Can I have a word – about your word? I’m a humble clergy person who seeks to apply your teaching to today’s world. I want to spread the message of your love and grace – you know the formula. I don’t have much time for the Old Testament (except for the good bits) and Paul can at times be a bit off-putting. At least that was the case until I read my old friend Steve telling us that he had discovered the ‘lost message of Paul’. It was wonderful – just what we wanted it to be! I used to be one of those Bible fundamentalists, but thankfully I saw the light and have for many years believed what Steve calls your ‘lost message’. I enjoy being one of the in-crowd, knowing what you really meant.
The Chat on the Hillside
But I have a problem. I thought I would be safe with the Gospels, so the other day I sat down to read the best bit – the Sermon on the Mount (we prefer to call it ‘the chat on the hillside’ – so much more accessible and non-judgemental, don’t you think?). All that stuff about blessed are the poor, love your enemies, do not judge. Wonderful. We cite it often.
I hadn’t really read it for a while, and when I hear it read in church I don’t really hear it – the words are like water off a ducks back. But these past few days I did actually read it. And to be honest, it’s a bit shocking. Like, I mean genuinely shocking – not shocking in the way that we speak on ‘Thought for the Day’ – you know, our ‘thoughts’ about the ‘revolutionary message of Jesus’ – which is always so nice and comfortable.
So if you don’t mind, I thought I would offer you a critique, a few questions and perhaps a wee word of advice on how you could communicate in the 21st century so much better. I don’t blame you, given that you were limited to 1st century Palestine I wouldn’t expect you to have the tools of scholarship and the knowledge that we now have – even the Son of God has limits! So let’s have a look at the first chapter – Matthew ch.5.
The Woke Sermon
I love how you began the sermon. So revolutionary, so woke: ‘blessed are the poor, the merciful, the peacemakers.’ Although even here there was a bit of negativity – why mention those who mourn rather than the joyful? Or those who are persecuted because of righteousness? I would be careful about mentioning persecution nowadays. You talk about people being insulted, saying falsely all kinds of evil against them. I wish you hadn’t done that. I don’t want you to encourage those Christians who are always going on about being persecuted. I mean, it’s not as though they are having their heads chopped off so why encourage that persecution complex with all that talk about talk? It’s just insults and rumours. You call that persecution?!
Also there is a danger of the sermon being a bit ‘exclusive’. Your standard for inclusion is a bit high. Blessed are the pure in heart? I mean, who is ‘pure in heart’? Does that not exclude most of us?
And it’s kind of harsh and judgemental. If the salt loses its saltiness, it’s going to get thrown out and trampled underfoot? Is there no forgiveness? No second chance? Would that not mean that much of our church is going to be thrown out?
The Old Testament
I realize that there are good things in the Old Testament, but I thought you overdid things by endorsing all of it. What did you mean by saying that not a jot or tittle of the law would go until heaven and earth disappear? We spend so much time telling people that the OT does not apply and then you turn up and say that those of us who teach that are least in the kingdom of heaven! How do you think that makes us look? It’s a good job that most Christians don’t read your words carefully or even think about them.
And then we are back to the judgementalism. Of course it’s not good to be angry – or to call people fools. But to threaten us with hell? Is that not a bit much?! In fact, hell, which we don’t really believe in, is something that you mention far too much. I really wish you hadn’t banged on about it so much. What were you thinking of? Hell may have worked in the 1st century but it just won’t cut it in today’s world.
Like in the next part where you warn about the dangers of adultery. Of course I accept it’s wrong – even though in some circumstances (like when you love one another) it could be excusable. But all that stuff about looking at a woman lustfully? In today’s age of course, we are aware that women can look lustfully too – and we are against that kind of MeToo lechery – but in the modern age surely it’s ok to appreciate beauty? What’s the harm in looking? Isn’t pornography just a healthy means of satisfying a natural urge? Couldn’t we say that you made us that way? After all we blame you for every other defect in our nature. So why all the dramatic language about plucking out your eye or cutting off your hand? I don’t want to sound Islamophobic, but you sound more like ISIS than the Church!
And I’m afraid your comments about divorce were so out of touch with where we are at nowadays. You seem to hate it – almost as much as you hate what used to be called sexual immorality. But don’t you think it’s unreasonable to expect a man and a woman to live together for life? I mean we were not designed that way – were we? And what happens if a couple don’t love each other anymore? Is it not cruel to keep them together? I thought you were supposed to be all about love? If we don’t love each other anymore then why should we not split up and go and find happiness elsewhere?
It was a bit of a surprise to hear your comments on taking oaths. We take oaths all the time and don’t mean them – they are a convenience. I remember when I took my ordination vows – even then my fingers were crossed. I know it’s good to be honest, but that degree of strictness? And why bring in the devil at this point?
It was such a relief to get to the bit about ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘loving your enemy’. That’s more like the ‘love’ we expect from you! The soundbites are great – we can use them to trash our enemies and show how unloving they are. I know we are to be kind to our enemies, but surely that means the ones far away? We need to sue, ban and silence the racists, homophobic Far Right i.e. all those who are not like us. I was thinking of this the other day as I recalled how we have taken some of those unloving fundamentalists to court just to make sure they don’t run off with our (sorry ‘your’) church property. We are of course doing it in the name of your love!
You seem to say so many contrary things. On the one hand, earlier you tell us to let our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds. But now in the same sermon you tell us not to do our righteousness before men? Isn’t it great that we now have scholars who can tell us on the basis of their extensive research into 1st century Near Eastern cults, what you really meant! Sometimes your words are so confusing to us that it makes them meaningless – or at least we can take whatever meaning we want out of them. I wonder if you saw post-modernism coming.
Anyway, back to the not letting you left hand know what your right hand is doing. You will forgive me saying this, but it’s a bit impractical isn’t it? I mean how are people going to know our good deeds? How are we going to increase brand awareness? How else will we get hits on our web pages or likes on our Facebook? And how will the poor know who to thank? If we can’t name a ministry after ourselves or put up a statue or foundation in our name, how will they know yours?
The same goes for the secret prayer thing. Don’t you want people to hear our prayers? Does it just have to be you? I know we don’t need all the prayer in school stuff – teaching children to call upon you – but surely when there is a disaster, we are needed to talk about ‘our prayers and thoughts’ being with the victims? How else will they be comforted? It’s very important that we be seen to be praying. It shows we care.
Sorry, I did not mean to write such a long letter. You kind of got me wound up when I started reading what you really said. And I’ve only done one chapter. We’ll get on to the other stuff soon. But meanwhile can I just summarise where I think we are at. Your sermon is like the proverbial parson’s egg – good in parts. But overall, it’s a bit harsh and judgemental. If you want people like me on side, you’re going to have to tone it down a wee bit and make it more Christlike.
Your disobedient equal,
Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar Sermon