Part 2: He Was Remembered – Chapter 3

Jesus Lord and Christ
by John Knox (current)

Part 2: He Was Remembered – Chapter 3

The most striking feature of the ethical teaching of Jesus is the uncompromising nature of its demands. It is preoccupied with the absolutely good and spends little time with the better or the worse. Jesus had no time for dividing inheritances between brothers; he quickly disposes of a question about the propriety of paying taxes to Caesar; he has no interest in moral casuistry. His mind is fixed on the ultimate righteousness, and this he declares with matchless simplicity, serenity, majesty and grace.

This preoccupation of Jesus’ ethical teaching with the absolutely good presents the interpreter with one of his most perplexing problems. The elements of the problem are two, both implicit in what has just been said. On the one hand, there is the difficulty posed by the extremeness, strenuousness, absoluteness of Jesus’ interpretation of God’s demands. Here such questions arise as: In what sense did Jesus intend such a saying as, "Give to him that asketh thee and from him that would borrow from thee turn not thou away" ? Did he mean that God actually demands so much of us, or did he mean only that God asks a reasonable regard for others, the extreme form of the statement being merely rhetorical? If he really meant what he said (and one is almost certain to decide that he did), was his meaning determined and limited by his expectation of the imminent end of history, about which we were thinking in the preceding lecture?

The other element in the problem consists in the apparent silence of Jesus on particular concrete questions of conduct and on the issue of what is better and what is worse in situations where, given human finitude and sin and a fallen, distorted world, perfect action is not possible. And here again the question is bound to be asked whether this silence is related to his eschatological expectations.

These two difficulties belong together as parts of one problem, but the distinction between them is valid and, for certain purposes (as, I believe, will shortly appear), valuable. One difficulty grows out of the presence of something in Jesus’ teaching, namely, a certain strenuous and uncompromising quality; the other difficulty grows out of the lack of something, namely, light on what particular choices should be made between available alternatives in many concrete situations. In one respect, the teachings say too much; in the other, they say too little. On the one side we read, "Sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven"; on the other, "Who made me a judge or divider over you?"

To be sure, there are scholars who would take issue with this statement about Jesus’ silence and would claim that his ethical teaching was intended primarily to apply to the political situation in which his people found themselves as vassals of Rome and that he was seeking to point a way out of the disastrous impasse of war toward which he saw his country heading.(This claim is advanced, for example, by V. G. Simkhovitch, Toward the Understanding of Jesus [New York: Macmillan Co., 1921] and by C. J. Cadoux, The Historic Mission of Jesus (London, 1941; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943). The absence, however, of any explicit reference to politics in Jesus’ recorded teaching, although not decisive,(It may be argued that any such references would tend to drop out during the process of transmission, which took place, in its final, decisive stages, in a non-Palestinian environment, far removed from Jesus’ own political problems.) nevertheless creates a strong presumption against such an interpretation of his words. That he was aware of and sensitive to the political situation goes without saying; that he was on the whole silent about any particular technique for solving it seems likely. But how could he have been silent about a matter of such immense practical importance and of such deep ethical significance? Here is another instance of the second element in the problem we are considering.

The term "interim ethic" has been used in our brief discussion of Schweitzer’s view of Jesus’ thinking about the kingdom; it designates one important way of solving this problem. Those who take this way account for the extreme form in which Jesus’ demands are stated and also for his silences by insisting that, dominated as he was by the expectation of the imminent catastrophe, his ethical teaching is concerned only with the short moment of historical existence which lay before that event. Not only did the times call for a kind of desperate righteousness, but such righteousness could appear feasible in such times -- times so great and so short. Likewise, Jesus did not concern himself with questions of casuistry or of political strategy because such questions would so soon be utterly irrelevant. This world was passing away and its economic, social and political structures and habits were passing with it. In such a moment concern for all such things seemed trivial.

What are we to say about this interpretation of Jesus’ ethical teaching? That it offers a plausible explanation of the two features of the teaching is obvious; and yet it falls short of being altogether convincing, chiefly because the manner of much of Jesus’ most characteristic teaching is at the opposite pole from what one would expect to be the manner of a prophet giving a kind of desperate counsel for a moment of crisis. Words of Jesus which sound as though they had been uttered in such a mood can be found in the Gospels; but much of his ethical teaching is marked by the poise and serenity which suggest the sage and the long view rather than the prophet of an approaching crisis. Here is the issue between Schweitzer and Windisch (See H. Windisch. Der Sinn der Bergpredigt, Ein Beitreg zum Problem der richtigen Exegese (Leipzig, 1929). Amos Wilder, in his Eschatology and Ethics in the Teaching of Jesus [New York: Harper & Brothers. 1939], makes an interesting and significant attempt to work out a synthesis.) -- and many others on both sides.

To this question of whether the ethic of Jesus was eschatologically conditioned" I should say that no simple, yes or no" answer can be given. Here, I suggest, appears the value of the distinction we have made between the positive and negative elements in the problem of Jesus’ ethical teaching. If one is thinking about the negative element only -- that is, about the silence of Jesus concerning particular questions of political organization and strategy or of moral casuistry -- his belief in the early end of history may well be urged as the explanation. He is able to disregard many questions which must have appeared to his contemporaries as being of the utmost practical importance (as indeed they do to us also), because, as Jesus saw them, they belonged only to the brief interim before the kingdom should come.( I should be inclined to say that his silence about whether, and how, evil ought directly to be dealt with can be so explained. I have tried to state my views on this matter on pp. 38 ff. of a volume I had the honor of editing several years ago. Religion and the Present Crisis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), and in an article in Christianity and Crisis (March 8, 1943). It seems to me that in discussions of ethics an important distinction needs to be made between the creation of good and the restraint or destruction of evil. Now there can be no question that Jesus was supremely interested in the growth of good. God is thought of primarily as the Creator of good, and man’s duty and destiny are seen as fulfilled in cooperation with God in his work of love. Jesus’ ethical teaching is ideally adapted to this growth of good. Indeed, the only way to make good grow is Jesus’ way. Meekness, nonaggressiveness, complete forgetfulness of self -- this is the spirit in which alone the organic operation of creating good can be carried on. Rational critics of Jesus’ ethical teaching should recognize this: the end of ultimate importance is the creation of good and Jesus’ ethic is perfectly adapted to that end. It does not follow, however, from Jesus’ virtual silence about any human responsibility for the restraint of evil, that he believed this result would be attained as a kind of by-product of the growth of good. He undoubtedly believed that evil would have to be destroyed by direct means. God would use these means -- soon and with catastrophic results. His expectation of this act of God may well account for his not dealing with this part of the ethical problem.) In this view, the " interim" idea is useful not in interpreting what Jesus said but in explaining why he did not say more.

As to what he did say -- that is, as to his positive teaching about the will of God -- it seems likely that although it was related closely to his thinking about the coming kingdom, it was not in the usual sense eschatologically conditioned; indeed, quite the contrary. Jesus’ ethic was a universal, not an "interim," ethic. Far from belonging to the moment, it belonged to eternity. Jesus is concerned with the absolute, pure will of God without compromise in view of the conditions of human life and without concessions to human finitude and sin.(I have found helpful Dibelius’ statement on pp. 47 ff. of The Sermon on the Mount [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940]). The meaning of perfect goodness, it is safe to say, will never be seen more clearly or described more adequately than he saw and described it. The supreme greatness of Jesus as an ethical teacher does not lie in his skill as a casuist -- that was a role he did not essay -- but in his vision of the perfect will of God and in the clarity with which he saw that man in every moment of his existence is amenable to no standard short of that perfect will.

We often misunderstand Jesus because we are constantly doing our best to avoid recognition of this fact. The righteousness of God is so far beyond our capacity to achieve that in our pride we seek to forget it. We try to deceive ourselves into thinking that we owe no more than we can pay. God’s righteousness requires that we deny ourselves; that we commit ourselves unreservedly, passionately, joyously to the good of others; that we be utterly true, simple, charitable and pure, not only in deed and word but also in the secret thoughts of our hearts. But finding that we are unable or unwilling to pay the price of such righteousness, we set up standards of our own. Instead of an impossible self-denial we set up a practicable self-restraint; instead of active self-sacrificial good will we set up a reasonable disinterestedness and are content if we hold self-love or national or class self-interest within moderate bounds; instead of an impossible purity, charity, and honesty of heart we set up a decent morality. And finding such standards practicable, we try to persuade ourselves that they represent not only all that we need to ask of ourselves or that others have a right to ask of us, but also all that God demands of us.

But as we listen to the ethical teachings of Jesus, all such pretenses are swept away. We sense the height, the depth and the breadth of the moral obligation under which we stand. We know we are judged not by the soft and easy standards we impose upon ourselves or the conventions of society impose on us, but by God’s standards. The righteousness of God, which is ordinarily so hidden from us by our fears of others, our concern with trivialities, our rationalizations of our selfishness, that we think of it, if at all, as remote from us -- this righteousness is revealed as bearing with its full and awful weight upon our lives with every breath we draw. With this perfect will Jesus confronted his own generation and has confronted inescapably every generation since.

Jesus as an ethical teacher belongs to all the generations just because he did not, in a sense, belong to his own. That is, the knowledge that he stood at or just before the final crisis of history allowed for a preoccupation with the absolute righteousness more complete and intensive than in ordinary circumstances might, humanly speaking, have been possible. If this is true, instead of blaming eschatology for the " impracticableness" of Jesus’ ethical teaching, we should thank eschatology for that teaching’s majesty and permanent relevance. Jesus’ ethic was not an interim ethic -- it was an absolute, universal ethic -- but his clear vision of it was perhaps not unrelated to his expectation of the imminent coming of the kingdom. The vertical line relating man to the eternal order could be more clearly seen because the temporal horizontal line had become relatively so unimportant.

This vertical line is always there. Man always stands in this relation to the eternal and under the absolute obligation of love; but with history approaching its end, the absolute character of this moral obligation could appear extraordinarily stark and ominous. Jesus saw it with his whole mind and confronted his generation with its unreadiness for the coming crisis: "The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel."

The word "repent" is of the greatest importance in this passage and throughout Jesus’ remembered teaching, for it is the answer to the inevitable question of one who is made aware of the height and depth of God’s moral demands: "Who then can be saved?"

Paul, later, makes much of the distinction between "law" and "grace." Apparently he thought of these two terms as standing for two independent systems (so to speak) of salvation -- "salvation" meaning reconciliation, restoration of fellowship with God. The apostle insists that if one is in the law system -- that is, if one is relying upon obedience to God’s commands for one’s salvation -- one’s obedience must be complete. On the other hand, if one is relying upon God’s forgiveness, or grace, no degree of mere obedience as such is required, only penitence and faith. Paul is convinced that the first alternative, salvation through perfect obedience, is purely hypothetical: no man can fulfill the requirement. He believes that in Christ, God opens to men the opportunity of fellowship with himself on other terms -- terms which sinful, finite men can fulfill.

Now why does Paul, and the early church generally, associate with Jesus this opportunity of fellowship with God on the basis of penitence and faith? Why do they think of it as a new covenant which Christ has instituted? The answer must undoubtedly be that Jesus himself had brought home to the hearts of those who really heard his words that God stood ready to receive not simply the righteous -- there was none righteous -- but the penitent, those who acknowledged the absolute righteousness of God, felt the awful force of its demands upon them, realized how far short they fell of it, and with humble and contrite hearts sought his forgiveness and help. This was not a new idea in Israel; but Jesus saw so clearly its radical implications, gave himself to it so utterly, embodied it so movingly in his life and expressed it with such power and beauty in his words, that a new thing had happened in Israel. Jesus did not bring a new idea; rather, in him an old idea ceased being an idea at all and became a living reality. As he talked about the love of God, the love of God itself drew near.

It is possible to exaggerate the antinomy of grace and law, of penitence and obedience. This is true not only because penitence is possible only if one acknowledges the law and desires nothing so much as to fulfill it, but also because penitence inevitably issues in a renewed commitment to doing the will of God. Those whom Paul quotes (or imagines) as asking, "Shall we then sin that grace may abound?" showed that they did not know the meaning of grace -- because they so obviously did not know the meaning of repentance. For penitence is a turning away from sin; and only the penitent can know the grace of forgiveness.

The ethical life which Jesus exalts in many of his most characteristic teachings is the ethical life of the penitent: the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, those who seek mercy, the childlike, the humble. God asks perfect obedience -- how can he ask less if he loves us? -- but his love for us and the possibility of our entering into the enjoyment of his love do not depend upon our giving that measure of obedience. They depend only upon our submission to his will, our recognition of our moral need, and our trust in his forgiveness and help.

The righteousness which God requires of those who do not rely upon their righteousness is the righteousness of a contrite heart. Of those who do rely upon their righteousness God asks a righteousness far beyond their ability to achieve. "Those who are under the law are debtors to the whole law," Paul says on one occasion; and on another, "You are not under law, but under grace." These are Paul’s words, and we cannot easily imagine them on Jesus’ lips; but they say only what Jesus was remembered to have said over and over again in clearer, more concrete and more moving terms. For what else is the meaning of Jesus’ constant use of the analogy of the family to set forth the realities of God’s relation with us and of ours with him and with one another? A father’s acceptance of his children does not depend upon the perfection of their obedience, but only upon their willingness to be filial. The Prodigal Son, who knows he is hardly worthy to be a slave in his father’s house, can in virtue of that very fact be admitted to a more intimate and secure place in the family than his elder brother, who knows so little about what the obligations of the family are that he can imagine he has perfectly discharged a son’s responsibilities and who knows so little about what the rewards of the family are that he can think of them as consisting in the privilege of eating a fatted calf!

Only by repentance, Jesus says, can one be ready for the kingdom, which is now coming with power. Only to those of humble and contrite heart can the rule of God in any sense belong.

We have already ceased dealing merely with the words of Jesus; and it is important to recognize that it was Jesus himself upon whom the church was based, not his words as such. His words might have been forgotten; but he would have been remembered. Indeed, there are those who hold that his words were forgotten; but, even if so, he was remembered. If he was not remembered to have spoken such words as are contained in the Sermon on the Mount, he was remembered to have been such a person as might have spoken them. If he was not remembered to have done any of the acts he is said to have performed, he was remembered to have been such a person as might have done them. If we could not trust any of the sayings or any of the deeds, we could still trust the impression of the sayer and the doer, which the Gospels convey. However much of what he did and said was forgotten, or half-forgotten, he was remembered by those who had been his disciples and associates and became the first Christian community.

He was remembered: but what was he remembered as being? One might attempt here some description of Jesus. But if the words of Jesus suffer in any paraphrase, the character of Jesus suffers even more in any description. It is noteworthy that although the New Testament is about Jesus, there is nowhere in it any description of him. The Gospels undertake only to tell us what he said and did, and we form our own impressions. His disciples remembered many things about him -- we have been discussing through these three lectures what some of these things were -- but the most important thing, so far as the beginnings of the church are concerned, was that they remembered him -- remembered him in just the concrete, quite indescribable way we always remember persons we have known and loved.

I hope I may be forgiven a very personal illustration. The most vivid memory I have of a person, known long and well but long since, is of my father, a good minister of Jesus Christ, who died twenty years ago, almost to the day, as I write these words. He was a good father as well as a good minister, and my obligation to him is far beyond any possible calculation. But if I were asked to describe an incident in which my father took a significant part, I should have trouble recalling even one, and I am sure I could not in any case describe it fully or accurately. And although I listened to him speak, privately and publicly, on hundreds of occasions -- and he had much that was original and important to say -- I do not believe I could quote a single phrase from his lips or put into definite form a single idea I remember from him. And yet I remember him as though he were a part of myself -- as indeed he is -- and sometimes wake from sleep as though I had just heard his voice, or felt his hand, or seen him look at me.

So Jesus was remembered. We can be grateful that his disciples remembered as many words and incidents as they did. But we can be sure that they remembered him more vividly and more truly than any fact about him or anything he said. And it was that memory of Jesus himself upon which the Christian community, with all its life and faith, was in the first instance based. It was not primarily in his words or acts as such, but in himself, that the ineffable love of God made itself known as a living, potent and present reality.

It is not strange that this concrete meaning of Jesus for his disciples was forever and indissolubly associated in their minds with the terrible and tender events with which his life ended: the final meal dark with the forebodings of disaster, the hours in Gethsemane, the arrest, the brutal handling and the unjust trial, the unspeakable anguish, the long waiting for death, the final release. The whole meaning of Jesus for them came here to sharp and awful focus. Thenceforth to remember Jesus was to remember his cross; just as, later, to interpret Jesus was to interpret his cross. The cross became the central symbol of the church’s faith only because it had first been the actual center around which the whole remembered meaning of the life of Jesus had been gathered.