first four beatitudes are found in both Matthew and Luke with the possible exception of verse 3 where the author of Matthew says "poor in spirit", while Luke simply says "poor". Luke includes two additional verses that are noticeably absent from Matthew - Luke 6:24-25 :
- 24But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.
- 25Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.
These verses put a decidedly different spin on the beatitudes. When considered alongside other verses, they stress poverty as a virtue and wealth (and not simply the seeking of wealth) as a vice.
Regardless of which version (if any) is correct, the first four beatitudes address traits and conditions that are generally undesirable or, in the case of meekness, taken advantage of.
The speaker (who, for expediency will simply be referred to as Jesus, as orthodoxy attributes these words to him) is essentially saying, 'Don't despair, no matter how bad this life is, the next one will be better.' These statements may provide comfort to believers, but they are, in fact, simply assertions without justification. In addition to comfort for believers who feel oppressed by the outside world, these verses serve to pacify those, like women and slaves, who are oppressed from fellow believers.
These verses set the tone for a common theme that runs through the sermon, a theme that betrays the very mundane nature of the speaker. Instead of offering useful advice on how best to live this life, the one life we're certain about, the speaker shrugs this life off as meaningless, focusing instead on the life to come. Even if we were to assume that an afterlife exists, there's no reason not to live this life to the fullest as well.
Any being which possessed the wisdom and compassion that would qualify as divine and benevolent should realize this. Instead of pithy dismissals of this life, we should expect deep insight into the human condition and guidance on how to improve our time here in addition to promises of an afterlife.
- 7Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
- 8Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
- 9Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
While the first four beatitudes focused on negative traits, these next three focus on positive traits as a sort of instruction how to live. This serves as a sort of 'carrot' to guide people toward right behavior. We may do well to encourage people to be merciful, pure and seek peace, but promising recompense in an afterlife is only required for those who cannot understand that doing good for its own sake is its own reward.
These verses aren't bad advice; they're simply a naive way to develop a moral code. We should certainly expect something more from a divinely wise being.
It's also worth noting that Jesus, who advocates mercy, states in Matthew 10:33 "But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven." These don't appear to be merciful words.
- 10Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- 11Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. 12Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
These verses establish the second theme of the sermon: persecution and martyrdom are to be expected. Indeed, the verses tell believers to rejoice in persecution and it is no small wonder that Christians often consider any opposition to their beliefs persecution. These verses not only serve as justification for martyrdom but establish an implied protective barrier around Christian beliefs which helps believers compartmentalize them, keeping them safe from criticism.
This isn't "good advice" or "wise counsel" - it's bad advice. It encourages divisiveness by discouraging cooperation. There's no incentive for Christians to seek out cooperative societal relationships with non-believers...they're expecting to be ostracized and persecuted - and any perceived persecution only serves to reinforce their beliefs.
Salt and light
- Matthew 5:13-16
- 13Ye are the salt of the earth: but if salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
Salt cannot lose its flavor. This particular statement is a metaphor, but it's a horrible one. He might as well have said "You are the ocean of the earth. But if the ocean loses its wetness, how can it be made wet again?" This doesn't represent wisdom beyond the capabilities of the time, it's a poor analogy and it's unreasonable to assume that any wise, divine being would have made such a poor analogy. This error is similar to the one made by Jesus in referring to the mustard seed as the least of all seeds (Mark 4:31 ) - it isn't. These are errors of fact which are only possible if the speaker lacks knowledge or is intentionally deceptive, neither of which is consistent with claims of Jesus' divinity.
But, more importantly, what is the meaning of the metaphor? Is Jesus saying that people who don't have God in their lives are worthless?
- 14Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. 15Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. 16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Here Jesus is instructing believers to do their good works in public. He'll be directly contradicting himself in the next chapter and the contradiction will be addressed at that point.
Jesus and the law
- Matthew 5:17-20
- 17Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.18For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus here is stating that Jewish law will not be changed until heaven and earth disappear and anyone who breaks any commandment and teaches others to do the same will be called least in heaven. This is significant for several reasons...
- It doesn't say that breaking the commandments sends you to hell, it just says you'll be among the least in heaven
- This flies in the face of common doctrines regarding sin and hell. While apologists might state that Jesus is speaking to believers who aren't in danger of hell, he does talk about avoiding hell in this same sermon, establishing that the intended audience might be in danger of hell based on certain actions. This is a doctrinal contradiction without resolution.
- Jesus breaks a commandment and teaches others to do the same which, by these words, means he should be among the least in heaven. (He violates the Sabbath and then says that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath - Mark 2:27 ).
- Apologists often point out that Jesus, as God, is above the law. He makes the law, and may therefore break it when he likes. This does not settle the contradiction. What we have isn't simply a "Do as I say, not as I do" scenario; we have a direct contradiction: Jesus has said he hasn't come to change the law and no one should be teaching people to break it...and then he teaches people to break it—which represents a change in the law.
- He violates a number of other commandments; pardoning an adulteress (which carried the death penalty) in John 8:1-11 , declaring all food clean (violating kosher) in Mark 7:18-19 and disrespecting his mother in John 2:4 ...among others
- Jesus says he's not come to "abolish the law but to fulfill" - what he really does is expand the law which might count as alteration.
Murder and lawsuits
- Matthew 5:21-26
- 21Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 22But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Here Jesus establishes thought crimes and speech as equivalent to murder. While it might be good advice to suggest that people speak civily to each other, it is morally corrupt to establish that saying you hate someone is the philosophical equivalent to murdering them. Thoughts aren't crimes....actions are. While Jesus certainly didn't mean that we should put people to death for simply thinking about murder, his view here represents a naïve morality that builds a doctrine where those thought crimes should result in eternal punishment.
This simplistic morality is an echo of Old Testament morality, where the death penalty was prescribed for murder as well as working on the Sabbath or being an unruly child. It is expanded upon in the New Testament where infinite punishment is prescribed for finite crimes, including thought crimes - specifically the thought crime of disbelief.
He continues by establishing "thou fool" as the modern day equivalent of hate speech and stating that whoever says it is in danger of hellfire (the first of several references to hell, establishing the doctrinal issue in the previous note, and a problem for those who don't ascribe to a fiery hell). And yet, Jesus refers to people as fools on several occasions(Matthew 23:17 , Matthew 23:19 , Luke 11:40 , Luke 24:25 ). Is this just a case of "Do as I say, not as I do"? And does that sort of example represent a wise and benevolent deity?
- 23Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 24Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Good advice, if we exclude the notes on sacrificing on an altar. It's good to suggest that people reconcile their differences. This would be an exceptionally good idea if we extend it to "anyone" instead of "brother". As it stands, this instruction really only encourages believers to reconcile with other believers - that's partially good advice, but surely we can expect a divine being who supposedly loves all of us to go the extra mile. This notion of believers reconciling with believers is a common theme in the New Testament that encourages an "us and them" mentality that only adds to religious tensions.
- 25Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. 26Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
This is a silly and pointless bit of advice with regard to the modern world. Civil and criminal issues are different, because our law is far more sophisticated than that of this religion. Secondly, advising people to settle out of court denies them the right to fight for their rights. It also encourages frivolous lawsuits. If Christians actually adhered to this verse, they'd be getting sued left and right by any non-Christian. They would have been sued into extinction.
Everyone knows this is bad advice which is why no one follows it. The only time this verse is referenced as binding is when one Christian wants to sue another...and has a weak case.
- Matthew 5:27-30
- 27Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 28But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
More thought crime nonsense. Lust isn't adultery. Lust is the trigger for the vast majority of sexual relationships, healthy, holy or otherwise. You might take actions because of lust, and those actions might be crimes...but the lust itself isn't. It's doubtful that many Christian couples have met, fell in love and married without lust being a contributing factor. It may happen, but it's rarer than those who do lust after each other and build a healthy relationship.
Additionally, this verse is sexist. Which would have been normal for the time, but there's no reason for a God to be so chauvinistic. "Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully" implies that it's not a sin to lust after a man.
- 29And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 30And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Taken literally this is stupid advice. Taken figuratively, it's still bad advice. Essentially, he's saying that it is wise to deny your nature instead of working to understand it, change it or channel it into productive, positive results. Let's look at this verse in relation to the adultery one: if lust is causing you to sin (whatever that is), eliminate lust from your life because it's better to eliminate lust than risk going to hell.
That exact advice is what has encouraged countless monks to lead a celibate life. It works for some, but not for others. Some struggle forever because they've been told to eliminate lust rather than being taught how to live a healthy life that doesn't allow lustful thoughts to control actions. It's the reason we have problems with priests abusing parishioners and monks engaging in all manner of self mutilation, torture and abuse.
This isn't good advice. Good advice informs someone about how to improve their nature - not deny it. No advice this foolish should ever be considered evidence of a wise god.
Additionally, this is another verse that advocates "hell" as a real place that we should avoid. It promotes a very simplistic "do good or be punished" morality which is vastly inferior to one in which we are encouraged to do good because it is good.
- Matthew 5:31-32
- 31It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 32But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
More bad advice and more sexism. These verses only address men divorcing their wives, there are no instructions for wives, because they are considered inferior subjects, nearly (if not actually) equal to property.
The advice is bad even if it applied to both partners; stay with your spouse unless they cheat on you. No matter how unhappy you are, no matter how much sadness or violence, you made your bed and deserve to suffer for the rest of your life. What this tries to do is force folks to "work it out", but it's based on a naïve view of reality that ignores the fact that people change and some situations are simply not good marriages, even without infidelity. It should not be considered the word of a wise god.
It also encourages sexual infidelity. If you're miserable and want out - go sleep with someone else and NOW you can get a divorce.
Finally, it's another example of Jesus violating the law (Deut 24:1-4 ). For someone who claimed that he didn't come to change the law, he certainly seems to be doing a lot of that.
- Matthew 5:33-37
- 33Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: 34But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: 35Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. 36Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. 37But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
This is, essentially, good advice. Most of us would be happy to live an honest life and feel no need to swear oaths by anything or on anything. There's no reason to think that oaths are evil, but speaking plainly and honestly seems to be good advice.
Unfortunately, Christians don't tend to live up to this. They're happy to be sworn in on a Bible (or a stack of them) for civil service. They're happy to pledge allegiance to the flag, the Christian flag and the Bible ... this is so important to them that they had to add the words "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America (an action which violates the U.S. Constitution as well as this passage.)
They may simply be ignoring the words of Jesus and using the apostle Paul as an example. It's recorded in Acts 18:18 that he swore an oath. We can hardly fault Paul for this, it's not the only thing about Jesus' life and ministry that he doesn't seem to be aware of.
Of course, if we were to do away with legal oaths, and rely on every imprecise word subject to interpretation being a legally binding contract, civil life would be far more difficult. Imagine every time you joked or spoke exageratingly you were held as if you were swearing into a binding legal document. While it's good advice to speak honestly, doing away with contractual oaths is a recipe for disaster.
And this "wisdom" either borrows from or contradicts the Old Testament, where it suggests avoiding vows because with the rationality that, as long as you don't swear something, you aren't obliged to follow through on it Deuteronomy 23:21-23 Jesus is either taking this to an extreme "let your oaths be none" or he is saying "let everything you say be an oath." Either way the effect is rather the same: contractual oaths are either devalued by their continuous use, or they are complete ignored and never implemented.
Honesty is a good idea, but getting rid of contractual oaths is legal suicide.
Eye for an eye
- Matthew 5:38-42
- 38Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Here, shortly after saying he didn't come to change the law - he tries to change it, yet again. Doing away with the "eye for an eye" mentality is certainly a good move, but telling someone to turn the other cheek is also bad advice.
It discourages people from actually standing up to defend themselves and protect their rights and lives. Fortunately, when push comes to shove, Christians are quick to dismiss this verse and actually defend their rights....and then some.
- 40And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. 41And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
More bad advice. There's no good reason to set yourself up as an easily abused victim. A wise god would have taught people how to build a fair and cooperative society that didn't encourage victimization.
- 42Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Everyone knows how bad this advice is. Encouraging charity is great, but no one takes this verse seriously; any Christian willing to give me an interest free loan regardless of my financial situation and credit rating - please e-mail me.
Love your enemies
- Matthew 5:43-48
- 43Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 45That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. 46For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 47And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? 48Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
This might qualify as good advice. It would certainly be nice to encourage tolerance, compassion, cooperation and brotherhood. However, there are situations where loving your enemies is a very bad idea...and we all recognize this. Do we love Osama, or Hitler? Some might, but it isn't common and there's no reason to think that it's wise. Christians don't really love their enemies. None of us do. And apparently Jesus doesn't either, as he's planning on torturing his enemies forever.
Let's encourage more compassion - but this one passage doesn't really help, especially in light of other verses that encourage divisiveness. It's certainly overshadowed by the understanding that the speaker is planning on punishing his enemies - forever.
Do good to please God
- Matthew 6:1-4
- 1Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
Compare this to Matthew 5:16, above. He just told people to do their good works where they can be seen...and now he's contradicting that. Some apologists have claimed that this verse is about donating to charity and the other verse covers "other" good deeds. That seems to be simply word play to avoid the obvious contradiction. In any case, any being that might qualify as a god would surely have avoided any ambiguity that would lead to confusion - an observation that seems to apply to the bulk of the Bible and not simply this sermon.
- 2Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 3But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: 4That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
The general discussion of rewards implies a general "good deed" further eliminating the appeal to this idea of charity being separate from good works. Anyone arguing that there is no contradiction here is rationalizing to avoid facing the difficulties that are evident to any reasonable person. The same seems to be true of those who reconcile the contradiction by claiming that good deeds are to be done in public, but don't arrogantly broadcast it. This ignores the order to do thine alms in "secret" where only God can see.
This is also another passage that encourages a simplistic action/reward morality instead of encouraging people to do good for its own sake.
- Matthew 6:5-15
- 5And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 7But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.8Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
This may be the best verse in the entire sermon and, yet, very few Christians follow it. How much better would the world be if everyone's religious beliefs were a matter of private practice, instead of the constant attempts to push their beliefs on everyone else?
A proper adherence to this verse implies that prayer shouldn't be in school at all. It means that we shouldn't be swearing people in on Bibles, shouldn't open city council meetings with prayers, we shouldn't have Christian television networks, public prayer meetings, the National Day of Prayer...etc.
Christians who support those goals are hypocrites - they are willfully disobeying a direct order that they believe is from Jesus. It's not like they're disobeying Paul, or John...this is supposed to be the words of their savior, and they chuck it aside....proving that they are their own god, making their own rules.
Also, verse 7 basically says that you should pray what is in your heart, and avoid rote recitation and chanting... yet what do we have in verses 9-13?
- 9After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
- 10Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
- 11Give us this day our daily bread.
- 12And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
- 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
The Lord's Prayer, something that is chanted and recited in nearly every Christian service on the planet. Catholics and Protestants alike have structured prayers and chanting - all in direct violation of what Jesus was saying. He provided a sample prayer about how to pray, and many joyously ignore his instructions and take it as an example of what to say. While this certainly isn't an admonishment of the passage, it's a clear indication that believers tend to pick and choose as it suits them.
- 14For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
This, setting aside the promise of forgiveness from a god, seems to be very good advice - forgive people. If we include the promise of forgiveness from a god, we have a potential path to salvation that seems to be largely ignored by fundamentalists. There are several occasions where Jesus discusses requirements for salvation and all of them seem to focus on deeds and actions.
- Matthew 6:16-18
- 16Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 17But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; 18That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
Fasting is silly and dangerous. It's a religious ritual that only exists because someone discovered that if you torture your body by depriving it of food (or sleep or other necessities) you'll eventually weaken the mind and it'll be susceptible to "religious experiences", which really means hallucinations and programming. It's a way of making people pliable, not to the will of a God but to the dictate of any authority figure.
God shouldn't need people to torture themselves in order to communicate. It's patently absurd and unhealthy and, therefore, very bad advice.
Treasures in heaven
- Matthew 6:19-23
- 19Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: 21For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 22The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. 23But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
These verses expand the theme begun in the beatitudes, shifting the focus away from this life and on to the promise of an afterlife. Instead of simply promising justice and an end to pain, these verses portray any attempt to succeed in this life as futile. This is bad advice, whether there's an afterlife or not. Why not enjoy this life? It is possible to acquire wealth and experience pleasure without being evil.
As we have no evidence that any life beyond this exists, it seems to be doubly bad advice.
Serving two masters
- Matthew 6:24
- 24No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
This is a simplistic misrepresentation. It's almost true, but isn't relevant to life - because no one truly serves a single "master". Our lives are a complex dance of answering to various "masters" and we can define governing principles that allow us to serve all of them, to some degree.
It might qualify as good advice, in the limited sense of "don't let money run your life", but it might be better to go the "all things in moderation" route and say "don't let any one thing run your life"...including your religious beliefs.
Do not worry
- Matthew 6:25-34
- 25Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
More bad advice, don't worry about food, drink, clothing etc. It's one thing to encourage people to be less greedy and less materialistic, but this passage sets up Christians to divorce themselves from their responsibility to see to their needs.
Fortunately, almost no one follows this advice either; we can see how bad it is.
- 26Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
So, we should all be homeless and waiting around for God to feed us? Birds may not sow and reap, but the do scavenge and hunt. They actively seek to feed themselves and their offspring. In fact, their primary concern is survival - they're not simply fluttering around aimlessly waiting for God to drop food in their mouths.
This is horrible advice, it's a bad analogy, and it's a false portrayal of birds—and a wise god should know that.
- 27Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
That may be good advice as long as it's talking about excessive worrying. Rational concern for one's well being (occasional worrying) is actually a good thing and it is what keeps us from giving up and deteriorating.
- 28And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
More very bad advice. He's advocating that we be as driven to live as flowers, who do nothing. Comparing humans to a life form that doesn't think, move or interact does nothing to address the very real issues and concerns that people have.
- 29And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? 31Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? 32(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. 33But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. 34Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Don't worry about tomorrow. Don't save money, don't store food for the winter, don't plan for retirement... live for today and trust that God will make everything work out. This is some of the worst advice in the entire sermon, and it seems that most everyone recognizes it, even if they pay lip service to it. In much the way that Christians typically ignore Jesus' instructions to sell their belongings and give them to the poor, we all ignore this inane instruction to live without concern for tomorrow.
Do not judge others
- Matthew 7:1-6
- 1Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. 3And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? 5Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
Amen. A piece of very good advice - don't be a hypocrite.
- 6Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
This verse has quite a few possible meanings and has been the subject of much discussion. Some consider it a cautionary warning to not waste effort on the ungrateful...that we should strive to do good for those who need it and appreciate it. That's probably pretty good advice. Others note that because Jews often referred to gentiles as "dogs", the statement might be meant as a warning by Jesus for his followers not to help non-believers. It's curious that someone who says "let your 'yes' be 'yes'" has to use such ambiguous language when he could have been more plain spoken.
Seek, find and the Golden Rule
- Matthew 7:7-12
- 7Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: 8For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
Nonsense. It sounds good, but it's not true and we all know it. The only sense in which it can possibly be true is if we grant another appeal to "the next life" - which is useless.
I suppose it might be good advice if it's simply viewed as a "don't give up, keep asking, keep looking, keep hoping" but to promise that you'll actually find what you're seeking is false hope.
- 9Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? 10Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? 12Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
The Golden Rule, which isn't original to Jesus (it's not even original to the Old Testament version that Jesus probably borrowed from), is pretty good advice. It's known as the 'ethic of reciprocity' and is foundational to many secular concepts of moral and ethical action. Jesus' version, while still fairly good, is actually one of the worst versions. "Do unto others what you would have them do to you" isn't nearly as wise as "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them".
For clarification, I might like someone to be brutally honest with me, but they might prefer that I sugar-coat my words. It's better to treat them in the way they want...and encourage them to treat you in the way you want.
There are other sayings that may be even better, like "Strive to do as much good as possible and as little harm as possible."
Why didn't Jesus say something like that?
Narrow and wide gates
- Matthew 7:13-14
- 13Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: 14Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
The idea behind this may be good, but it's not always true. Sometimes it's very easy to do the right thing. However, as a method for encouraging people to do good even when it's difficult, it's very good advice.
- Matthew 7:15-23
- 15Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 16Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 20Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Horrible advice and logically flawed - so terribly flawed that no wise god could ever have said it. We're supposed to be on the lookout for false prophets, and how do we tell them apart? Take a look at their actions. False prophets (bad trees) cannot do good (bear good fruit). That's ridiculous to the point of being dangerous. In reality, all trees can bear good and bad fruit - and all people (or prophets) can do good and evil.
If we assume that there are true prophets, we're stuck accepting all of them until we catch them doing something bad.
- 21Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
This contradicts the previous passage - by pointing out that you, in fact, cannot judge them by their fruit. Someone prophesied and drove out demons...which would mean they were truly doing God's work, but in fact they were not.
This raises additional questions about salvation as, apparently, there are people who sincerely believe that they're doing the work of God and believe that they will be saved, yet they won't. Certainly this contradicts notions that belief is a key element of salvation.
Don't build on sand
- Matthew 7:24-29
- 24Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: 25And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. 26And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: 27And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. 28And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: 29For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
It's a fun little parable, but as we can see from the previous analysis, Jesus' words aren't any more stable than the
sand. That crowd may have been amazed...but there's no reason any of us should be impressed. Sages who came before and after him have been wiser and more foolish. There's nothing in this sermon that provides the great insight that we'd expect from a divine being and the mistakes and poor advice seem to eliminate any claim that Jesus was anything more than a normal man.
This sermon is a collection of some generic good advice, a couple of really nice ideas and a bunch of horrible advice that demonstrates a level of ignorance that isn't the work of any divine being. Instead of providing brilliant instruction on how best to live life, it dismisses life in favor of promises of a life to come. Instead of providing advice on how to cooperate and live together, it establishes divisive doctrines. Instead of offering insight onto the human condition and providing advice on how to have a healthy, thriving existence, it instead builds up an expectation of misery and persecution. It not only sets people up to accept their role as victim, it provides instructions on how best to take advantage of these willing victims.
While believers may claim to consider it the greatest message ever delivered, we need only look at their actions to see that they're just as likely to dismiss the silly notions and bad advice in this passage.