What's Tony Thinking

Jesus Ups the Ante: Thoughts on a Tough Text


I’m not preaching this Sunday, but I am thinking about those of you that are, and who are grappling with a tough text. Namely, the so called “anti-theses” of the Sermon on the Mount. Each follows the pattern of “You have heard it said,” then Jesus saying, “But I say to you.” That latter bit is where the upping the ante part comes in.

So the first “antitheses” (Matthew 5: 21 ff.) goes “You have heard it said . . . ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment . . . and if you say ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire . . .” Yes, that’s what we would call “upping the ante.”

I think of my life, and figure I fall short on this one (not the murder part, but the anger one) about 14 times a week (or was that a day?). The upshot of his upping the ante is that everyone, so far as I can tell, is “liable to judgment.” Which is to say, Jesus levels the playing field. Which may be the point. Stick with me.

The antitheses continue with six topics: adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, vengeance and enemies, in every case upping the ante of the Law to the point that no one can claim to be wholly and truly good.

Francis Spufford in his book, Unapologetic, is wonderfully helpful here. In the passage I soon quote at length, Spufford contrasts Christianity with the other great one-God religions, Judaism and Islam. These, he points out, provide a demanding but achievable set of commandments, prescriptions and required actions. Christianity does not. It provides, rather, “general but lunatic principles.” Here’s Spufford, beginning with how Judaism and Islam work:

“Do the right actions, and you can be hissing and spitting inside, or bored senseless, or going through the motions to please your family, and it still counts. Virtue has been achieved. The result is in some ways a lot more moderate, a lot more stable than Christianity; and it can be very humane too, with plentiful opportunities for the unvirtuous or ex-virtuous to rejoin virtue’s ranks.

“But it does, indeed, produce a judged picture of the world. It produces a moralized landscape in which the good people can be told from the bad people; in which all human actions can be split into two categories, pure or impure, clean or dirty, permitted or forbidden, kosher or trayf, halal or haram.

“Christianity does something different. It makes frankly impossible demands. Instead of asking for specific actions, it offers general but lunatic principles. It thinks you should give your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, love strangers as much as your family, behave as if there’s no tomorrow. These principles do not amount to a sustainable program . . .

“Not only is Christianity insanely perfectionist in its few positive recommendations, it’s also insanely perfectionist about motive. It won’t accept generosity performed for the sake of self-interest as generosity. It says that unless altruism is altruism all the way down, it doesn’t count as altruism at all.

“So far, so thrillingly impractical. But now notice the consequence of having an ideal of behavior not sized for human lives: everyone fails. Really everyone. No one only means well, no one means well all the time. Looked at from this perspective, human beings all exhibit different varieties of fuck-up. And suddenly in its utter lack of realism Christianity becomes very realistic indeed, intelligently resigned to our vast array of imperfections, and much more interested in what we can do to live with them than in laws designed to keep them segregated.

“Christianity maintains no register of clean and unclean. It doesn’t believe in the possibility of clean, just as it doesn’t believe that laws can ever be fully adequate, or that goodness can be reliably achieved by following an instruction book . . .

“So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people. Not that can be securely designated as such. It can’t be about circling the wagons of virtue out in the suburbs and keeping the unruly inner city at bay . . . [Christianity] can certainly slip into being a club or a cozy affinity group or a wall against the world. But it isn’t supposed to be. What it’s supposed to be is a league of the guilty. Not all guilty of the same things, or in the same way, or in the same degree, but enough for us to recognize each other . . .”

I think that with his ante-upping Jesus is kind of yanking the chain of those who are sure that they are among the clean, virtuous and right-thinking (which is most of us) or those who want to reduce virtue to an achievable human program. The same spiritual mischievousness, on Jesus’ part, is at work when he responds to the exasperated disciples who ask, “How many times must we forgive? Seven?” “No, I tell you, seventy-times seven!”

Jesus ups the ante not because we are going to achieve moral perfection or so that his disciples can one-up the Pharisees (“you fast two days, we’ll do three!”), but in order to level the playing field. With the result that instead of separating ourselves from others who are struggling or who have messed up or failed, we “recognize each other,” extend some compassion, and turn to the God who can do in us, by grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, what we won’t ever pull off by beating up on ourselves, gritting our teeth, striving harder.

Last summer I was backpacking with a friend who told me that the teachings of Jesus were “common sense,” and essentially the same as the teaching of all the other “great religions” of the world. Wouldn’t that be handy?


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