One day in Synagogue a rabbi and a cantor and a janitor were preparing for the Day of Atonement.
The rabbi beat his breast and bowed his head and said aloud, "I am nothing, I am nothing."
The cantor beat his breast and bowed his head and said aloud, "I am nothing, I am nothing."
The janitor beat his breast and bowed his head and said aloud, "I am nothing, I am nothing."
And the rabbi said to the cantor, "Look who thinks he's nothing.” (Beutner 2007, 19)
The parable that I analyzed in the previous part of this series, the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:2–8), is one of a handful in which Jesus has a message about prayer. Another is the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, retold in the above by Edward F. Beutner, which follows directly on in verses 9–14 of Luke chapter 18. For now, I am turning back to Matthew's Gospel, and will move through the Sermon on the Mount, but will return to this parable over the next posts as it helps to explain several topics other than prayer. The Sermon has a fivefold structure: the Beatitudes (blessings), the Antitheses (teachings criticizing the way fellow Hebrews had been practicing religion), teachings on prayer, teachings on anxiety, and the Golden Rule. There are many parables and warnings against hypocrisy throughout.
Of central importance in Jesus's moral philosophy are the Antitheses (Matt. 5:21–48). This is where he makes several statements that begin “You have heard” and continue “but I say,” which criticize or narrow the Jewish rules or customs. He does this on six topics: murder, adultery, divorce, making false testimony, retributive justice, and hating one's enemy. His message is that entertaining thoughts of anger or contempt, or insulting people is as wrong as committing murder (v. 22); to entertain lustful thoughts is as wrong as committing adultery (v. 28); to divorce or remarry is also as wrong as adultery (v. 32); that you should not simply refrain from making false testimony but should abstain from testifying at all—only giving yes or no answers (v. 34–7); not to seek retribution or even defend yourself against injustice (v. 39); and not to love only those who treat you well, but to love your enemies also (v. 44).1
As I signposted in my previous post, this advice sounds rather foolish. (Though, of course, there are groups who try to live by it literally, such as the ascetic Franciscans and the pacifist Quakers, and that is not necessarily incorrect.) The philosopher Don Cupitt highlights that this has often been described as an "impossible ethic," elaborating that in “The traditional, Lutheran sense… it is too exalted and demanding an ethic for us human beings to actually live by. It functions, as Lutherans have traditionally thought, to convict us of sin and force us to seek salvation by faith alone” (2009, 98). Francis Spufford follows in this tradition, pointing to how different it makes it from other religious ethics: “[Jesus] talks as if virtue is almost unachievable, yet still compulsory. Rather than being a menu of demands that all [or even most] can satisfy [as in Judaism or Islam, for example], for [Jesus] it seems to be something that would take feats of absurd unlikelihood to accomplish” (2012, 117). This is underscored by Jesus's declaration that “No one is good but God” (Luke 18:19). For Spufford, this does not function as a judgment against us, from which we must plead for mercy. Rather, it promotes a message of radical inclusion and nonjudgment in society, because “if everybody is guilty, nobody gets to congratulate themselves, and murderers and adulterers cannot be shunned” (118).
Jesus's Jewish audience would have been shocked that these “internal states… that apparently don't hurt (or ever affect) anyone else weigh as heavily with God as external acts” (117). And this message is also scandalous to the liberal/utilitarian mindset of our culture, but it is important to remember, as Keith Ward says, that “attitudes of the heart are not just inner psychological states without physical expression. If they are genuine, they will issue in practical action” (2011, 145). In other words, they are virtues, and for this reason it makes more sense to interpret the Antitheses in the framework of virtue ethics, rather than as an “impossible ethic.” I agree with Ward's suggestion that Jesus was “not legislating a stricter moral code, but commending a set of ideal attitudes in hyperbolic form”(140), a form consistent with his clear use of hyperbole in verses throughout these passages. For example, “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matt. 5:30a). These verses clearly cannot be taken literally—and not just because you wouldn't be able to cut off both of your own hands! What is taught by this particular hyperbole, and the Antitheses more generally, is a shift from obedience to external moral rules to mindfulness of internal moral attitudes. In particular, we must take decisive action to cut out of our lives any habits that lead us into trouble. (In the corresponding verse, Matt. 5:29a: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” the symbolism of the eye probably encourages mindfulness of the way we are perceiving the world, in addition to the way we are acting in it, as was symbolized by the hand. This links back to the points made at the end of the preceding Part 4 about the importance of perceiving the world with the heart as well as with the head.)
The philosopher J. J. Sylvia IV says that it is because “it matters both what actions you take and how you feel about those actions internally” that virtue ethics is such a “compelling account of the good life,” and it is precisely this point that Jesus emphasizes in the Antitheses. It not only matters that we don't act out of anger toward our neighbors, but more importantly, that we are mindful to pacify rather than entertain the thoughts of anger we inevitably have toward others. Likewise, we should not only refrain from adultery, but more importantly, from indulging in lustful thoughts, from sexual thoughts about others who have not gifted their sexuality exclusively to you, from the possessive desire for another as a sexual object. Ultimately, it is of central importance that we avoid not only murder, but also allowing ourselves to hate others. Hate must be cut out and replaced with the love of neighbor, including love of “enemies,” whose human dignity we should be especially mindful of. (As I'll reiterate when I look at forgiveness in depth, this love for enemies does not require loving them as friends, or even liking them.)
An alternative interpretation of the Antitheses is suggested by the Jewish historian Amy-Jill Levine. Central to Levine's message is that the New Testament exaggerates how new and different Jesus was to the Judaism of his time. (See Levine 2006). Levine suggests a Jewish point of view would have seen Jesus's words as “building a fence around the Law,” that is, creating a buffer zone to ensure one does not step over it. A familiar example of this thinking is businesses staying open for a few minutes after their official closing time, to make sure no customers are annoyed that they have closed early. This could be seen as an extension of prudence, as it is prudent to avoid lusting over others to ensure that you don't cheat on your partner in just the same way that it is prudent to aim to arrive early to ensure that you arrive on time. While such advice certainly is prudent, that is no reason to think it is not commending an internalized virtue approach as well. Indeed, so much is confirmed by Jesus's references to “the heart” (e.g., 5:28, 15:19–20), which meant the interior feelings at the core of the person. Furthermore, whether or not Jesus was the true messiah, he would have been well-versed in the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, and a radical internalization of the Law into the heart was a theme there (e.g., Jer. 31:33).
While I am not attempting in this project to defend Jesus's views as correct, I think it is fair to say that here his approach is compelling. His virtue ethics contrasts with the utilitarian idea that consequences are the only things that matter morally, and while that idea may be useful to those politicians or children of the Enlightenment who only want to make the world a happier place, that cannot explain either the development, or the assessment of, how moral a person is. Moreover, Kant's view that the will or intention behind an act is the only thing that could give it moral quality, is a plausible one. While Jesus still condemns wrong actions, the moral standard to which a person would be held is not following the rules (deontological ethics), or fulfilling an end or purpose (teleological), but having good intentions and making prudent use of the skills and opportunities that they have (a view made popular by C. S. Lewis and, as mentioned in the Part 4, partly found in the parable of the Talents.) As this morality is focused on the point of origination—the intentions of the heart, it could be called an “etiological ethics.”
If we return to the parable quoted at the beginning of this post, we will recognize that it is about the importance of meaning good actions internally. The punchline “Look who thinks he's nothing” is funny precisely because of the pious character's hypocrisy in making an external act of humility while internally holding an attitude of pride over another. Perhaps that is clearer here than in Jesus's version, as his original audience may well have been impressed by the characteristic good works of the pharisee mentioned in his prayer—undertaking supererogatory fasting and charitable donations. And hence that audience may have regarded the character's self-designation as one of the righteous (rather than the sinners such as the Tax Collector) as neither hypocritical nor incorrect. Part of the reason for this is that the audience may not have instantly recognized how the parable illustrates the Sermon's teaching (Matt. 6:1–8) of what Soren Kierkegaard called "hidden inwardness."2 This is, in Don Cupitt's words, that “You should give alms, pray, and fast secretly”(2009, 31).
From today's perspective, the reason behind this teaching is obvious, it is to remain humble—meaning "grounded"—in one's spiritual practice and avoid one's spiritual development being frustrated by the vice of pride.3 But as emphasized by Beutner's version of the parable, the pharisee is not only proud of his righteousness itself, he is also proud that he is better than others—he prays: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (v. 11). How then, you might ask, could the audience have not immediately recognized that this way of thinking was immoral compared to that of the tax collector? The answer lies in two aspects of the contemporaneous culture.
The first is quite obvious, that this is what John Dominic Crossan terms a challenge parable, one that invites the audience to question something that they conventionally accept about society. So the audience would have been expecting Jesus to uphold rather than criticize the story humanity has told itself—the “myth”—of the moral superiority of the religious. As you are probably aware, tax collectors were seen as beneath the rest of Hebrew society because they were collaborators with the occupying power of Rome. Yet to say that God looked with more favor on this collector than on this pharisee—as Jesus does at the end of the parable—would have been seen as even more contemptible than the collector himself. But this myth that religious people (including those who do many good deeds) are good, and others are bad, is at best a simplification that helps us make sense of a complex world. By challenging conventional expectations such as this, Jesus's parables problematize and expose simplifications for what they are, thus opening us to a deeper reality.
The second reason the audience would not have immediately viewed the pharisee character's prayer as corrupt is less obvious: that the prayer Jesus quotes him as using is a real set prayer, which is still in use by Orthodox Jews to this day. Therefore, it would have just sounded like a normal way of offering prayers of gratitude (Levine 2014, ch. 6). The scholar Levine is herself an Orthodox Jew who does not like the prayer (the full version also includes thanksgiving for not being a woman). She would probably stress that the prideful attitude of that prayer is not representative of Jewish spirituality. She has written elsewhere about humility in Judaism, and one of its chief expressions was the literary genre of “humble king” tales. Levine says that the word translated in the Bible as "meek," rather than having the modern meaning of "timid," originally meant "humble." This illuminates Jesus's remark in the beatitudes that “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5); that is, it means that the humble are those to whom the "Promised Land" of Israel should be entrusted. The original hearers of Matthew's Gospel would also have recognized Jesus himself as portrayed as a humble king in the story of the Canaanite woman (15:21–28), in which she kneels before him and he is seen to "stoop down to her lowly level." (As Jesus's behavior in that passage is often seen as out of character, this helps to explain it.)
The archetypal humble king in the Jewish tradition is Solomon. 1 Kings 3:8–15 tells of a vision he has of speaking with God, and this is perhaps the great model of prayer in the Hebrew Bible. The prayer is humble because it is explicitly both nonpossessive and nonvindictive, and in this respect is similar to the prayer that Jesus teaches in the Sermon (Matt 6:9–15—I will talk more about this "Lord's Prayer" in later parts). Values like these are why all this is useful for understanding Jesus's moral philosophy even if we are not interested in prayer. The humility of the tax collector is simpler than that of Solomon. It is not a trite reversal of the pharisee's attitude—the collector is not focused on other people being better than him, nor on self-loathing, but on his dependence on a force greater than himself.
This mindfulness of one's dependence is the core of humility, and by extension, the essence of authentic prayer. It is a mindfulness that is connected to action; Ward explains Jesus's message here as that “Speaking to God is not enough. We must be prepared to do something to obtain justice or show compassion.” This is living faithfully: “refusing to give in to despair, being persistent in goodness,” yet by rejecting dependence on yourself, it rejects attachment to the consequences of your own actions. Instead, it requires: “believing that our actions will not be in vain… without worrying about the observable success or failure of our actions ('Do not worry about your life,' Matt. 6:25)” (Ward 2011, 136). Hence, just as we have seen that the "inner attitude" teaching of the Antitheses applies to prayer as well as to morality, from this exploration of hidden inwardness we can see how the virtue of humility that Jesus taught in relation to prayer also applies to behavior generally.
While in Christianity humility is bound up with theological virtues like faith and hope, it does not have to be narrowly theological. Consider the humility needed, as Christopher Jamison observes, to resist the contemporary epidemic of proud self-identification as a “busy person.” The self-important label of “too busy” inevitably gets used as a rationalization for not enough spending time with, or helping, others (Jamison 2008, 202), and fuels apathy toward our duties to wider society. Consider also that Jesus was especially concerned with a more virulent strain of pride: self-righteousness, which is identifying oneself as excellent (or perhaps superior) in respect of morality. It is because it is “what we habitually do to others” that “will shape our [own] most basic character” (Ward 2011, 122) that we must be attentive to our actions, and the thoughts behind them, in order to resist those that support bad habits. The danger of the self-righteous attitude, therefore, is that it obstructs the mindfulness of sin (of our own moral weakness) that is part of humility, and which is essential to learning, and growing, in virtue. Ultimately, then, Jesus's moral philosophy is antilegalistic, penetrating beyond mere obedience to rules to “teach us not what we should do, but what we should be” (Ward 2011, 111).
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Beutner, Edward F. (ed.), (2007), Listening To the Parables of Jesus, Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa (CA)
Borg, Marcus J., (1998), , Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, Continuum, New York
Cupitt, Don, (2009), Jesus and Philosophy, SCM Press, London
Crossan, John Dominic, (2012), The Power of the Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus, HarperOne, New York
Jamison, Christopher, (2008), Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps For A Fulfilling Life, Orion Books Ltd., London
Levine, Amy-Jill, (2006), The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, HarperOne, New York
Levine, Amy-Jill, (2014), Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, HarperOne, New York
Miller, Robert J. (ed.), (1994), The Complete Gospels, Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa (CA)
Sahajananda, John Martin, (2014), Fully Human, Fully Divine, Partridge (India)
Spufford, Francis, (2012), Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Faber & Faber, London
Ward, Keith, (2004), What the Bible Really Teaches: A Challenge to Fundamentalists, SPCK, London
Ward, Keith, (2011), The Philosopher and the Gospels: Jesus Through the Lens of Philosophy, Lion Hudson, Oxford
Peter Hardy is an administrator on the Partially Examined Life Facebook Group. You can follow him on Twitter @VibrantBliss.
Alexander Rose says
Thanks for the post, Peter. I’ve never engaged in any substantive Biblical studies, so these have been a nice excuse to break out my copy and look around a bit. I look forward to future installments.
Tracy Crook says
Good overview of theses parables, enjoyed the read. I do wonder if there is another interpretation that would not require us to see some of the things said in the parables as hyperbole and “not possible to do” (eliminating lust, never getting angry, etc).
I would assume that in order to make sense of that one would have to understand the factors that make that necessary. Why would it not be adequate to alway maintain control over ones self in spite of ones mental state, especially if we see the goal of controlling our thoughts as ‘impossible’? Surely a rational God has a reason for that beyond ‘I said so’. I guess what I’m looking for is an overarching narrative that makes sense of the parables (and all scripture) which does not require the mental gymnastics of religion and philosophy while still avoiding the absurdities of fundamentalists. I am surprised that this question is virtually never addressed, at least in the sources I’ve seen so far.
Stephen Lovatt says
According to Plato, it is all very simple – see “Phaedrus”. In order to be “holy” and “just” and “enlightened” one must simply(!) form an alliance between the “head” and the “heart” which will then be well-able to govern, direct and “moderate” the appetites and instincts.
When the heart learns to love what the head knows is good, then one will know peace and concupiscence will be done away.
Alan Cook says
You might find this new book of interest:
Peter Hardy says
Thanks Alan, I’ll take a look.
Stephen Lovatt says
very good, once again. A few comments.
I don’t think there is a real conflict between teleological, utilitarian/consequentialist and virtue ethics. Obviously, “consequence” is closely related to “teleos”; when “consequence” is aligned with proper teleos, then we have “right action”, otherwise “wrong action”. The problem with consequentialism is two-fold:
1. What counts as a good outcome? “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” or anything of the like is very far from adequate.
2. Given the complexities of the world – “Events, dear boy, events!” – and our very limited knowledge how can we ever even estimate what will happen as a result of any act?
It seems to me that the foundation of value is that of “life”, and that this is the answer to “Hume’s Dilemma” or “The Is-Ought Dichotomy.” In the absence of life, the concept of value does not arise; in the presence of life this concept is inevitable. “Value” is closely identified with “food”: the low entropy input which any living being (by virtue of being living) needs to continue to be itself. [This is an insight which I attribute to Ayn Rand: the generally execrated right-wing American novelist and philosopher.] Hence what is good is nothing other than that which sustains life (preeminently, God) and that which is evil is nothing other than that which undermines life.
Virtues are dispositions/habits/attitudes which tend to produce acts which are good. Vices are the converse. Virtue comes in layers. Some virtues relate to common-place every-day situations and can be encapsulated in rules; but when exceptional circumstances prevail these rules are inapplicable, and a deeper (wisdom based) ethic is required to direct one’s acts. It is the need for this deeper appreciation of the nature of justice – purity of heart – that Jesus is highlighting in his “antitheses”.
Elsewhere Jesus tells us that it is not what one “takes in” that pollutes us; but that which we “give out”: for that can be an expression of our viciousness. Every time we exercise a vice we reinforce it by desensitizing ourselves to its nature and so deform our conscience.
The question then arises: “Which is the deepest kind of sin: the specific wrong act – for example, ‘murder’ – or that wrongness of soul which is the potentiality of murder?” The particular act is done and gone when it has been effected. Arguably the real reason that murder is so terrible is because it perverts the soul of the murderer so as to despise life rather than because it ends the life of the person murdered: after all, we are all going to die at some point and the person murdered might go straight to heaven! So it would seem that murderousness is worse than murder; however the only reason that murderousness is wrong is because it tends to result in murder! So which “comes first”, murder or murderousness? Is murder wrong because it reinforces murerousness or is murderousness wrong because it results in murders? The individual act can be repented and absolved; but if the deep-seated anger and/or hatred and/or despair which gives rise to such acts is not effaced, what good is the mere recognition of the specific error?
Stephen Lovatt says
Sometimes Jesus emphasizes how important it is to act in secret so as to ensure that one is not acting simply to gain human approbation.
Sometimes Jesus emphasizes how important it is to act in public (in fact how one cannot avoid acting in public if one is t be his authentic follower) so as to incite others to follow one’s example and so communicate Kingdom values.
The important thing is to blow God’s trumpet not our own. To act in public decisively and courageously while not seeking to gain in terms of deference or honour or power or money; although it is not as simple as this for sometimes human respect enables one to further the Kingdom.
Was Mother Teresea of Calcutta right or wrong to accept the “celebrity status” which she enjoyed? She never gave the impression that she “got off on it”, but she never did anything to avoid it. Philip Neri, by way of contrast, was notorious for making a fool of himself so that worldly people would despise him and dismiss him as a foolish crank.
Wayne Schroeder says
If “Jesus’s moral philosophy is antilegalistic, penetrating beyond mere obedience to rules to ‘teach us not what we should do, but what we should be,’ (Ward 2011, 111), then does not the concept of virtue ethics take away from being and focus more on doing?