in red = Mark .. in blue
.. in green = Special Matthew ..
in fuchsia = Special Luke
Contents of Jesus
It is hardly a formal ethical system that we have in the teachings of Jesus
which have come down to us; we can however speak of his ethical
perspective, and its main themes, evident especially in the six
contrasts of the [so-called] Sermon on the [so-called] Mount.
Inwardness. Jesus sought to
internalize morality, as we have already
noted in the six contrasts. Indeed, the virtues set out in the
beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), as well as attitudes of serenity and
generosity of spirit (Matthew 6:19-34; 7:1-5), can be encouraged but
hardly imposed from without.
• Identifying the Sources of Our Actions. But in warning against anger and
hatred as well as murder, and against lust as well as adultery,
Jesus is in effect providing a perceptive analysis of the roots of
human behavior in our character and attitudes.
A Lofty Standard. Each
of the six contrasts raises the bar of moral obligation. It is
obviously more difficult to avoid hatred than murder, or lustful
thoughts than adultery; it is contrary to our inclinations to go the
second mile or love one’s enemy. The lawyer Clarence Darrow, well
known for his part in the Scopes trial, is supposed to have remarked
that he had never killed a man, but had sometimes read the obituary
column with great pleasure. The very loftiness of these teachings
has made them seem irrelevant or perfectionist, an impression not
dispelled by the imperative which concludes the six contrasts: “Be
perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew
A Non-Legalistic Approach Centered upon
Love (Agapê). There is no evidence
that Jesus bought into the elaborate rabbinical legal system of his day
(click on Torah
in Judaism). Casuistry is the name given to this process of applying
rules (sometimes called laws, or commandments) to particular cases, in the
process developing a system of case-law and precedents. Casuistry has no
place in his teaching.
This point may be made in different terms, by inquiring: Who could
write a rule prescribing right conduct in the case of a traveler who
encounters a man who has fallen among thieves? Whether or not it was
Luke who first connected the love commandment with the parable of the
Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the connection is a stroke of moral
genius. The only thing that can be prescribed is love (agapê), the compassionate
problem solving exhibited by the Samaritan.
The gospels report that Jesus did enter
into formal discussion with Jewish lawyers on points of law, and could use
a rabbinical style of argument to his advantage (Mark 7:1-13; 12:35-37);
but he did not accept the ultimacy of Torah. He does not hesitate to use
selectively certain teachings of the Jewish Law, but he seems equally free
to nullify others. This is true not only of the third to sixth contrasts
(Matthew 5:31-47) but also of dietary regulations (Mark 7:14-23). Thus he
assumes a superior position relative to the authority of Torah, and can
declare that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the
Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
More positively, apart from these observations about the
non-legalistic character of his teachings, the gospel tradition supports the view that Jesus gave pride of place to
the kind of love which means selfless concern for others (click on Love
(Agapê)). Agapê is presupposed, or explicit, in all
six of the contrasts:
|Warning against anger and hate
||Agapê, the antidote
|Warning against lustful thoughts
||Beyond erôs to agapê
|The permanence of marriage (equal respect of persons)
||Can agapê and erôs meet?
oaths: integrity, as assurance of the truth
||Agapê, a cure for the self interest, at the
root of mendacity?
through creative use of suffering
||Agapê, the motive for costly reconciliation,
instead of retaliation
|Agapê, the basis for seeking the enemy’s
[erôs = desire, romantic
|It should be evident
that casuistry would contribute little to the kind of attitudes being
encouraged in these six contrasts, whereas agapê is what is
Admittedly, it is no easy matter to make such attitude adjustments. Little
is said in these chapters about how to do so. Hints are dropped in the
beatitudes (poverty of spirit, meekness) and elsewhere: repentance (Mark
1:15; cp. Luke 13:1-5); and becoming childlike (Mark 10:15 || Luke 18:17;
cp. Matthew 18:3). An “attitude
lobotomy” would certainly be useful (the phrase is Thomas
Friedman’s), but it is easier said than done. In the gospel tradition,
it was deemed sufficient that Jesus had made loving God and neighbor a
command. At the same time, we need not overlook the extent to which the
personal influence and example of Jesus would be crucial motivating
The sympathy of Jesus with the Hebrew prophets is evident in a number of ways:
his spirituality, his universalism
(Matthew 5:13-16), and his intolerance of
religious formalism (Q: Matthew 23:23-26 || Luke
11:39-42), to mention a few. Yet there is little or nothing in his teaching that quite
matches an Amos, or Isaiah, or Micah, in their repudiation of social evils,
especially the oppression of the poor, and the demand for justice.
• Jesus had more to say about the problems of being rich, than the
problems of being poor (Luke 16:19-31); see Mark 10:17-22; Luke 12:13-21
(cp. Mark 4:19; Luke 6:24-25).
• His words about
giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:13-17
|| Matthew 22:15-22 || Luke 20:20-26) are not a statement about how religion
should interface with the political order; these words leave unanswered
the question of what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God.
• His eloquent
counseling of trust in God for food and clothing (Matthew 6:25-34
|| Luke 12:22-31) is surely not to be
mistaken for an economic program.
• Though the Jesus tradition provides little basis for
supposing that he was committed to social change, it is also true that the
tradition generally portrays him as anti-establishment (Mark 11:15-19;
12:38-40; Luke 13:31-34), a position which links him with the prophets
(Amos 7:10-17; Jeremiah 22:13-19).
• The one area where there might be some specific guidance on a
public policy question is the issue of capital punishment. Jesus did after
all nullify the lex talionis (Matthew 5:38-42), and thus removed
the argument often used by supporters of retributive justice. But there are still thorny issues to be
resolved: whether, for example, capital punishment contributes to social
utility, or whether it is an effective deterrent to crime.
Thus the gospel
tradition, for reasons we can only speculate about, has provided us with
relatively little guidance on social or economic problems. With the Roman occupation of Judea (from 63 B.C.E. onward)
was there little prospect of
anything changing in Jewish society? In view of the end-of-time teachings
in the gospel tradition, with a fore-shortened future, was there little
interest in social change? Or is social progress a more recent idea which
we should not try to read back into the biblical period?
|It is within this context that we acknowledge the
difficulties felt by
those who are serious about addressing questions of war and peace, on the basis
of contrasts five and six, earlier considered.
[Contrast #5] 38You
have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a
tooth.” 39But I say
to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the
right cheek, turn the other also; 40and
if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and
if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give
to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to
borrow from you.
[Contrast #6] 43You
have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate
your enemy.” 44But I
say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so
that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun
rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on
the unrighteous. 46For
if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the
tax collectors do the same? 47And
if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing
than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
The case for pacifism might seem to be self-evident: Jesus is
laying upon his followers the obligation to seek reconciliation, whatever
the cost, and to love their enemies. Surely one does not show love for
enemies by shooting them or bombing them. How could people who are seeking
to obey the teaching of Jesus possibly participate in war? Why are all
Christians not pacifists?
historical perspective is useful here: in the pre-Constantinian period,
down to about A.D. 315, virtually all Christians were pacifists; when
Christianity became the established religion of the Roman empire,
participation in war—at least, a just war—became acceptable or normal.
Without blunting the force of Jesus’ moral imperative, we need to
keep in mind other considerations in a quest for the peaceful
resolution of disputes.
• Jesus did not repeal the commandment to love
one’s neighbor; thus a moral dilemma exists in situations where love for
neighbor and for enemy are mutually exclusive. Regrettably, Jesus did not
deliver any casuistic guidelines for balancing the competing claims of love
for enemy and love for neighbor.
• Even if a case can be made for allied forces having used armed
force in the interests of the neighbor to check the spread of Nazi
despotism, it is enormously more difficult to ensure the interests of the
neighbor (and of ourselves) in an age when nuclear capability is being
acquired without the proper constraints, and terrorist campaigns can be
mounted by groups which are no easy target. Thus,
• There is relevance to altruistic and informed
policies and actions which would lead to campaigns of conflict resolution.
There are surely pragmatic as well as principled grounds for making
friends of enemies, or potential enemies.
September 27, 2003
Contents of Jesus
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