The “next big thing” in technology seems to be search engines powered by artificial intelligence algorithms. These new, improved search engines allow you to search for information, then ask for more detail, clarifications, or altered search parameters but, apparently, not verifiable facts. A tech reviewer for a newspaper asked an AI-augmented search engine about the Watergate break-in of 1969.* The search engine responded that it was perpetrated by a well-respected Hollywood actor who was a young teenager at the time the break-in occurred.
Artificial intelligence might revolutionize computing, but it will never be more than impersonal and bound by the culture that creates it. This isn’t such a bad thing. We rely on certain things to be very impersonal. Medications, for example, are useful to the extent that they produce the same positive effects in all people; a medication that had varying or unpredictable effects wouldn’t be very useful. In other things, however, an impersonal nature can be a liability. I think this is the perspective that Jesus would have us take on religious laws like the Ten Commandments.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus appears to propose a rather demanding approach to religion and morality. He extended the Mosaic Law’s prohibition of murder to include acts as minor as using insulting language. (Mt. 5:21-22) He equated both divorce and brief, lustful thoughts to adultery. (Mt. 5:27-32) He extended the prohibition of misusing the divine Name to include a prohibition of swearing any oath. (Mt. 5:33-34)
Because of the detailed nature of these pronouncements, many Scripture scholars are of the opinion that Jesus intended to hold his disciples to a moral standard that exceeded the requirements of the Mosaic Law. Jesus seems to say as much at the beginning of this collection of teachings. He said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:20)
I don’t agree with the opinion that Jesus imposed a new, higher standard of morality on his disciples. Rather, I think these sayings of Jesus were a reaction to religious leaders who practiced religion and morality as impersonal activities.
Some of the scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem interpreted the Law of Moses to be an immutable, eternal moral code that required slavish obedience and allowed no leeway for extenuating circumstances. This legalistic approach to religion was the source of conflict between Jesus and the Jerusalem Pharisees. On one occasion, Jesus disregarded the Sabbath’s prohibition of work first, by allowing his disciples to pick grain to feed themselves and then, by healing a crippled man. (Mt. 12:1-13) These are not the actions of a man who took a fundamentalistic view of religious law. Nor is it likely that Jesus completely changed his views after preaching the Sermon on the Mount. It is more likely that what appears to be a “higher standard of conduct” in today’s Gospel reading is instead a rejection of an impersonal approach to religion and morality.
The impersonal approach to religion of the scribes and Pharisees prohibited murder but allowed anger, vengeance, slander, and any other uncharitable act that fell short of mortal violence. Their legalism allowed a man to divorce his wife by merely telling her she was divorced. Their lack of common decency allowed them to deny shelter and care to elderly parents – all in the name of piety. (Mt. 15:3-6) That group of scribes and Pharisees interpreted and applied the Law of Moses in a literal way that was devoid of nuance and empathy; they did so because it served their self-righteousness and sense of entitlement.
Jesus took issue with their self-serving version of religion. He did not think that the commandments existed outside, above, or before human persons but rather that the commandments existed for the protection of all human persons. His interpretation of the Law of Moses required one to avoid both sin and the vices that led inevitably to sin. The basis of his interpretation was his knowledge that all morality is interpersonal, that is, it exists in the realm of human relationships rather than in the realm of static ideas.
Let me propose an illustration of my perspective on religion and morality. Lent begins in a week and a half. Soon, we will have to choose a personal penance and follow the universal penitential practices of Lent. The purpose of these penitential practices is to bring us to more sincere repentance and more sincere love of neighbor. It is fully possible to follow the penitential practices of Lent while remaining angry, judgmental, self-serving, and self-righteous, but it is pointless to do so. Penance is meaningless if it does not lead to greater charity and faith. If you take on Herculean penances without growing in love of God and neighbor, you’ve gained nothing except six and a half weeks of discomfort. Undoubtedly, there are quicker ways to make yourself and others miserable.
Those few scribes and Pharisees who argued with Jesus so long ago were not the only people to reinterpret religion as a strict but shallow moral code. This idea is very popular today. Some believe that all except their own religious denomination are damned. Others are less generous, saying that anyone who doesn’t perform a particular devotional practice will be excluded from redemption. We’ve all heard people speak as if the Ten Commandments are harmed by those who don’t follow them; commandments can’t experience harm, but people can do.
It’s true that Jesus expects from us a righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees, but that is because the scribes and Pharisees who objected to his teachings objected because his teachings threatened their sense of privilege and self-importance. Jesus requires from us a righteousness that exceeds the merely impersonal, the legalistic, and the inhumane. Rather than fretting about offences against religious law, Jesus asks us to avoid offending one another.
*Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Trying Microsoft’s new AI chatbot search engine, some answers are uh-oh,” Washington Post, (February 9, 2023)