Chapter 3: The Ethics of Jesus
In the first chapter, reasons were given as to why we cannot find our primary authority for the demands of Christian decision in the general field of moral philosophy, or in the moral standards of Christendom, past or present, or in the ethical pronouncements of the churches, corporately or through the words of any one of its leaders, though from all of these sources important insights may be gleaned which we cannot afford to overlook or to discard. It was also said that Christian ethics is rooted in the Bible, but not equally in all parts of it, the New Testament being our more definitive point of reference. It was said, furthermore, that within the New Testament no final authority is to be located in particular words or passages but rather in the total picture it gives of the person and work of our Lord, the life, teachings, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God.
It would be an engaging task to devote a chapter now to this picture, as it shines through the pages of the Gospels in the records of this life and ministry. However, this has been done a thousand times. The prophecy in the last words of John’s Gospel, that if the many other things which Jesus did were to be written, the world itself would not contain the books, comes close to fulfillment in the oft-repeated enterprise of writing a life of Christ or an interpretation of some aspect of his teaching. We shall have to assume that to one who will take the trouble to read this book, both the life and the teaching of Jesus are familiar enough so that references can be made without specific elaboration. Where this is not the case, it is hoped that the passages cited will be consulted as a basis for understanding.
Jesus did not “just happen.” He came as the gift of God to all mankind, and his greatness consists both in the purpose of revelation and redemption which God laid upon him and in his own willing, obedient response. The universality of his message is attested by the fact that today, in a world far removed from the peasant simplicity of his life in an occupied province of the Roman Empire, he still wins men to God, transforms lives, and gives guidance for moral decisions. He is the “light of the world” to millions, in an expanding circle of followers that embraces persons in virtually every nation and within every race, class, culture, and economic situation.
So universal is Jesus that while everybody knows he was a Jew, this is not what we ordinarily think about when we look to him for moral guidance. The Sermon on the Mount is for the twentieth-century American as much as it was for the first-century Jew, and requires only a little transference out of its Palestinian context in order to “speak to our condition.” This is not to say there are no problems in it. Yet its universal affirmations and imperatives so far transcend its problems that for centuries hosts of Christians, most of them not theologians or professional moralists, have been guided and nourished by it.
Nevertheless, Jesus was a Jew — an uncommonly good, discerning, and devout Jew — as well as the Son of God. When God chose to incarnate himself in human form and Jesus accepted his God-given mission, this incarnation occurred within the stream of a particular history, the history of the Jewish people. Indeed, there could have been no incarnation in an abstraction, for incarnation means concrete embodiment, and concrete embodiment is always historical. The incarnate Lord had to live within a particular time and place, and the time and place of Jesus, with all the past that was focused there, gave the framework for what Jesus was and what he taught.
What will be attempted in this chapter is a summary of what is universally relevant to our lives in the ethical teaching of Jesus. Only enough interpretation will be attempted to make clear the central importance of the elements noted. These moral insights of Jesus, however, will be basic to all that is attempted in the way of application to current problems in Part II of the book.
1. What did Jesus teach?
It is not difficult to summarize with a fair degree of conciseness the principal ethical teachings of Jesus. They are not stated systematically or in a developing logical sequence, as a philosopher might state them, but over and over again they appear — in aphorism, parable, simile, striking hyperbole, in words of commendation or rebuke or in Jesus’ own recorded deeds. It is only when we try to balance them one against another and ask how they are to be applied that we run into serious difficulty as to what Jesus meant. Our confusion then may be caused, as the good Bishop Berkeley put it regarding another matter, that we “raise a dust and then complain we cannot see”; yet it is also due at points to a real lack of consistency in what the records tell us Jesus taught. Of this more will be said presently. What, now, is it clear that he did teach?
a) Jesus taught an ethic completely integrated with his religion. This is seen in its clearest expression in the two Great Commandments, where the duty of love of neighbor is not an addendum to the obligation to love God without reservation, but is an implicate of it. It appears repeatedly both in Jesus’ words and in the total tenor of his life. It was his sense of calling by God that led him at the beginning of his ministry to read in the synagogue the words of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19; Isa. 61:1-2.)
These words doubtless state what he felt to be his mandate for action. Are they religion or ethics? The only answer is that they are both, and the passage loses its force if either is withdrawn. “Whatever the historicity of the Fourth Gospel, it is fully consistent with his spirit for him to have said before Pilate at the end of his ministry, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” Is this “truth” religious or moral? It is so clearly both that only a perverted Christianity can deny their relatedness.
To illustrate by a few examples from his precepts, note the reason given for the course of action that is enjoined, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45), or “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). The term “sons of” was a familiar Semitic expression to denote likeness of character. The same idea is borne out in the oft-debated last verse of the same chapter, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48), and in the correlative passage in Luke, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (6:36). Omit the reference to God from these passages and they simply become counsels of perfection.
b) Jesus laid primary stress on ethical and spiritual inwardness. This is not to say that he was indifferent to outward acts, or to the way men conducted themselves toward one another. On the contrary, his most stinging words are directed toward those who “preach, but do not practice”; to those who “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger”; to those who “devour widows’ houses and for a pretense. . . make long prayers”; to those who are “blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (Matt. 23:3, 4, 14, 24).1 Yet the same passage, as well as many others, indicates that his chief concern was with right attitudes from which right acts might proceed. Jesus was completely opposed to the substitution of either ceremonial acts or correct outward behavior for humble obedience to God and loving concern for one’s neighbor. This is the main burden of his indictment of the scribes and Pharisees:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Matt. 23:23, 25-26.)
Note that he does not condemn ceremonial tithing or making clean the “outside of the cup”; what he condemns is the substitution of these for something more basic. In gentler tones this is also the burden of the Sermon on the Mount where, without any abrogating of the Ten Commandments, the emphasis is shifted away from legalism to those inner attitudes that determine the nature of a man, and hence his acts.
c) Jesus set forth a clear pattern of the demands of the God-centered life. By clear pattern is not, of course, meant a blueprint or easily applicable set of rules. But that we can today speak of “Christian virtues” is due to the fact that one who reads the Gospels seriously is left in no doubt as to the general structure of what a life lived in obedient love would embody. We see it in Jesus himself; we find it on every page of the record; it is epitomized in the Beatitudes. Its primary qualities are a God-centered faith and love. Its derivative aspects are purity of heart, sincerity, humility, forgiveness, love toward enemies, mercy, charity in judgment, honesty in speech and action, sexual purity, renunciation of worldly aims with the preferring of spiritual to material treasure, compassion toward those in need. The good life is that of generous and self-giving service to all men and unbroken, unworried trust in the goodness of God.
It is significant that agape did not have before its use in the New Testament the richness of meaning that it came there to have. In classical Greek it carries “none of the magical power of eros and hardly any of the warmth of philia. . . . Its meaning is colourless and indefinite.”2 In fact, it was often used as a mere synonym for eros (passionate, though not necessarily sensual, desire) or for philia (liking or caring for another person in the ordinary sense). Jesus gave so clear a picture of what a life centered in the love of God and expressing itself in love for others would be that, when the New Testament was written in Greek, the meaning of agape was transformed. A glance at the list of virtues enumerated in the paragraph above makes it apparent that, taken as a list, they represent merely a set of admirable qualities. One’s reaction to them may quite reasonably be that there is nothing unique about them, for they are to be found advocated in Judaism and certain of the non-Christian religions as well as in Greek philosophy and the modern secular world. Or one may dismiss them as admirable but unattainable, and of doubtful value even if they could be attained.
To take either of these courses, and let the matter rest there, is to miss what Jesus was concerned about. He did not set out to give a catalogue of virtues, and was apparently quite untroubled as to whether he was saying something new or expressing fully attainable goals of action. His concern was to proclaim the nature of a God-centered, love-filled life lived in obedience to the call of God, and to win men to it. And this he succeeded in doing, in unmistakable terms.
d) Jesus had a realistic knowledge both of human sin and of the possibilities of the redeemed life. It is significant that Jesus does not talk about sin nearly as much as Paul. A concordance shows that the word “sin” as a noun appears in his recorded sayings very few times in the Synoptic Gospels, though more in John, and with one exception (the sin against the Holy Spirit, Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:29), when he uses the term, it is in the plural. The Lord’s Prayer in Luke contains the petition “Forgive us our sins (11:4), and it is perhaps unfortunate that we do not commonly use this form instead of “debts” or “trespasses.” To the paralytic (Matt. 9:2-6; Mark 2:5-10; Luke 5:20-24) and to the woman who brought the alabaster flask of ointment (Luke 7:47-49) he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Doubtless he said it on occasions that are not recorded, and equally to the discomfiture of those who heard him. Yet if the record in the Synoptic Gospels is to be trusted, he did not, like Paul, look upon sin as an enveloping state of evil resulting from Adam’s fall and corrupting man’s whole being. Fuller recognition of this fact might give a more constructive turn to much of contemporary theology.
Yet this is not to say that Jesus set forth a doctrine of the natural goodness of man, such as is characteristic of Greek thought and common in present-day humanism. In the records of what Jesus said there is no doctrine of total depravity, but neither is there a sentimental assumption that if a person is well nurtured and his intentions are good, his acts will be good enough. Because “he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:25), he pierced through the veneer of “good” people to their chicanery and self-deception, and saw that the keeping of the commandments from one’s youth up was no substitute for single-minded devotion to God (Mark 10:17-22). Yet, on the other hand, he never scaled downward man’s possibilities, and the very virtues that have been enumerated as belonging to the life of faith and love are implicit witness to his confidence that man with the help of God could live as the “salt of the earth.”
Jesus gives us no explicit doctrine of sin; what he does do is to show us what is wrong with our living and what the good life, centered in obedience to God’s will, might be. But how is this to be brought about?
As with sin, Jesus gives no explicit doctrine of redemption. Yet there is not the least doubt that Jesus viewed the sins of men with utter seriousness and gave himself with his whole being — even to the Cross — to enable men to find forgiveness and release. The ethical and spiritual insights of Jesus inevitably judge us if we are sensitive to them, yet his primary approach was a positive setting forth of the way in which men’s sins could be overcome. The author of the Fourth Gospel caught perfectly the dominant mood and method of Jesus when he wrote, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (3:17).
What are the requirements for sin’s conquest? Although these must be gleaned from Jesus’ total teaching and ministry and not from systematic analysis, the directives are clear enough. God forgives in infinite love and mercy the sinner who turns to him, as is epitomized in the parable of the prodigal son. The primary focus is on God’s act. But the sinner himself must do something about it; it does not happen without cost on man’s part as well as God’s. These requirements are: commitment of will (seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness), repentance (repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand), forgiveness of others (for if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses), faith (your faith has saved you; go in peace) (Matt. 6:33; 4:17; 6:14-15; Luke 7:50). While most of the numerous occasions on which Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well,” were in connection with miracles of physical healing and the casting out of demons rather than the conquest of sin, he seems to have drawn no sharp distinctions at this point. To any soul in need the promise of faith was, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
And this could happen! Repeatedly, it has happened. Although those contemporary theologies which stress the persistence of sin even in the best Christians have a note of truth which rightly challenges complacency about the redeemed life, it is also true that there are Christian saints who attain to a very high measure of the God-centered faith and love portrayed by Jesus. It is not unreasonable to suppose that most readers of these pages will have known at least one such by whom his life has been blest. But the Christian saint, in whom sin appears to be so nearly conquered, will be the last person to claim merit for himself. For any achievement he will give humble and grateful praise to God. This is what Jesus did when he said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19.) And it is to this spirit that he calls his followers.
e) Jesus declared the supreme worth of every person to God. He did not use the phrase heard very commonly two decades ago, “the intrinsic worth of personality,” or the one now in more common usage, “the dignity of man.” His idea of man was not at variance with either of these concepts, but it is not the way in which he thought. Rather, every person was of supreme worth to him because every person was beloved of God. His total ministry was a ministry of the redemption of persons — whether it was redemption from physical illness, mental disturbance, error, or sin — because he shared the love of God for every person and so gave himself completely to a ministry of helpfulness to all.
The words of Jesus make clear that he valued personality above material things or institutions. “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” (Matt. 12:12.) In another setting he declared of God’s loving care, “You are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:31) — a graphic way of affirming the worth to God of man above the total subhuman world. Yet it is in his attitudes and acts, rather than in specific words, that we find the charter of human equality in God’s equal concern for all. Whether he dealt with women, children, or slaves, whether the persons in need were Jew, Roman, Syro-Phoenician, or Samaritan, whether he associated with “respectable” people or social outcasts, whether he was illustrating true neighborliness by the story of the good Samaritan or declaring the principle of divine judgment on the basis of “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren” — all persons were of equal and supreme worth to him because he saw them through the eyes of God.
It is commonly, and correctly, affirmed that democracy has its chief root in Jesus’ concern for the worth of persons, though it is not true that this is its sole root. There was democracy as the political ideal in the Greek city-states before Jesus’ time, and there are democratic roots — always impinged upon by aristocratic tendencies — in Greek philosophy. Still, the message of Jesus is its chief fountainhead within Christendom. What is not so commonly realized is that the democracy of Jesus in manifold person-to-person relationships was rooted in his relationship to God. He did not set out simply to exalt the dignity of man; yet he lifted the status of men, women, and children wherever his message was heard because he saw all persons as precious to God and equally the recipients of God’s love.
Thus it came about that in the early Church democracy and evangelism went hand in hand. The gospel of redemption through the love of God in Christ broke down earthly barriers, and people of every occupational status, degree of wealth, or social standing saw the “middle walls of partition” melt away. In him there was “neither Jew nor Greek, . . . neither slave nor free, . . . neither male nor female,” for all were one in Christ Jesus. This grounding is important to any sound preservation or extension of democracy in our own time. But of this, more later.
f) The central teaching of Jesus was the kingdom of God. I have thus far deferred discussion of this central theme, which was on Jesus’ lips continually, because in large part its meaning is determined by the teachings already mentioned.
There are both great clarity and great ambiguity in the records as to the message of Jesus in regard to the Kingdom. Everybody agrees that it was his central message, yet there is nothing in New Testament interpretation and scarcely anything in Christian theology about which opinions differ more. The disputed elements center mainly in the bearing of the Kingdom on the ethical demands of the present life in relation to what lies beyond it in a realm that transcends human history — that is, in the relations of ethics to eschatology. Fortunately, the matters most directly related to the practical requirements of the Christian life are those most fully agreed upon, and we shall begin with these.
First, the Kingdom means the sovereign, righteous rule of God in a redeemed society — that is, in a society of persons who accept God’s rule and endeavor to live in obedience to his will. The kingship, like the lordship, of God are terms drawn from a monarchical or feudal order, but ought not to suggest to us autocracy or dictatorship. Though Jesus had a realistic sense of divine judgment, as is evident from the parable of the last judgment in Matt. 25:31-46, he never divorced his conception of the Kingdom from the forgiving mercy of God and God’s loving care of the individual person. This is evident throughout and conspicuously in this same parable, where one’s place in the Kingdom is to be determined by one’s responsiveness to human need. Yet it is God, not man, who rules the world, and for the coming of the Kingdom his rule must be accepted by all men.
By a redeemed society — a term which Jesus did not use, though we may — is meant a community of persons responsive to the call of God in faith and love. It does not mean directly, as far as we can read Jesus’ thought, a set of reconstructed social institutions. He does not have a great deal to say about political or economic structures. But he has much to say about the attitudes and motives of men in their corporate life. He was vitally concerned about sin and the harm it did, both to the sinner and to others.
Jesus’ concern about social iniquities always sprang from his indignant perception of their ill effect on individuals. The victim of the bandits on the Jerusalem-Jericho road, the widow mistreated by an unjust judge, the unfortunates on whom publicans like Zacchaeus practised extortion, the destitute at a rich man’s door, prisoners unvisited and hungry folk unfed — always it was wronged individuals who called out from Jesus a social message.3
Therefore, while the Kingdom cannot be directly equated with the social gospel, as American liberal theology has tended to do, the impulse to social action in order to help persons — whether individually or corporately — is in keeping with his spirit and is a legitimate derivative from his message.
Second, Jesus regarded the kingdom of God as the supreme good, worth any cost. It is God’s gift, yet it must be sought with all that one has. This appears again and again in such passages as “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33), the treasure hid in a field for which one sells all his possessions (Matt. 13:44), the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46). It is a mistake to suppose that man by his own effort can “build the Kingdom,” and it is well that this unbiblical metaphor is heard less often than formerly. Yet it is equally a mistake, if we are true to what Jesus tells us, to suppose that God will give the Kingdom without the assumption of responsibility on man’s part. Although we are told, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32), it will not do to forget that the verse before this one says “seek his kingdom” and the one after it enjoins selling all that one has for treasure in heaven.
Third, Jesus is clear as to the conditions of entrance into the Kingdom. All that was summarized as to the pattern of the God-centered life and the requirements for the conquest of sin is here involved. It is not the self-righteous moralist, trusting in his own virtue and his fidelity to the law, who enters the Kingdom; it is one who receives it with the humble trustfulness of a child (Mark 10:15). It is not everyone who is voluble about his religion who shall enter the Kingdom, but he who does the will of the Father (Matt. 7:21). The Kingdom is present among the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3) and among repentant sinners (Matt. 21:3). The discerning scribe who saw the validity of the two Great Commandments was said to be “not far from the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34). The burden of Jesus’ message as of John the Baptist’s, though with greater gentleness and the strength born of love, was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
2. Eschatology and ethics
We come now to some issues regarding Jesus’ message of the Kingdom about which there is less agreement. We cannot in this brief survey go into every nuance of thought regarding them. But neither can we disregard them, for they are too central to the message of Jesus and hence to our faith.
Eschatology is the doctrine of the “last things.” The eschaton means the end, and eschatology has to do with what happens at the end of human history and beyond it. There is an eschatology of the individual with reference to concepts of heaven, hell, final judgment, and in general of “eternal life.” There are also eschatological beliefs about the future of society and the final destiny of the human race. It is in this second framework that disputes about the Kingdom mainly center, though the two cannot be sharply separated.
A basic question is with regard to the time of the coming of the Kingdom. Is it a present attainment or a hope for the future? And if it is both, is the full consummation of the Kingdom to be in the immediate future or at some indefinite time known only to God? Is the Kingdom to come on earth, or beyond all history? There are passages in the Gospels which seem to support all of these views.
The easiest of these questions is the first, for it is not impossible to suppose that Jesus believed the Kingdom to be in some measure already present while its final consummation was yet to come.
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs, to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you. (Luke 17:20-21.)
This may mean what through the influence of Professor C. H. Dodd has come to be called realized eschatology, the belief that Jesus had brought the Kingdom to fulfillment in his own person and he was thereby affirming his messiahship.4 It seems to me more probable that Jesus meant primarily though perhaps not solely to declare the possibility of entrance into the Kingdom here and now by repentance, the acceptance of God’s forgiveness, and the assumption of the obligations of discipleship. The parables of the leaven (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20-21), the mustard seed (Mark 4:30 if.; Matt. 13:31-32; Luke 13:18-19), and the seed growing secretly until it becomes “first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:26-29) not only are parables of growth; they are indexes that what the Kingdom will be is already present in what is. Yet the references of Jesus to the Kingdom again and again have a futuristic note, and if there were no other reason, the fact that he taught his followers to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” would be sufficient evidence that he did not regard it as having fully come.
The issues of chief difficulty arise at the point of questions as to whether Jesus expected the Kingdom to come on earth or only in some realm beyond earthly history, and in the latter event, whether he expected earthly history to end very soon by a catastrophic divine intervention when he himself would return in glory to reign over a transfigured world. Thus, the whole question of the Second Coming is tied in with the issue. These problems all come to focus in the question as to whether Jesus’ view of the Kingdom was primarily eschatological or ethical and spiritual. Anyone who followed in the slightest the discussions before and at the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches on the main theme “Christ — the Hope of the World” will recognize the disparities of judgment among Christians today at this point.
There are some, though it is a minority position among New Testament scholars, who think that the apocalyptic passages attributed to Jesus were interpolations of early Christian thought. This would be a comfortable way out of the impasse if we could think so, for in view of the fact that the end of the world has not yet come, it is not easy to fit into the rest of his words such sayings as, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28; cf. Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27), or after a vivid description of the signs of the end, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). Nevertheless, the passages are too deeply embedded to be thus discarded. Some may have been confused by the early Church with prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem, for Jesus saw that his countrymen knew not the “things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42) and that their doom was approaching. Some of them may have been, as Professor Dodd suggests,5 mixtures of references to Jesus’ resurrection and his second coming. But with due recognition of these possibilities, it still remains probable that Jesus shared the apocalyptic expectations common in Judaism in the first century and looked upon himself as God’s chosen agent for bringing these things to pass. The incarnate Lord lived at a particular time and place in history, and in his apocalypticism Jesus was apparently a man of his time.
What does this do to his ethics? Does it destroy the validity of his teachings as universal principles? The answer is No.
It does not make his teachings an “interim ethic.” In later Judaism it was believed that the precepts of the Torah were valid for the next world as well as this. Jesus apparently held this view with regard to what he proclaimed to be the will of God, for he never suggests that he is saying something of only temporary relevance. In fact, the contrary is clearly implied in the declaration, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35; cf. Luke 16:17).
It does not make of his teachings counsels of perfection for the next life only. As was earlier remarked, Jesus was apparently not concerned over the exact degree of attainability of his precepts. He stated what he believed to be right — what a person would do if he loved, trusted, and obeyed God completely. It is unlikely either that he was so naive as to suppose that men could be perfect as God is perfect or that the attempt to do so was inconsequential.
It does not submerge his ethics in eschatology. Eschatology was undoubtedly present in the thought of Jesus, as it should be in ours, an eschatology of both eternal life for the individual and the hope of a final consummation of the reign of God beyond earthly time and space. Both the corruption of earthly history by persistent sin and the grandeur of a vista that transcends it lend support to the view that the kingdom of God will fully come, not on earth, but beyond this world. In this final victory
He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings! and Lord of lords!
and the only appropriate response of the Christian is “Hallelujah!” But this does not mean that what Jesus has taught us of the good life here and now is set aside. Christ is our hope — now, in the earthly future, and for eternity.
The eschatology of Jesus was never the ethically barren thing that either the apocalyptists of his time or the premillennialists of ours have too often made it. Not only repentance, but sensitiveness to a brother’s need, determined status in the Kingdom (Matt. 4:17; 25:31-46). There is a tension between this world and the world to come, but to Jesus its resolution lay in God’s control over both realms and man’s responsive, obedient acceptance of God’s rule in faith and love and deeds of service. The God to whom Jesus prayed was the Lord of heaven and earth; his will must be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ outlook was too profoundly God-centered and ethical to permit him to fall prey to pessimism regarding this world’s fate, or asceticism regarding God’s gifts within it, or spectacularism regarding the grand finale, or moral indifference regarding the pedestrian steps God’s servants must take along the way. In short, his total outlook without eliminating eschatology transformed it.
3. The ethics of compromise
A word must now be said on a matter on which Jesus did not say very much, and because he did not, Christians are left in great disagreement as to how to apply his principles. This is the question of compromise in the practical affairs of the social, political, and economic orders, where any course that can be followed leads to unideal results below the standards of the Kingdom. This is the familiar problem of “love perfectionism” and the absoluteness of Jesus’ ethics in contrast with the necessary relativity of their application.
We shall best get a perspective on it by asking, first, where the problem centers and, second, what light we get from Jesus as to its solution.
It centers in two focuses: eschatological and mundane. By the eschatological focus, as we must continue to insist, we do not mean that Jesus proclaimed a completely otherworldly and transmundane ethic. Yet if we take eschatology in its broadest sense as equivalent to “heaven,” and heaven again as equivalent to the “realm of God,” Jesus announced an eschatological structure in his proclamation of the Kingdom. It is significant that he used the terms “kingdom of God”’ and “kingdom of heaven” interchangeably. He did not place “heaven” wholly in a transmundane sphere, but he did proclaim the way men would be and would live if they were fully responsive to the rule of God in the realm of God. Apparently such social applications as he made were incidental to this primary purpose. It is well for us that he did so, for not only did he give us what we need most, but with radically changed social conditions the applications must change from age to age while his insights are eternal.
The other focus centers both in human sin and in the complexity of human social relations. Of sin, Jesus had ample awareness. It was for man’s “hardness of heart” that Moses permitted divorce (Matt. 19:8; Mark 10:5); it is the “cares of the world and the delight in riches” that choke the word (Matt. 13:22; Mark 4:19). And for sin, repentance, forgiveness, faith, and obedience in love were the answer. It would never have occurred to Jesus to talk about the “lesser of two evils,”’ for to him sin was the supreme evil which must be eradicated root and branch — or to use his own metaphor, eye, hand, and foot (Matt. 5:29-330; 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-48).
Of the complexity of human relations Jesus says little that is explicit. He makes some observations about the difficulty of a rich man’s entering the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25), about the futility of massive accumulations of goods as a source of security (Luke 12:16-21), about the inevitable doom awaiting those who were not following the ways that lead to peace (Luke 19:41-44). Yet, both became the making of changes in the institutional structure was not his chief concern and because his human vista was limited by the conditions of a simple peasant society east of the Mediterranean in the first century A.D., he obviously could not foresee or make pronouncements upon the vast complex of particular problems that confront Christians in today’s world.
Nevertheless, he does not leave us in the dark. What, then, must we hold before us as we deal with the relativities of human existence in which some compromise seems inevitable?
First, Jesus never relaxed or scaled down the necessity of absolute, single–minded devotion to God, whatever the circumstances. There is no evidence that he believed the methods of love would always “work” in human society. In fact, he foresaw that they would not. Regarding his own fate, he “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Matt. 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22); regarding his followers, he promised them that fidelity to his gospel would bring upon them not peace but a sword and the severest of domestic tensions (Matt. 10:34-36; Mark 13:12; Luke 12:51-53). Yet there is no easing of the requirement of utter integrity and of complete fidelity to the call of God. Some, though not all, contemporary discussion. of compromise presupposes that physical security or social adjustment are ends so important that recourse must be had to compromise in order to secure them. This was not Jesus’ view.
Nevertheless, as if with tongue in cheek, Jesus tells his followers that the “sons of this world are wiser in their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8) and suggests that as they go out into a wolflike world, they be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Does this mean that they were to emulate worldly subtlety? Hardly, but to Jesus fidelity to God was no excuse for naivete. The gospel requires of men their best, including the best of strategy. One must “beware of men,” and there are occasions for flight rather than martyrdom (Matt. 10:17-23). But not at the cost of fidelity and faith. The Oxford Conference in its report on “The Universal Church and the World of Nations” caught perfectly the deduction to be drawn when it affirmed, “To do what appears as relatively best is an absolute’ duty before God, and to fail in this is to incur positive guilt.”6
Taken as a whole, the message of Jesus does not tell us to choose the lesser of two evils. It does tell us, with a realistic awareness of the range of these evils, to choose the greater good. This is more than a verbal difference, for the one takes the world’s evil as its base line, the other takes God’s goodness as it has been made manifest in Jesus. The greater good is that course of action which, in a given circumstance, is relatively the fullest embodiment of faith and love with God at the center in the act of decision.
Circumstances change, and with them courses of action. God does not change, nor the type of obedient, faith-filled love which Jesus embodied and proclaimed. He does not, therefore, leave us unguided at the point of the concrete decisions of life. How his principles give guidance among the relativities of our present world will be the main theme of the second half of this book.
1. Matt. 23:14, familiar from the King James Version, is placed in a footnote in the
2. The Kittel Worterbuch article on agape by Gottfried Quell and Ethelbert Stauffer in Bible Key Words, tr. and ed. J. R. Coates (New York: Harper & Bros., 1951), p. 28.
3. Fosdick, op. cit., p. 76. Used by permission of Harper & Bros. The biblical references cited are Luke 10:30-37; 18:2-6; 19:2-10; 16:19-31; Matt. 25:42-43.
4. See his Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1936) for an elaboration of this view; also Bright, op. cit., ch. vii, for a modified form of it.
5. Ibid., pp. 97-101.
6. The Oxford Conference (Official Report), Section V, 7.