The philosophy of St Matthew's Gospel

As regular readers will know, I am in the process of exploring Christianity and my relationship to it. I've never really been a Christian - I decided at 16 it didn't make sense to me and was never confirmed - but I have always believed in God, or at least, in a benevolent power or consciousness that pervades the universe. This vague pantheism led me to Buddhism, and then to Greek philosophy (particularly Stoicism).

However, I've become more and more aware that, much as I love Greek philosophy and found it a genuine life-saver, it does not provide much in the way of community these days. And I also feel that Greek philosophy rarely mentions the feeling of being loved by God and by the Holy Spirit, which Christianity does often mention, and which is something I have felt.

With that in mind, I have re-engaged with Christianity this year, through the Alpha Course, to see if I can find a way back in. I've really enjoyed the Course, mainly because of the people. But what of the Bible? Well, I thought I'd better pick the Bible up and give it a read, again. And that I might as well start at the beginning of the New Testament. So, this weekend, I read St Matthew's Gospel. What follows are some initial thoughts and questions. I write as a skeptic - I know the Gospel is incredibly important to many people and don't want to offend anyone. I am simply trying to work out what I believe.

Jesus on humility and self-negation

There is a strong emphasis on self-negation and on giving yourself completely to God. You must give up your mother, father, friends and family, Jesus tells people, give up your possessions too. You cannot serve two masters - either you serve God, or you serve the world.

This binary dichotomy reminds me of Plato and the Stoics. They also felt a deep tension between the world of the spirit, and the world of materialism. They also thought you couldn't serve both - you had to choose either the spirit-world, or the grosser world of material desires. Jesus says 'what profiteth a man if he wins the world but loses his soul?' Which reminded me of Socrates' exhortation in his Apology: 'Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no attention or thought to... the perfection of your soul?'

What strikes me about both Plato and Jesus is there is no sense of a possible balance between this world and the world of the spirit. Before them, in the long millennia of the shaman, there was a balance between this world and the spirit-world. You paid your dues to the spirit-world, but there was never a sense in which you had to forgo this world or completely free yourself from material desires, unless you happened to be a shaman yourself, in which case you had to die to this world and be re-born in the spirit world.

What happened with Plato and (400 years later) with Jesus, was suddenly we're told we must all give ourselves over to the spirit-world entirely. This world is completely fallen, is a world of illusion. So we must die to this world in order to have life in the world of the spirit. In both cases, this seems to me a rather extreme way to resolve the tension between the two worlds. And it's impractical, expecting everyone, in effect, to be a shaman who dies to this world and gives themselves entirely to the world of the spirit. Only a very few people will ever be that hardcore in their pursuit of the spirit world (maybe 3% or so). So it's pretty harsh to say, as Jesus does, that only that 3% will go to heaven while everyone else will gnash their teeth in the outer darkness. At least Plato has the idea of reincarnation, so even if you're not part of the 3% this life, you can at least slowly get closer to it through successive lifetimes.

Still, Jesus says some very beautiful things in praise of humility and self-negation in Matthew's Gospel. There is a radical inversion of values - the King of the Jews is born to a poor carpenter and his wife, he hangs out with children and publicans and harlots, he tells the snooty Pharisees and Sadducees that 'the publicans and harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you'. We're told that the meek shall inherit the earth, that he who exalts himself shall be debased, and who who humbles himself shall be exalted. That's beautiful, though I could see it also leading to a sort of competitive humility among Christians, like two Japanese businessmen trying to outdo each other by bowing lower.

Jesus on love and forgiveness

One of the strongest themes of Matthew's Gospel is forgiveness and the importance of loving your neighbour. How many times should we forgive our enemy, asks Peter. Seven times? No, rather seventy times seventy, says Jesus. He sums up the entire teaching in two commandments - love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. We often hear of his compassion - the sick come to him and he is moved by his compassion to heal them. And his compassion seems to cross ethnic and class boundaries - he heals Jews, Romans, Canaanites. He tells people that they will be judged on how they treat the poor, the homeless, the stranger. If you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, then God will treat you well on the Judgement Day. There is a very strong emphasis on helping the poorest and weakest in society.

This is something different to Greek philosophy, which has a sort of aristocratic cheeriness to it, and which doesn't bother itself much with the poorest and the weakest. It reminds me, though, of a tradition in Greek religion, which says you should treat strangers and vagabonds with hospitality, because they might be Zeus Xenos (Zeus the Stranger) in disguise.You often get myths (not just in Greek mythology but all over the world) of tramps turning up who then magically transform into gods. If you treat the tramp well, you're blessed. If you don't, you're in trouble. Something similar is going on in the Gospels - Jesus is saying, don't trust appearances in this world, don't be too quick to suck up to the glamorous and powerful and to ignore the poor and wretched. Things are not as they seem. If you're really looking for God, don't look to A-List parties, look to the tramp at the window. God is there.

Jesus on how unbelievers are going to suffer

What I found disturbing and alienating about St Matthew's Gospel was how, alongside this emphasis on love, there is a very strong emphasis on God's wrath and punishment if you don't have sufficient faith or fail to recognise Jesus. The most repeated phrase in the Gospel is 'wailing and gnashing of teeth' - Jesus is constantly telling us how awful the future will be for non-believers, how they will be cast into the outer darkness where they will wail and gnash their teeth. He says it so often, you start to imagine him gnashing his teeth while he says it.

Jesus comes with a message of redemption, but woe betide you if you don't heed that message. He tells the disciples, if they go into a city and that city does not heed their teaching, then shake the dust off your feet as you leave, and it will be worse for that city than it was for Sodom and Gomorrah (in other words, God will exterminate every person in that city and cast them into the outer darkness for eternal wailing and teeth-gnashing). He tells the parable of God as the host of a wedding. God invites people to a wedding, but they don't come when he asks them to. This enrages the host, so he sends his army and massacres them. Woah! Sorry we were late! Then he tells his servants to invite people in off the streets to join the banquet. Thanks God! But one of the guests isn't dressed right, so he tells his servants to tie him up and throw him out into the darkness 'where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth'.

Talk about a grumpy host! Can you imagine the poor bride...'Daddy, you killed all the guests and then invited strangers off the street and then tied them up and threw them out. You've ruined everything!' 'Well....they were late. I won't stand for tardiness!' Can you imagine how horrified the remaining guests would be. I can just see them, terrified fixed grins in place, 'mmmm, great cake your highness!'

Considering the wailing and gnashing that awaits anyone who fails to recognise Jesus' teachings, why doesn't he tell them all he's Jesus Christ? He could have been much more explicit about who he was, considering the terrible eternal consequences of not recognising him! Why does he tell the people he healed, 'don't tell anyone'? Surely he should say 'tell everyone!' This is no time for coyness, people's souls are in mortal jeopardy, and the more people recognise him, the more will be saved. So why the secrecy? Presumably, to test our faith, and to punish the vast majority who fail to recognise Jesus' divinity. The dominant theme in the Gospel does not seem to me love or redemption, but punishment for those of little faith (another oft-repeated phrase 'oh ye of little faith'). Jesus is vengeful. He even kills a fig tree, just because it doesn't bear any fruit when he's hungry. Why did he kill the fig tree?

I found the Parable of the Tares confusing (13: 24 - 30).  A man plants lots of good seed in his field, but when he slept, his enemy came and planted lots of tares (weeds) in the same field. When he realised this, the man decided to let the good seed and the tares grow up together, and then separate them at harvest time. God, Jesus explains, is the good man, and the Devil is the enemy. But that means that some of us are elect to heaven from birth, while some of us are 'children of the wicked one', and are destined for hell, from birth. Doesn't it?

I also wonder how cross-ethnic Jesus' teachings really are. He tells his disciples not to go into the cities of gentiles or Samaritans. When a Canaanite woman begs him to heal her daughter, he tells her, 'I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel'. Canaanites were considered the lowest of the low by Jews. When she persists, he says 'it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'. Charming. She manages to prostrate herself by saying 'yes Lord, even the dogs eat crumbs from the master's table'. When she has sufficiently debased herself, as an ethnic inferior, Jesus says, OK, your daughter's healed.

And where is the forgiveness in the terrible verse, 27:25, where the Jews say 'his blood be upon us, and on our children'? What a dark verse. How many millions of Jews died throughout the next 2000 years because of those words?

So there's a big difference between Greek philosophy and the Jesus of St Matthew's Gospel - the difference is the consequences if you don't follow their philosophy. There is never any sense in Greek philosophy of 'you must follow this, or else!' There really is in St Matthew's Gospel. Jesus makes it very clear that if you don't recognise him as Christ, you're going into the outer darkness for eternal wailing. So you better!

Demons and the end of the world

The world of St Matthew's Gospel is full of demons. Hordes of people appear to be possessed by devils. Most of the healing that Jesus does seems to be exorcisms. I find this off-putting and (I'm sorry to say) backward. People say that Jesus' teachings are the highest and most sublime ethical teachings that man has ever attained, and this very highness is proof of Jesus' divinity. But I don't think the idea of demon-possession as the major cause of our emotional and physical ills is that advanced.

Four hundred years earlier, the Greek philosophers were showing how many emotional disorders come not from demons, but from our own beliefs and attitudes. We can heal ourselves by becoming more aware of our thoughts and learning to control them. 2000 years later, we discovered how right they were, and their teachings are now at the heart of western psychotherapy. Socrates and his followers liberated us from our demon-superstitions and showed how we can heal ourselves. Meanwhile, in a few dark corners of the earth people still believe that most emotional problems are caused by demon possessions, which you need to cure by going to see a medicine man or by having some priest pray over you. I don't think this is the highest and wisest teaching known to man, by any means.

In the world of Greek philosophy, we are not constantly at the mercy of demons. We are plagued not by evil spirits, but by our own thoughts, which we can learn to control, if we take responsibility for them. In the world of St Matthew's Gospel, by contrast, people are constantly being possessed by demons, and they must hope that a holy person happens to come along to exorcise them. They must kneel before that holy man and beg for their blessing, even if the holy man calls them a dog, as Jesus calls the Canaanite woman.

I think the second world is more primitive than the first. It is the world humans lived in for millennia, a world where humans were at the mercy of their superstitions, until Socrates liberated them from it. Jesus doesn't take us forward, he takes us backwards into that demon-plagued world.

The other thing I found off-putting and a bit backward about the Gospel was its insistence that the world is going to end, very soon. Jesus says 'this generation shall not pass, til all these things be fulfilled' (ie the world will end within the lifetime of this generation).  That seems to me a very clear statement that the world will end within the lifetime of some of Jesus' disciples. And I think it's a brilliant example of Festinger's cognitive dissonance that generations of Christians have carried on believing the Gospels and expecting the end of the world despite the fact it didn't happen then or in the 2000 years since.

And how healthy and useful an attitude is it to long for the end of the world? When famines come, as they no doubt will, when climate change hits, Christians must secretly be going 'woohoo! Here come the End Times!'  Well...I don't see it myself. I would be extremely surprised if Jesus came back out of the sky and cast 85% of humanity into the outer darkness to wail and gnash their teeth.

I would love to find some way back into Christianity, so please, people who know the Bible and who have lived with the teachings for many years, tell me where I am misinterpreting. The love, the forgiveness, the humility, is beautiful and sublime. However, the demon possession, the apocalypse and the repetitive emphasis on Jesus punishing anyone who doesn't recognise his divinity is not very appealing. By the by, I know my Christian friends are incredibly loving and compassionate people, and I have never seen them condemn a person let alone an entire city...but I'd be interested to know what they think of the passages in the Gospel that perplexed me.