An Atheist thoughts on reading the Gospel of St Matthew

I’ve actually read most of the bible and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in particular.

But I decided to re-read Matthew just as a refresher.

3 Parts to the Gospel
It really breaks into 3 different part.
1) Historical information
2) Magic/Miracle work
3) Christian Philosophy

The 1st part is only moderately interesting. I suspect the Bible is more historically accurate than most non-religious people believe. I think many of the places and people existed and many of the events happened in some form or another.

The 2nd part is interesting, but only in the same way that other fables and legends are interesting. Unfortunately I think they mostly work as a mechanism for people to justify why they can’t possibly be as good as Jesus or to solidify the status of the special character. “Hey, Jesus turned water into wine… if I can’t do that how can I possibly love my enemies.”

The 3rd part is the one I find the most important as it is fundamentally actionable.

General Summary
Reading through it again I’m left with 2 overwhelming conclusions:
1) In 2,000 years I really wish we would have made more moral progress than we have.
2) There are incredibly few Christians in the world… by that I mean people who actually try to follow Jesus in their actions. If you put the bar at the execution level there’s probably like 100 Christians in the last 2000 years, but I think that bar is just way too high… so we’ll settle for people who TRY.

What does Jesus expect from us?

I am consistently amazed by the simplicity of Jesus’ message. While it is iterated and stated many different ways it really comes down to the “golden rule” which is of course “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I think MOST of Christian teaching is right there in the sermon on the mount. Jesus is very clear about fulfilling rather than abolishing the existing law. That is, Jesus is iterating on the past moral directives which were lacking. This is why I believe that Jesus’ teachings sort of replace things like the 10 commandments. They are morally superior versions in that they move away from vengeance, retribution, and punishment and move to compassion, empathy and self-sacrifice.

Who is blessed?
1) those poor in spirit
2) the mourners
3) the meek
4) those who hunger for righteousness
5) the Merciful
6) the clean of heart
7) the peacemakers
8) those persecuted for the sake of righteousness

This pretty much locks out people who are angry, vengeful and judgmental. It takes out people who support war and violence. It takes out people who are arrogant and selfish and proud.

What do we do about Anger?
Ok, we all get pissed off at things, people, events. What does Jesus say?
“But what I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement, whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire.So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

That’s right, even THINKING angry thoughts risks damnation… and if you have them you need to go to the person they are about, reconcile and then move forward with your life. Makes a lot of sense… and if people did that I think they’d be much more at peace with themselves and each other.

So think about someone you are angry at right now, go tell them; try and rectify it and see how you feel. Personally I think this is super simple and super hard.

What about making oaths and promises?
Turns out all that “swearing to God” or “swearing on the Bible” is totally wrong. At first I thought this was a bit silly, but the reasoning is so good.
“But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. and do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Basically this is a commentary on how powerless we are to make fundamental changes and when we reinforce our yesses and noes with backup that we can’t control we’re just over reaching. Instead just say yes and no and mean it. This is about understanding the limits of our power… that is it’s pretty small. We can control our own decisions in a limited scope and should do so decisively and honestly without the backing of cosmic forces we can’t control.

What about all these bad people around us? Rapists, murderers, liars.
Retaliation is a big force in people’s lives. Let’s see what Jesus says we should do:
I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

That’s just brutally hard. Not only to you have to NOT retaliate, but you have to invite MORE suffering from those who would put it on you. What kind of masochistic message is this?
On the surface this may make little sense, but in the history of peaceful resistance it does. Gandhi used this to great effect as he said when people inflict pain on you and you don’t strike back it eventually hurts them as well; and is a mechanism for bringing out their humanity. It requires the person to REALLY believe in causes beyond themselves… that is if you behave this way you may very well get killed but your death will be a strong message that will accumulate with other strong messages.

It sees “evil” as a giant pile outside of the individual and if you respond to evil with evil you simply make the pile larger. All you can do is try to make the pile smaller. Life and death of an individual are far less important than the overall size of the evil pile. This is an extreme version of self sacrifice and it’s really tough because most people who risk self sacrifice do, in fact, die anonymously and don’t go on to win noble peace prizes or have books written about them.

There’s also a universal rule there because of course if EVERYONE acted this way there would be no violence or poverty or cruelty. There is violence and poverty and cruelty because people think OTHER people won’t act this way and they are just defending themselves. It’s a completely rational position, just really hard to execute as an individual.

It’s common to take the position “well, I’ll stop being violent when everyone else does” but it is precisely this attitude that leads to accumulated evil. In fact you have to stop being violent most when others are directing it towards you.

That’s expected behavior and a pretty high bar. I certainly don’t meet it.

What about giving and helping. I heard all these poor people are either secretly well off or on drugs.
The good news is it’s pretty simple. The bad news is, it’s pretty hard:
Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”

That pretty much sums it up. If someone needs something and asks you for help, give them help. There’s no special 10% rule. There’s no “but what if they are a drug addict” clause. There’s no modifications or exceptions of any kind. It’s just really simple.

In truth we can not know the individual circumstances of everyone. So when you do not give money to a beggar because he might be on drugs or lying; but you buy a coffee or a pair of shoes without knowing if someone in the chain who is on drugs or lying will benefit you are bending your morality to suit your purpose. Jesus is pretty consistent in his teachings and I suspect if he were alive today to clarify, he’d just say the same thing:

“If you see someone who needs something and you can help them, help them. What’s so damn hard about that to understand? Why are you people trying to make my simple message so damn complicated… just fucking help each other and shit will get better, OK?”

What about people that hate and harm us? Not just the evil rapist or terrorist but the person who is directly targeting US?
There’s bad people out there who we’re not attacking. They strike first, they do bad things to us and say bad things about us, what about them?
“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing from others? do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Yup. You’re expected to be as good as God. Love everyone exactly the same amount. Pretty simple.

This pretty much is an anti-social media echo chamber message as well. If you surround yourself with people who agree with you and group up to attack people who don’t… you’re doing it wrong.

This is another common thread in the Gospels. Jesus is pretty egalitarian. He references how the Father or God pretty much grants the same environment for people regardless of their behavior (i.e. sun shines on the just and the unjust, etc.). This is a powerful message because it requires complete inner peace. It is exactly when the attack is the most painful and the most personal that you must love that person and pray for them.

It’s scary to think of the implications. Imagine someone who burns down your house or murders your children. Could you love them? Could you meet this bar? Or are you just someone who loves those who love you already? I don’t think I could, but it seems like the right direction.

What about money?
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also… No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

I’m guessing Jesus wouldn’t have been a very rich person in any time period with that attitude. Despite the spin that I hear and read, the pure Christian message on money is pretty simple… and if you believe it along with the other parts of Jesus’ message, you won’t have a lot. So my conclusion is… there aren’t any rich Christians. I’ve seem people justify vast wealth rectified with Christianity by using all kinds of Bible verses, but I think this message is REALLY clear and consistent. Besides if you are giving your money away to people who need it more than you and there’s tons of poor people in the world, that’s pretty much the balance right there. Again, I don’t meet this bar. Not even close.
But isn’t salvation just accepting Jesus into your heart?
No. I hear this all the time, but Jesus is super clear on it:
Not every one who says to me ‘Lord. Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”

That’s right, Jesus expects you to do things as well as say things. So if you just say the words and think the thoughts, it doesn’t do much good. You are primarily evaluated based on your actions.

Implicitly if you do behave in this way but don’t say “Lord, Lord” you are still building your house on that rock. Deeds matter MORE than belief. You can dream about that perfect house but you gotta build it.

I didn’t cover everything. It’s amazing that so much is compressed into a fairly small amount of text. Of course the interpretation of that sermon has filled many thousands of pages in many thousands of books.

It’s a bit sad that in 2000 years humanity has advanced technology to incredible degrees but a simple moral message is just as difficult to execute today as it was back then. I think humanity in general is improved but the evolution of morality is quite a bit more difficult than the evolution of technology, it seems.