The Gospel of Matthew: A Book for Today?
Earlier this month, the BBC reported that Pope Benedict XVI had opened a Synod of more than 200 cardinals and bishops from around the world to examine the modern lack of interest in the Bible. As in many of his recent pronouncements, the Pope took the opportunity to repeat the same tired old claim that because modern Western society is apparently turning away from Christianity and the Bible, we are seeing the growth of ‘destructive influences’. Once again, secularism is blamed for the ills of modern society, while the Pope proposes that a return to ‘Scripture’ will solve our problems.
I decided it was time to take the Pope’s advice and re-read some ‘Scripture’. Having previously come away from reading the Old Testament with a distinctly unpleasant taste in my mouth, I decided this time to start at the beginning of the reputedly far more ‘beautiful’ New Testament. The first book is, of course, the Gospel of Matthew, and in this article I shall present what I found upon re-reading it in full. Matthew is an important gospel for the Roman Catholic Church, for it is here that we find Jesus stating, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’ (Matthew 16:18), a passage that the church has long used as ‘evidence’ of its supposed lineage stretching back to Jesus himself, for it claims Peter as its founder.
So, what do we find upon reading Matthew? – Intelligent and convincing discourses by Jesus, the kind and loving redeemer and ethical teacher? Timeless truths of universal relevance and a superior moral vision that can heal the world? A book of great literature with a positive vision for the future? Let’s dive into this spiritual treasure chest and find out…
Who was Jesus’ message intended for?
In the first two chapters of the book, Jesus is referred to as ‘the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham’ (1:1), ‘the child who has been born king of the Jews’ (2:2), and ‘a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’ (2:6), all of which set the tone for the fundamentally Jewish message and concern of Jesus and the Gospel. In chapter 3, John the Baptist is introduced. We read that he ‘appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”‘ (3:1-2) and that ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’ (3:10). John baptises ‘with water for repentance’ but says of Jesus that he will ‘baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ and that Jesus’ ‘winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (3:11-12). Following the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus started to preach a similar message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (4:17) and ‘Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’ (7:19). Both the message of John the Baptist and Jesus, then, are apocalyptic in nature, and grounded in Jewish notions of the ‘Kingdom of God’ or ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ that ‘has come near’.
Jesus’ target audience is clearly Jewish, as he teaches on topics only of relevance to Jews. So, for example, we find him warning his audience that ‘until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the [Old Testament] law until all is accomplished’ (5:18). In a number of passages, Jesus makes it clear that his mission is intended only for Jews. He states that ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (15:24) and tells the twelve disciples to ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (10:5-6). He also makes it clear that their preaching mission will be incomplete at the time of the end of the world, saying that ‘you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ (10:23). Of this coming of the Son of Man, he states: ‘Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (13:40-42). It is said of the time of the coming of the Son of Man and the judgement that will follow: ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’ (24:34).
That Jesus’ message and ministry was intended for Jews, for the redemption of the people of Israel in the last days, and not for a 21st Century multi-ethnic audience is also made clear by Jesus’ references to ‘the Gentiles’. Had his message been delivered to, and pitched at, an audience that included non-Jews, he would not have made statements such as: ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do … Do not be like them’ (6:7-8); ‘for it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things’ (6:32); and ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them’ (20:25). ‘The Gentiles’ are referred to as ‘them‘, which disqualifies the notion that Jesus had a universal message.
In Matthew, Jesus’ message is Jewish apocalyptic in content; the supposed ‘good news’ (gospel) is that within the lifetime of his Jewish listeners, the God of Israel will be sending the ‘Son of Man’ (in Matthew, equated with Jesus) to judge the world, taking a remnant into an eternal Kingdom, while sending the majority to an immense holocaust. While some of those saved will be Gentiles, they are not Jesus’ concern as they are not bound by the laws of the God of Israel, and will consequently not receive judgement under the Law. Jesus sends out his followers with the explicit instructions to ignore the Gentiles (the disciples need not waste the short amount of time they have left on them); he was sent only for the children of Israel, and they should only preach to the children of Israel.
There are a few occasions in Matthew in which Jesus possibly has a more universal message. In chapter 24, we read that ‘this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come’ (24:14), yet the time frame for doing this is extremely short given ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’ (24:34). We cannot tell what Jesus understood by ‘all the world’, but it is clearly the case that he couldn’t have been thinking of them preaching in obscure areas of far off lands such as America, Australia, China, Russia, and so on, as there simply would not be enough time for one generation to accomplish this. It seems far more likely, given his previous command that his disciples should ‘go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans’ that this testimony ‘to the nations’ actually refers to the Jews of the surrounding areas, the people referred to in the opening greeting of the Letter of James as ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion’, or ‘the twelve tribes scattered among the nations’.
In chapter 28, the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples to ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (28:19). Given this command was made by a man who had supposedly come back from the dead, we can safely assume it to be unhistorical. But, even assuming its authenticity, or that it is in continuity with teachings of Jesus delivered in his lifetime, this alone cannot possibly be seen to annul the bulk of his previous teachings which were entirely oriented towards a Jewish audience, and which all assume the imminence of the end of the world. Even this dialogue of Jesus contains imminent apocalypticism, for the risen Jesus ends by telling his disciples to ‘remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (28:20). He doesn’t say, as many modern Christians would like, ‘I am with all believers until the end of the age’, but rather, speaking directly to his disciples, ‘I am with you’. In other words, even here, Jesus’ message is directed at a specific group of people, alive at that time, standing before him, who would still be alive at the coming of the Son of Man for judgement and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth (6:10).
Jesus’ teachings in Matthew, then, are integrally based around the ‘good news’ that the end of the world is at hand. Most of his teachings assume an entirely Jewish audience, and all of them are directed solely at people who were alive when he was teaching (certainly not to generations living in the 21st Century). His message was for people of his time, and it stands or falls on the truth or falsehood of his claims about events that were soon to occur, in the lifetime of his followers. Manifestly, all of his original followers are dead. The generation he spoke of and to passed away without any of the apocalyptic events he promised taking place. The world turns on. Jesus’ message was therefore predicated on entirely erroneous assumptions and beliefs. His message has been invalidated by history, and it was not meant for us.
A closer look at Jesus’ attitude to non-Jews
We have already seen that in Matthew, Jesus’ message was Jewish in content and meant primarily, if not exclusively, for a Jewish audience. However, in his gospel there are some occasions on which Gentiles are directly engaged with, and I shall now examine three of them.
The first involves a centurian at Capernaum:
When he [Jesus] entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour. (8:5-13)
The context in which this story is found is amongst a long selection of healing ‘miracle’ stories that make up chapter 8, most of which involve the healing of fellow Jews. The story could be seen as an example of the universal nature of Jesus’ mission, and taken as evidence that Jesus was followed by a mixed group of both Jews and non-Jews, and, indeed, this is how most Christians would view it. However, this is only a plausible reading if one chooses to ignore the exclusively Jewish nature of most of the rest of Matthew’s gospel. When seen in its proper context, this story is being used not to illustrate Jesus’ universal appeal, but rather to berate his Jewish followers, and more generally, the Jews of his time as a whole. Jesus is said to have been ‘amazed’ by the centurian’s faith, so this was clearly not something he expected of Gentiles. He then compares the faith of this Gentile with the faith of his people, Israel. He condemns his generation for what he perceives to be their lack of faith and reiterates the Jewish belief that righteous Gentiles will also be saved. However, he goes further, and states that even though the Jewish people are the heirs to the coming Kingdom (a Judeocentric worldview), many will lose out to Gentiles, because they have such poor faith. While they, the rightful heirs to the Kingdom of God are thrown into a place of torment and darkness, righteous Gentiles will be allowed to usurp them. The centurian, therefore, is not placed on an equal par with Jews – he is not one of those for whom the Kingdom is their inheritence through being the special people of God (the children of Israel) – but rather used as an example of the supposedly retrograde nature of the Jews of Jesus’ time. The essential message is that it is a disgrace that a mere Gentile, a man who has no covenant with the God of Israel and who is not of God’s chosen people, should have a greater faith than the Jews for whom Jesus came. This is not a message primarily of inclusion or of universalism, but rather a warning to Jews, and, as such, conforms to the general Judeocentric nature of Matthew’s gospel. The Gentile here does not have significance in and of himself, but rather as a corrective to Jesus’ actual audience, his fellow Jews. The faithful Gentile here is primarily used to put the Jews to shame, and not to celebrate the equality and brotherhood of Jews and Gentiles, and his presence does not alter the Jewish oriented thrust of Jesus’ message.
My second example can be presumed to involve Gentiles, although this is not specified in the text, and is the story of a ‘healing’ of ‘demoniacs’:
When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’ Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.’ And he said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. (8:28-33)
Given the fact that in Judaism the pig is an unclean animal and its consumption forbidden, it seems unlikely that the swineherds mentioned here were Jews, for Jews would have no reason to keep pigs, unless they were doing so for Gentiles (which is still fairly implausible given the supposedly ‘unclean’ nature of pigs). Leaving aside the notion of the casting out of demons for now, according to this story Jesus happily sent a whole herd of pigs to its death, which would presumably be ruinous for the people whose livelihood relied upon them. Jesus shows no regret for this act and no compassion towards the swineherds or the pigs themselves. The incident is supposed to prove Jesus’ power over evil, and again, the Gentile characters (assuming that is what they are), as with the centurian, are solely included for the purpose of illustration.
My final example is that of the healing of a Canaanite woman’s daughter:
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. (15:21-28)
This story shows a particularly arrogant and contemptuous attitude towards non-Jews on the part of Jesus and his followers. When the woman comes to him asking him to have mercy he initially ignores her, and then informs her that his mission is only for Jews (‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’). Then, with her kneeling before him in an act of self-abnegation, he refers to non-Jews as ‘dogs’ and states that it would not be fair to the ‘children’ (the Jews) if he were to help her. Only when the woman makes the sickening statement that non-Jews are indeed inferior ‘dogs’ but requests that some ‘crumbs’ should be thrown to these ‘dogs’ from the ‘master’s table’ does Jesus relent and help her daughter. He congratulates the woman on her faith, but only after she has affirmed his racist, Judeocentric worldview. This story does not illustrate a universalism in Jesus’ message or in his dealings with non-Jews. As with the centurian, he seems impressed by the faith of a Gentile, but, unlike in the case of the centurian, his underlying contempt for non-Jews is on full display.
Modern Christians see Jesus as a universal teacher and saviour, the Son of God who became incarnate to teach, to heal, and to bring redemption to all humankind. By way of contrast, Matthew’s Jesus has no intrinsic interest in non-Jews. Where they are useful to make a point, whether that be about the perceived unfaithfulness of the Jews of Jesus’ time or to illustrate his divinely given powers, Gentiles make an appearance, but they are at no point integral to Jesus’ teaching mission or to his worldview. Jesus makes a point of telling his followers not to bother preaching to Gentiles, he claims to have come only for the people of Israel, and he displays an attitude towards non-Jews that is variously contemptuous, dismissive, patronising, and simply uninterested. This should come as no great surprise. Jesus’ mind was infested with Jewish apocalyptic fantasies and his cosmology was based on a Judeocentric universe created and ruled by the god of the Old Testament. We should not be shocked to find prejudice and ignorance in such a man. We should, however, be shocked every time we see someone today enthusiastically leafing through Matthew’s gospel or spouting inane rubbish about it being the ‘Word of God’.
Unscientific and superstitious ideas in Matthew’s gospel
We have already seen above the healing story of the ‘demoniacs’ of Gadarenes, and this is one of numerous examples of unscientific and superstitious notions to be found in Matthew’s gospel. In this case, two people who would probably be classed today as mentally ill are presented as being ‘possessed’ by ‘demons’. In some primitive societies such beliefs remain even today, and, sadly, even amongst some modern Christians. In a pre-scientific age in which illness, especially of the mental variety, was an unexplained phenomenon, it is perhaps understandable that people whose minds were in every sense drenched in superstition should conclude that some kind of evil power was responsible. The inclusion of such ideas throughout the gospel, and the evidence that Jesus accepted and taught these ideas comes as no surprise, as it is a historically situated text and Jesus was a man of his time. What is absurd is the notion that a book filled with this kind of scientifically illiterate material has any relevance in the 21st Century.
We find in the Gospel that Jesus reportedly ‘cured’ by mystical means ‘various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics’ (4:24), an ‘unclean’ leper (8:1-3), another paralytic (8:5-13), a woman with a fever and ‘many who were possessed by demons’, and that ‘he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick’ (8:14-16). In addition to illness being caused by demons, we also read that paralysis can be caused by ‘sin’ and ‘cured’ by forgiveness of those ‘sins’ (9:2-8). Jesus is said to have cured the blind purely by touching their eyes (9:27-30), and cured ‘a demoniac who was mute’: ‘when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke’ (9:32-33). We hear of another ‘demoniac who was blind and mute’ being cured (12:22) and read of ‘unclean’ and ‘evil’ spirits (12:43-45). Reading on we find further accounts of the healing of an epileptic (‘Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly’ – 17:14-18), the blind, the mute, the lame, a woman with haemorrhages, and more people ‘possessed with demons’. Even more incredibly, we read of Jesus bringing a dead girl back to life (9:18-26) and that he told his disciples that they too could ‘cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’ (10:8). We, of course, read of Jesus supposedly coming back from the dead, and also hear of others emerging from their tombs:
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (27:51-53)
What are we – modern readers living in a world of science, technology, and medicine – to make of such claims?
Firstly, there is the issue of illness. Jesus and his followers clearly advocate the view that illness and disability are caused either by a person being possessed by ‘demons’ and ‘unclean spirits’, or by the afflicted individual having unforgiven ‘sins’. At no point do we find any rational understanding of illness, but rather pure ignorance and superstition. We should not think too badly of Jesus and the people of his time for holding such views, for they did not have the benefits of modern scientific knowledge. We should, however, find it ridiculous to hear people suggesting we should see a book filled with such nonsense as relevant to our lives today.
Secondly, there is the issue of miraculous cures. Just as Jesus misunderstood the causes of illness, so also the reports of supposed miraculous healings debunk themselves by virtue of their dependence on notions of demonic possession to make sense. In the worldview of Jesus and his followers, illness was caused by demons and cured by the removal of these demons. Whether or not the placebo effect may explain some of the healing stories in the gospel, the majority are plainly fictitious and fanciful nonsense. Illness is not caused by demons; therefore illness is not cured by removing demons. To take these stories – these mythical tales – seriously as historical accounts is to deny the reality of how the world really works.
Finally, there are the claims of dead people coming back to life. As we have seen, Jesus and his followers believed in the imminence of the end of the age, a time in which the living and the dead will face judgement and then go bodily either to live in the Kingdom of Heaven on the newly regenerated Earth (an Earth without suffering or hardship) or to be thrown into a pit, or into darkness, or into flames, or all three, where they will suffer eternal torment, wailing and gnashing their teeth in agony.
Not all Jews of Jesus’ time accepted the notion of bodily resurrection and indeed some mocked it (22:23-32), but it was absolutely key to Jesus’ apocalyptic worldview. He taught his followers to believe that in their lifetime all the apocalyptic events he spoke of would come to fruition, including the coming of the Son of Man and the resurrection of the dead for final judgement. Consequently, his followers fully expected the dead to soon be coming back to life. In Jesus and his ministry the Kingdom of God was seen to be already coming into effect, and his reported healings and raising of the dead prefigure the age to come (in which God will heal the sick and there will be no more death). Jesus is seen to be central to the consummation of history and in Matthew not only does he raise the dead, he is also raised, and at the same time yet more walk out of their tombs.
The fact of the matter is, however, we know that people do not walk out of tombs and come back from the dead, and we know that no-one has the power to make this happen. Jesus claimed his followers would be able to raise the dead, but we never hear any credible accounts of anyone today managing this feat, so there is absolutely no reason for us to believe an ancient apocalyptic book brimming over with fantasy and delusion when it claims this actually happened. Some Christian apologists, usually of the more liberal variety, often downplay the unscientific aspects of the New Testament while holding on to the resurrection of Jesus, which is referred to as The Resurrection, an event which is seen to be unique and consequently evidence of Jesus’ divinity. However, Matthew does not simply speak of the resurrection of Jesus: as we have seen, a dead girl is said to have been raised by Jesus and he exhorted his disciples to do likewise. At the time of Jesus’ supposed resurrection we read that other people were also raised from their tombs. There is not a resurrection here, but rather a series of them, and it was believed that they were soon to be followed by the general resurrection of all the dead. In order to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, we must also logically believe that a number of other dead people were raised during the lifetime of his followers. These resurrections obviously did not happen, any more than demons were expelled from the sick, or any more than the world has come to an end.
Matthew’s gospel is filled with unscientific and superstitious ideas that bear no relation to what we know of reality. Illnesses are not caused by ‘demons’ and dead people don’t walk out of their tombs. If demons cause illness then how does medication cure it? If people can be raised from the dead then why don’t Christians do this today? We know these ideas are false, and they are ideas of another time, effectively another world, to our own. To present Matthew’s gospel as ‘Holy Scripture’ is to sanctify ignorance.
Jesus’ moral teachings
Even among secularists and non-Christians, Jesus is often presented as a great moral teacher. Pithy sayings about helping the poor or loving your neighbour are taken out of context and there is an aura that surrounds Jesus of wisdom and ethical insight. The reality, as seen in Matthew’s gospel, is somewhat disappointing to say the least.
A good place to start is the issue of slavery. Once widespread, slavery is now banned in all civilised societies and is seen as an utterly unacceptable and criminal practice. It has often been said that Christianity inspired many of those who worked to abolish slavery and that those who supported slavery ‘twisted’ the Bible to justify their position. The truth, though, is that in Matthew’s gospel there is no condemnation of slavery at all, and Jesus is happy to uncritically use slaves as characters in many of his parables.
For Jesus and his followers, the books of ‘the Law and the Prophets’ found in the Old Testament today were divinely inspired documents; these books were Jesus’ ‘Bible’. Looking at the Old Testament, we find that slavery is not condemned, but is, rather, condoned. For example in Leviticus chapter 25 (44-46) we read:
As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.
And in Exodus chapter 21 (20-21), we read: ‘When a slave-owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives for a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property’.
The ‘holy books’ revered by Jesus endorse the keeping of slaves and the notion of human beings as ‘possessions’ and ‘property’. Jesus said nothing to oppose this. The centurion at Capernaum informed Jesus that ‘I say … to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it’ (8:9), yet Jesus did not take the opportunity to condemn slavery, nor does he do so at any other point in the Gospel of Matthew. In his references to slaves, Jesus accepts, rather than condemns, the practice. So, we see Jesus using slaves in his parables. In chapter 24, Jesus warns his followers not to give up their faith if the end does not come as quickly as they might expect. He uses the analogy of a master who leaves his slaves and then returns while they are unprepared:
‘But if that wicked slave says to himself, “My master is delayed”, and he begins to beat his fellow-slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (24:48-51).
In chapter 25, we find the parable of the talents, which ends as follows: ‘As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (25:30).
Here, Jesus uses slaves as characters in his parables, showing an acceptance of the practice of slavery, and, through the analogy, suggests that he is the master and his followers should see themselves as slaves. Those who do not believe in him and his apocalyptic delusions are ‘worthless’ and deserve to be cut into pieces and thrown into darkness to suffer endless torture.
Again, we see that Jesus’ message is entirely historically situated and without universal relevance. In the parables cited above, Jesus manages to mix acceptance of slavery with both apocalypticism and threats of eternal punishment. To the modern mind, all three of these should be seen as primitive, irrational, and hateful. Yet, unbelievably, modern people turn to the Bible as a guide to life.
Masochism as morality
Having looked at a little discussed aspect of Jesus’ moral teachings, I show now examine the more famous moral expressions found in Matthew’s gospel, the bulk of which are found in chapters 5-7.
In order to understand Jesus’ moral teachings in Matthew, they must be seen in the context of his general teaching mission and worldview. We have already seen that the mental framework in which Jesus’ ideas are situated is Jewish imminent apocalypticism. As with all of his other teachings, his moral message was primarily if not exclusively aimed at apocalyptic Jews such as himself; people who shared his belief in the impending end of the world and divine judgement. Central to their concerns was an obsession with faith, purity, and receiving the rewards of the world to come (entry to the Kingdom of God). Jesus’ moral teachings are therefore very specifically historically located, and not meant for us (given we should not even be here as the world should have come to an end within the lifetime of Jesus’ companions). However, despite this, could there be anything of value here for the modern reader?
Let us first examine the much vaunted ‘Beatitudes’ found at the start of chapter 5:
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.
What we immediately notice is that each one of these pronouncements is focussed on the rewards of the world soon to come following the apocalypse (in the lifetime of those hearing these words). Many cite the Beatitudes as moral teachings, yet there is really no ethical teaching here at all, simply bland statements about future rewards to be bestowed by God. At best, this is wish fulfillment of the most obvious kind, and at worst, these statements are an endorsement of the ‘value’ of human suffering, and this certainly appears to be the more accurate reading.
In the scenarios spoken of by Jesus, a negative condition in the present world is contrasted with its opposite in the world to come. With the exception of the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, these sayings all refer to a situation that involves passive suffering. So, we find that those who mourn and suffer persecution and ill treatment are in fact ‘blessed’ in their suffering and should ‘rejoice’ in it, for through their suffering they are those who will be rewarded in the world to come. What the Beatitudes do not present is a coherent programme for social change. One cannot read these verses and hope to change the world, for they speak of the inevitability of suffering and proclaim that those who suffer will be rewarded. The negative implication of such a message is that it suggests that in a sense the best possible life to have in ‘this world’ is one afflicted with sadness and suffering, for the greatest reward in the Kingdom to come is reserved for those who suffer and struggle now.
As we shall see, this perverse and masochistic ‘morality’ is not confined to the Beatitudes. A number of oft quoted sayings of Jesus contain exactly the same endorsement of the supposed value of suffering. There is the famous command to ‘turn the other cheek’, for example:
‘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.’
And there is the ‘love your enemies’ teaching:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour 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? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
Neither of these celebrated sayings present a well thought out, practically applicable moral system, but they were never intended to do so. These teachings were given by an apocalyptic prophet who believed that the end of the world was at hand and that those who suffered injustice would be rewarded by God. So, we find Jesus advocating ideas that in the modern world – or indeed in anything other than a world seen to be in its final days – are useless as a guide to living.
Jesus claims that one should not ‘resist an evildoer’ and that, if attacked, one should offer the other cheek for further abuse. If someone wants to (presumably on false grounds) sue you and take your property, you should give it to them, and give them more still. If someone forces you to go somewhere with them, you should offer to go even further. If someone begs from you, you should always give them money, and you should always lend things to people without question. And if someone makes themselves an enemy of yours, or if you regard someone as your enemy, you should offer them love. These are not presented as good principles for living in general, but rather are presented as the key to receiving divine rewards; rewards soon to be given upon the end of the world.
Any who see the teachings cited above as ‘profound’, ‘universal’, or ‘wise’ needs to think carefully about the implications of following such teachings in the real world. Following Jesus’ arguments, domestic abuse should not only be tolerated by the victim, but actively encouraged in an act of self-abasement. If a woman’s husband comes home drunk and punches her in the face, she shouldn’t take any action, but should rather offer him her other cheek for further abuse. If someone decides to bring a malicious lawsuit, the victim of this swindle should not contest the injustice but should instead offer more than the original lawsuit demanded. If a bully forces someone to accompany him somewhere, the victim should not escape at the earliest possible opportunity, but should instead offer to accompany him even further. If a drug addict tries to beg money from you in the street, you should give her some money regardless of the reason she wants the money. If an arrogant, selfish, and manipulative person wastes all his money on drinking and gambling and fails to pay back loans given to him by his family, according to Jesus he should be lent further money, even if it is obvious that the loan cannot be paid back and is in fact contributing to his demise. And if people make themselves our enemies by launching terrorist attacks against civilians, we should reach out to these Jihadists with ‘love’. We should not hate them for killing innocents and attacking civilisation, but should instead crawl before them, offering a sickly and contemptible ‘compassion’ in order to prove that we are ‘perfect’ and worthy of ‘reward’. Think about it: would ‘love’ for Hitler have stopped his genocidal, racist, expansionist campaign? And would ‘turning the other cheek’ to the Nazis have been a ‘moral’ act?
In practical terms, these teachings are clearly not simply flawed, but actively immoral, in that their application would actually lead to injustice. But to return yet again to the central point, these teachings were never meant for us. In Jesus’ apocalyptic worldview, these teachings do actually make a perverse kind of sense. Jesus teaches that those who suffer are the heirs to divine rewards, and as following these teachings will lead to greater suffering, their application will lead therefore to a greater potential for future reward. Jesus proclaims that those who ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ and are ‘reviled and persecuted’ occupy the moral high ground and that their condition is a precursor to their entry to the Kingdom of God. So, when Jesus tells people to offer the other cheek for further abuse, or to submissively endure cruelty, indeed to actively encourage more of it, he is teaching people to embrace victimhood, for it is precisely through becoming victims that they will receive the greatest reward. Herein we find the inspiration for the Christian ascetic tradition, stretching from the desert fathers through to the self-hating monasticism of the Middle Ages, in which self-inflicted poverty, suppression of sexuality, self-injury, self-starvation, contempt for the body and health, and contempt for life itself reached its apotheosis in the lives of the ‘saints’.
Of course, all this rests on a misunderstanding, for there is no suggestion in Jesus’ preaching that he is thinking in terms of the long term future of the human race. He is not offering us a guide to living; he is instead offering an interim ethics for First Century Jews who believed, as he did, that they were living on the brink of the apocalypse.
The morality of fear
We have already seen that Jesus’ moral teachings are useless for those today who seek to encourage justice and live a better life for they embody a twisted ideology of apocalyptic spiritual masochism. But this is not the only unsatisfactory aspect. There is also the fact that Jesus invalidates the claim that he is a great moral thinker by the way in which he seeks to persuade people to accept his ideas. Of a genuinely great ethical philosopher, one would expect arguments that are rationally justifiable and which make a case for a certain moral position based on intelligent analysis of the issue in question, providing evidence or reasoning for why one should adopt such a position, and acknowledging the importance of debate and self-criticism in formulating one’s arguments. In totalitarian thinking we find the opposite, with arguments based on dogma, ‘tradition’, and superstition, and enforced with the threat of violence or death. We see such a ‘morality’ today in the actions of the Taliban and Jihadists, for example – people who know they have the truth and will kill you if you disagree. In Jesus, we do not find a man who advocates killing, but we do find a man who argues that all those who do not accept what he has to say will suffer eternal punishment, torment, and agony. Jesus does not need to adovate killing, for in his thinking God will be bringing all this to pass within a generation. One can live with the ‘evil doers’ for now, as there is very little time left, during which people should discard all normal worries and ‘strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (6:33).
In presenting his arguments, such as they are, Jesus peppers them with threats of future horrors for any who refuse to listen or would even dare to question aspects of his teaching. His vision of what will happen to the majority of human beings (7:13) at the end of the age makes the Holocaust pale in comparison. During the Holocaust millions suffered, were killed, and their bodies burnt. In the holocaust promised by Jesus, billions will suffer burning fires and other torments without end. Just think about it: burning forever with no chance of escape. This is such a sickening and perverse thought it is hard to see how this aspect of his teaching alone does not lead all civilised, rational people to discard Jesus as a monster.
In Matthew, we are presented with numerous examples of this disordered thinking. Jesus speaks of ‘the hell of fire’ (5:22), bodies going ‘into hell’ (5:30), people being ‘weeds’ to be ‘thrown into the fire’ (7:19), people as weeds ‘in bundles to be burned’ (13:30), people as weeds ‘collected and burned up with fire’ (13:40), people ‘thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (13:42; repeated in 13:50), people ‘thrown into the eternal fire’ (17:8), people ‘thrown into the fire of hell’ (17:9), people ‘cut into pieces’ and put ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (24:51), people thrown ‘into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (25:30), and makes other threats of ‘eternal punishment’ (25:46). It should be clear to all that this is not the thinking of a man with a balanced mind, and certainly these are not the words of a great moral teacher.
Jesus does not just offer these punishments for individuals, but speaks also of entire cities facing collective punishment if his followers fail to win converts there. He sends his followers out to proselytise Jewish communities (‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans’ – 10:5), and states of villages and towns that do not welcome his message, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town’ (10:15). He then berates cities he has visited who have refused to ‘repent’ (i.e. accept his apocalyptic ranting), saying of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum that they will be ‘brought down to Hades’ and that ‘on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you’ (11:20-24). Sodom and Gomorrah are of course the famous towns on which the God of Israel is said to have rained ‘sulphur and fire’, destroying ‘all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground’ (Genesis 19:24-25).
Surprisingly, while Jesus condemns people to these punishments who have committed acts of injustice and persecution, he also promises punishment in eternal fire for trivial reasons such as being ‘angry’ with someone or calling someone a ‘fool’ (5:22), using ‘careless words’ (12:36), or for a man looking at a woman with ‘lust in his heart’ (5:28). Jesus states that the remedy for some ‘sins’ such as looking at a woman with lust is self-mutilation, telling his listeners that ‘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’ (5:29-30).
So, in seeking to persuade people to adopt his moral vision and thereby enter the coming Kingdom of God, Jesus condemns the majority of the world’s population to eternal torment in the flames of hell, even for the most minor reasons, and adovocates cutting body parts off in order to avoid the coming judgement. And all this from a man proclaimed to be God incarnate and lauded for his message of ‘love’ even by non-Christians!
The objectionable character of Jesus
As if spewing a message of apocalyptic madness, expressing racism towards non-Jews, showing tolerance for slavery, encouraging capitulation with oppressors, and condemning multitudes to eternal hellfire wasn’t sickening enough, in Matthew, Jesus also shows himself to be a thoroughly unpleasant individual from his use of language. While warning of eternal punishment for those who are ‘angry’ of who use insults or ‘careless words’, he regularly engaged in this himself. Unable to present a moral vision that is not drenched in blood, he was also unable even to articulate it using civilised discourse. So, we find that in dealing with those he disagreed with, rather than rationally engaging them in debate and persuading them with convincing arguments, he instead hurled insults. In Matthew, the insults start on the lips of John the Baptist. When Pharisees and Sadducees come to him for baptism, he calls them a ‘brood of vipers’ and threatens them with being burned by God (3:7-10). Jesus then continues in a similar vein. When speaking to the Pharisees he on one occasion calls them a ‘brood of vipers’ and asks them ‘How can you speak good things, when you are evil?’ (12:34) On another occasion he shouts at them, ‘You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?’ (23:33). In the same exchange, he also tells the scribes and Pharisees that they ‘are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth’ (23:27) and says that they ‘cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves’ (23:15). Twice he refers to his listeners as an ‘evil and adulterous generation’ (12:39; 16:4) as well as simply an ‘evil generation’ (12:45). Jesus even speaks contemptuously to his own disciples. When they fail to ‘heal’ an epileptic he rants at them: ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?’ (17:17). These are the words of a man who at them same time claimed that anger, insults, and careless words would lead someone to hell.
In conclusion, having read Matthew’s Gospel, what do we find? The reader is transported into a Judeocentric world of superstition, filled with angels, demons, a Devil, the ‘God of Israel’, ‘miracles’, corpses coming back to life, illness understood as ‘possession’ by evil spirits, morality framed in terms of masochism and fear, threats of eternal torment in the fires of hell, and a ‘redeemer’ who promotes bigotry towards non-Jews and hurls threats and insults at those who will not accept his message of the imminence of the end of the world. Reading Matthew’s Gospel as what it is – a piece of fanatical writing from a primitive mind of the past – as opposed to surrounding it with a holy aura and treating it as one of the high points of human thought (or worse still, as the ‘Word of God’), we find a book brimming over with notions that are contrary to everything we know to be real about the world. We find a book that promotes ideas that are scientifically ignorant, delusional, unjust, and in the case of threats of hellfire, cruel and perverted.
If the Pope is right and we are seeing a significant decline in interest in the Bible throughout the West, we should be thankful. The greatest mystery of the Bible is not its supposed spiritual insights, but rather that anyone in their right mind ever took it seriously to begin with.
Notes and References
 David Willey, ‘Pope laments decline of scripture’, BBC News, 5 October 2008.
 The translation of the Bible I have used is the New Revised Standard Version.
 On this, see my article ‘Brutality, War Crimes, Genocide, and Rape – Should Children Be Reading this Book?’
 As scholars and thinking Christians have long been aware, there is no single ‘message of Jesus’, as each gospel writer has given their own twist to the stories and words of Jesus. Therefore, when I speak of ‘Jesus’ message’ and the words and acts of Jesus in this article, I am restricting myself to the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew and not making generalised claims to have distilled the ‘essence’ of his message from all four canonical gospels. Nonetheless, Christian tradition claims that each gospel presents an authoratative account of Jesus’ life, albeit focussing on different aspects of his message and actions. Consequently, Matthew is seen as a book of ‘Scripture’, divinely inspired in some way or other, and as authoratative and accurate as the other canonical gospels, so its contents are seen as an integral part of the Christian message and therefore of eternal relevance to all of us. Hypothetically, as all the gospels and other New Testament writings are said to present essentially one message, despite their different slants, one should be able to be in possession of only one of them and still have enough to go on to know the Christian message. Certainly, there would have been early Christian communities for whom Matthew was the gospel, so, given it is said to be authoritative, one should be able to find the allegedly universal message of Jesus as much in this gospel as in the others. However, what we actually find in Matthew poses serious problems for this notion.
 We find similar language used by Jesus in Matthew 7:6: ‘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’. In the story of the Canaanite woman, Jesus contrasts the ‘children’ (Jews) with ‘dogs’ (Gentiles). It seems likely that here again in Matthew 7 we see Jesus teaching his followers not to take the message of the Kingdom to non-Jews (for it is only for ‘the lost sheep of Israel’). ‘Dogs’ and ‘swine’ almost certainly refer here to non-Jews: ‘dogs’ being the word he used to describe non-Jews when speaking to the Canaanite woman, and pigs being ‘unclean’ animals in Judaism.