The Ethics of Jesus

A crash course in the history of ethics, and where Jesus fits into it all...

Proper 16c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath... if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.

The news reports daily inform us of unethical behavior by people who are supposed to be the pillars of society. We hear of judges taking bribes, police abusing or even murdering unarmed citizens, politicians engaged in “sexcapades,” and perhaps worst of all, coverups of clergy sexual misconduct. Sometimes we will hear of an attorney or a politician or a doctor called before a professional ethics board. So what are these “ethics” that people keep talking about — and violating.

Well, ethics is a system of morality — for deciding what is right or wrong. And it should come as no surprise that there are a number of different ethical systems, just as there are many different philosophies and religions. Some ethics are intertwined with specific religions or philosophies, but many of them have impact well beyond the faithful or the philosophers. I’d like to explore a few of these systems, in order better to understand where Jesus and his teaching on ethics fit into this big picture of morality: how do we know if something is good or evil.

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One ethical approach is to take a look at the results of an action, and to decide whether the action was good or bad based on the results, in particular in terms of utility or usefulness: is the result productive or destructive. This is likely the common-sense way that most people think about good and bad. The proof is in the pudding. Of course, it raises two questions: first, results are not always what we intend them to be. We might well be able to say that the results of an action are good or bad, but that will not really tell us whether the person who did those things intended them to be good or bad, and surely the morality must lie in the person. What if there was no intention at all? What about, for instance, an accident? This is precisely how the law courts distinguish between manslaughter and murder — the lethal result is the same, but we don’t judge manslaughter as seriously as we do murder, because the person who did the action didn’t intend it, and is judged less harshly.

The second question raised by a results-oriented ethic goes a bit deeper. How do you measure, apart from gut feelings, if the result of an action is good or evil? A number of philosophers, from Epicurus of ancient Greece on up through Jeremy Bentham of Georgian England, came up with a reasonable way to measure good and evil, based on the amount of happiness or pleasure. This forms part of the many a political or economic system: I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” in terms of well-being or happiness. And any people find this notion easy to understand, and it is very popular. I think if you were to scratch the surface of most people’s thinking, you will find this underlying it: what is best for most is best. The downside, however, is the way in which it becomes too easy to trade off the happiness of the many for the sufferings of the few, or the one. It is a favorite puzzle of ethicists to ask such a question as, “If you could stop a train from going over a cliff and killing 100 people on board by pushing one man in front of the train to stop it, would it be moral to do so?” I know if you were to ask that question, you would see some hands go up, and say, yes! Others would say, no. This ultimately is the ethical question to which Caiaphas answered Yes, he explicitly chose the death of Christ because it was expedient that one should suffer instead of many. So in spite of its common-sense attractiveness this utility ethics falls a bit short of providing trustworthy guidance, and might lead you to do something very bad indeed.

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A number of the philosophers of the centuries before the birth of Christ made a similar judgment on using utility as a benchmark. Among the most important of them all was Aristotle, who in later years simply came to be referred to as “The Philosopher.” He was an exponent of what is called virtue ethics. In this system you incorporate the notion of happiness, of well-being, but combine it with the character of the person who is acting, cultivating personal virtue, and righteousness, and uprightness, and most important of all, moderation. as the best guide to doing good.

That too sounds logical, but in a way it is a kind of circular reasoning: good actions are what good people do, much as art is what artists do. But isn’t there bad art? And while it is true that a good tree brings forth good fruit — isn’t it the goodness of the fruit that tells us that the tree is good, and not the other way around? Moreover, relying on such a way of thinking, relying on ones own sense of virtue, that we are good in ourselves, can blind us to our failings. A recent study found that people who reported themselves as the most generous, and could prove it on the basis of what they gave to the church or to charity, were also the ones who were most likely to cheat on other matters; and it is also a sad truth that in spite of their zeal to “defend marriage,” the divorce rate is actually highest among Evangelicals. People who think of themselves as good in their own eyes seem to feel entitled to a “pass” to do the occasional bad thing; much as someone who has stuck to their diet feel they “owe it to themselves” to binge with a quart of ice cream — and so undo any good their diet might have done.

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Dissatisfaction with these forms of ethics led to yet another philosophical answer: the ethics of duty. This is the ethics of law. If you want to know what is right or wrong, look at the law-code and it will tell you — simple as that. This form of ethics is popular precisely because it appears to give clear guidance. It is the ethical form of the Law of Moses, which spells out what is good or bad in black and white, in words ultimately attributed to God’s own hand and voice at Mount Sinai, written on stone and spoken in a voice that terrified its hearers, so that they begged not another word be spoken.

The problem with this approach — as we see in the Gospel — lies in the fact that rules have to be applied to real life, and interpreted and understood. The words spoken by God on Mount Sinai had to be put into practice. Isaiah provides us with a reminder of one of the most important laws: keeping the sabbath holy. Most importantly, no work is to be done on the sabbath, so it became necessary to define — well — “what do you mean by work?” and then to apply those definitions to changing circumstances and technologies. For example, Exodus (35:3) specifies that kindling a fire is a form of work and not to be performed on the sabbath: no lighting of fires. With the advent of electricity — electric stoves and lights — this law came to be applied in modern settings, and observant Orthodox Jews will not turn on a light switch or a stove once the sabbath has begun. If you’ve ever visited an Orthodox Jewish hospital — like the other Mount Sinai right here in New York! — you will have encountered the phenomenon known as the “sabbath elevator” — an elevator that stops on every floor, and the doors open and close on every floor, so no one has to push any buttons, thereby “lighting a fire.”

This is one of the problems with duty ethics — rules provoke even more rules, and very clever ways around them. And although Jesus, as a Jew, respected the spirit of obedience and duty, he also had a bone to pick with those who were more caught up in the letter than the spirit of the law.

And so he advocated, as we see in the gospel passage today, an ethic based on love — and love not just as an emotion but as an action. We know that he taught — from the law — that you should love your neighbor as yourself. But in today’s passage he brings the point home — literally home — even more keenly by saying, essentially, “Forget the neighbor! You should treat this woman at least as well as you would treat your own livestock!” No wonder he is angry, and those who tried to send that poor, sick woman away are ashamed!

Jesus rejects any ethic based on selfishness, pleasure, expediency, usefulness, or a mere list of regulations. He would never think of throwing one person under a train in order to save others from going over a bridge; but he would — and he did — throw himself under the headlong rush of all of our sins, giving his own life so that we might not perish, but have everlasting life.

Ultimately any ethical system must stand the test that Jesus set in the Golden Rule: to do as you would be done by — not just not doing things to other people that you would not want done to yourself. But actively doing for others what you would want done for you. That is whey he said that there is no greater love than to give your life for the life of someone else — to throw yourself down on that hand grenade, killing yourself in the process, but saving all of those around you. There is no greater love than to give yourself for the sake of others, because that is what anyone would want done for them, isn’t it? Don’t we all want to be saved? And aren’t we glad that someone has saved us!

It is one thing to say, do not cheat, do not steal, do not covet; it is quite another, as Isaiah says, to remove the yoke of suffering from those who suffer, to offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. If we do this, the light indeed will rise in the darkness, and the goodness of God will shine like the noonday, in the never-ending sabbath rest where all is good and all is peace, and all are freed from bondage.+

Light and Shadow

In spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t: a sermon for Advent 3c

Advent 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
With many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people.

Our gospel passage this morning ends with the assurance that John the Baptist proclaimed “good news” to the people. In light of recent events, we sure could all use some good news. I have to say I am heart-broken, right now, as I know many are, at the terrible tragedy that took place last week in Connecticut. But our other Scripture readings sound like good news, no doubt about it. The prophet Zephaniah urges daughter Zion and Israel to shout out and rejoice, and to make thanksgiving for the redemption of the Lord and God who is coming to rescue and restore that kingdom and that hope. God will restore their fortunes, the prophet promises; God will give them the victory of a triumphant warrior; God will rejoice over them with gladness and renew them in love, exulting over them with loud singing as on a day of festival. Fling out the banners and light the fireworks; strike up the brass band and start the parade!

Those sentiments are echoed in the First Song of Isaiah that we used as our psalmody this morning — words full of assurance that God the Savior is at work and that God’s work is trustworthy and solid. If there were a theological “Angie’s List,” this would let us know that God gets an A-triple-plus rating — God is someone you can count on.

Saint Paul continues the celebration in his Letter to the Philippians, beginning with that word that gives this Sunday its name, “Rejoice Sunday,” or as it is known in Latin, Gaudete. What we heard as our second lesson today would have been the first words you heard on this Sunday in the Western church right on up into modern times: not only an assurance of reasons to rejoice, but a command to rejoice. We follow that tradition by using these rose-colored vestments on this day — lightening up from the somber purple of the Advent season to a brighter and more cheerful hue.

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By this time these warm-up acts have got us ready for a celebration in the gospel. But what are the first words we hear from John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It seems the parade has come to a screeching halt. As if a gunman has broken into a classroom and opened fire. As if the pink of the vestments were not a celebration of life but about breast cancer awareness, awareness of that terrible disease that strikes so many; it’s as if someone in the brass band has hit a very sour note, or even worse, that a sniper has opened fire on the band, and all of the instruments have fallen silent. The towering figure of John the Baptist points with his gnarled hand at the crowds who have come out to hear him preach — like the ghost of Christmas yet to come. And if the crowd wanted something other than fire and brimstone, they are in for a surprise, for he calls them, a “brood of vipers.” And yet the Gospel goes on to say he encouraged the people with such good news. I don’t know about you, but being called a viper is not the best news I’d like to hear.

So let us look more closely at what follows that initial stern rebuke. There is good news, thank goodness. For after this powerful condemnation and threats of axes and fruitless trees being chopped down and thrown into the fire, when it gets down to brass tacks and the fate of the crowd — no doubt shivering in their sandals by that point at the prospect of what is about to be demanded of them — when the terrified crowd gets up the courage to ask what they can do to be saved, what does John tell them?

“Whoever has two coats must share with whoever has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. You tax collectors just collect the tax, and you soldiers don’t blackmail or abuse people!”

Well, if you had been there then, wouldn’t you breathe a sigh of relief at those words? After his verbal introduction and assault, John does not ask the people to do anything at all extraordinary — he doesn’t ask them to live like him out in the wilderness dressed like one of the prophets of old with a hairy mantle and a leather belt, living off locusts and wild honey. He tells them to go home and get back to work and do their jobs and live lives of honesty and fairness.

And this is really where the good news comes in — for certainly it is good news, as Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul assure us: that salvation is not something we have to do on our own for ourselves, but something that is done for us by one who is mighty to save. For surely, as Isaiah says, it is God who saves us, and we can trust in him and not be afraid.

And on top of that, John the Baptist, after that initial stern language, gives us the good news that what is asked of us is not impossible — but is really only fair and just and right: to share our resources with those who do not have — our clothing with the naked and our food with the hungry — and to do the work we have to do with honesty and without taking advantage of or abusing anyone else.

And that, my friends, is the good news — that we have been saved by God, and that what God asks of us is to love God and our neighbor.

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And wouldn’t it be lovely if people actually did. If it’s really that simple, why did the prophets have to keep proclaiming it? Why did John the Baptist have to shout at the people and greet them as a brood of vipers? Why did he have to warn them of the coming destruction and the fruitless trees and the great bonfire at the end of time, the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire that will burn up all the worthless chaff and deadwood of unproductive lives?

You know why — because in spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t. Even without the awful example of last week’s shooting, ringing in our ears, impossible to avoid as you turn on any television station at all, we know that people do not do as they ought to do. In spite of the fact that everything works so much better when everyone follows the simple rules of courtesy and fairness and generosity — just common sense — people still try to take advantage — just watch the exit ramp on any crowded highway: someone will have to create a lane of his or her own, or find a creative way to nose in at the head of the line causing everyone else to be slower. In spite of the calls for spare coats to be dropped off at the library or police station for distribution to the poor and cold, the dawning day of the Lord’s Day will find plenty of closets full of clothing that people haven’t worn in years. To my own shame I realized as I wrote these very words that there was more in my closet at home than really needed to be there; and I took that unworn second coat up to the library on Eames Place and dropped it off; how about you?

If nothing else, let this reading today be a reminder to us — to all of us — of a simple command: to check that closet when you get home and find the coat you no longer wear and bring it to the library or the precinct so it can be given to someone who will actually wear it.

We are not asked to do the impossible, my friends. We are asked to do something so easy it would be a crying shame for us to fail to do so. It would be a shame to end up crying in shame when the ax is laid to the root of the trees and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. That’s good news, if we are prepared to hear it, and hearing it, act upon it. God gives us the warning; may he give us the strength to do as he commands.+

The Options Market

So many choices, with so much at stake. What does it profit to gain the whole world at the loss of your life? — A sermon for Palm Sunday 2011

SJF • Palm Sunday 2011 • Tobias S Haller BSG
From my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.

It has been said that our lives are constituted based on the choices we make. At every point of our lives we are faced with options and choices, alternatives to go one way or the other — and the choices we make determine the shape of our lives, sometimes in dramatic ways, and sometimes more subtly.

This truth is laid out plainly for us to see in Matthew’s account of the Passion. We see the choices that people make all along the way, choices to act or refrain from action, and choices to act in one way or another. So many options for so many lives! And how each of these choices shape the reality of each one’s world — and our world!

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Think of the terrible choice that Judas makes: the choice of betrayal, the choice to accept a handful of silver to betray a man to death, in whose company he could have found eternal life. Instead, he chooses the path of delivering his master and teacher to death, and when stricken with remorse, he chooses death for himself.

Then look at Peter, the unsteady man who totters between heroism and cowardice, pulling out a sword at one point to defend his Lord, and then cowering in the shadows at another, denying that he even knows him. He chooses to deny Jesus, and only the rooster’s crow recalls him to himself, and rebukes him for his choice.

Then there’s the high priest, Caiaphas. Matthew doesn’t supply us with a window into why he acts as he does; for that we have to depend on John’s Gospel, which we will hear on Good Friday. Caiaphas is a practical man — who follows what would later be called the ethics of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” So, John tells us, he advises that, given the danger Jesus creates in the fragile political climate of Jerusalem, it is expedient that one man should suffer instead of many. In making this choice, Caiaphas is going against the teaching of the greatest rabbi in Judaism, Rabbi Hillel. who ended his ministry during Jesus’ childhood. In a powerful statement on the value of human life, Rabbi Hillel had said that to save a single human life is to save an entire world. Caiaphas on the other hand, weighs human life in the shopkeeper’s scale, life against life, and figures the trade-off is reasonable: one life sacrificed to avoid the possible loss of others. And by that choice he sets in course all that follows.

Then we have Pilate, another politician, a man who also weighs his choices carefully. It is easy to sympathize with Pilate — so much is pulling him one way and another — even his wife chimes in to warn him off. And so Pilate makes the interesting choice not to choose. Like many a politician before and since, rather than take a position — he takes a poll. Pilate is one of those leaders who leads from behind, safely insulated from having to take responsibility should things not work out, sheltered from the consequences of his inaction, able to wash his hands of the whole matter — a perfect biblical example of “plausible deniability.”

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All of these choices, all of these lives, swirling in the mix of options and opportunities! And step by step, each one of them choice by choice, each life hardens into reality as each choice is made, all the fuzzy options fading away as each choice becomes concrete, and the path is taken. And amidst this cloud of options, the most important choice, the one that is the eye of the storm around which all of these other possibilities swirl, is the one that Jesus makes, and he keeps right on making it through to the end.

It begins in the garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus appeals to his Father for another option — another way for salvation to be accomplished without his having to drink the cup of suffering set before him. Matthew portrays this scene with only one side of the conversation: it is as if we were witnessing a telephone call — we hear what Jesus says, but not the response.

Is God truly silent? Is this the beginning of the terrible silence of God that will lead Jesus to cry out from the cross those words of agony: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We do not know. What we do know is that Jesus has a choice, there in the garden, and throughout the rest of the suffering that would follow. There in the garden it is perhaps clearest: even though Judas and the guards are on their way, it is still not too late for Jesus to escape, to leave the city and head on back to the safety of Bethany, to flee to far-off Galilee. But he doesn’t.

That same choice is available to Jesus right on up to the end. When they bring him before Caiaphas, he could choose to deny himself and his mission as God’s holy one, the Messiah. But he doesn’t. When brought before Pilate, he could play on Pilate’s weakness, and work out a deal. But he doesn’t. Even when they nail him to the cross, he could indeed — as the taunters say — choose to come down now from the cross. But he doesn’t.

For he knows at any one of these steps that for him to do so would be to disobey his heavenly Father, to deny the very purpose for which he was born. To choose not to die on the cross — that is the most tempting option, but it is one that he refuses.

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In his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, author Nikos Kazantzakis explores what it might have been like if Jesus had given in to this last temptation, this option to refuse God’s will: to be a disobedient son and cast it all aside; to refuse the cup of suffering. In a flash, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus envisions what it would mean to come down from the cross. He sees himself return to Galilee as an ordinary man, to get married, to run his carpenter shop — and to leave the world unredeemed.

But he doesn’t. Jesus doesn’t do this, in the novel or the Gospel. He rejects that dreamlike fantasy of an untroubled, ordinary life; he doesn’t give in to that tempting choice, that seductive option to live instead of dying. He gives himself to death on the cross, knowing that in the options market of Calvary, all of the conniving deals and bartering in human souls are turned upside down. He lays down his life because he knows that this is the only investment that will bring a return — and what a return it will be! What had he said? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world at the cost of his life?” Jesus took that risk, as only he could do. His gift of himself, his one sacrifice of himself once offered, would bring redemption to the whole world. His act of obedience unto death, even death on the cross, will lead to his exaltation above all earthly things, and the sanctification of all things, in him.

This is the path the Son of God chose on our behalf, for our salvation. It meant pain and suffering and death for him — but life for us. At the cost of his life he gained the whole world.

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We are offered a similar choice each day of our lives: we too are offered the option to take up our cross day by day, and follow him? Or will we follow Judas’ choice to betray, Peter’s choice to deny, Caiaphas’ choice to victimize, or Pilate’s choice to abdicate?

Will we bend our knee at the name of Jesus, or bow to other earthly gods of wealth and comfort, or act like we don’t know who he is, or take advantage of our sisters and brothers, or act as if this all has nothing to do with us? Sisters and brothers, how we choose each day of our lives, how we play the stakes in this options market, will determine our fate for all eternity. As we sow, so shall we reap.

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You may remember that line from Charles’ Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” when Scrooge asks Marley’s ghost about the heavy chain that binds him. The unhappy ghost responds: “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link... I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas’s ago, and you have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain!”

Such are the choices we make, my friends, day by day: the things we do and refuse to do — “things done and left undone.” The life and death of our Savior is set before us to show us how to free ourselves from the ponderous chain of self-interest that binds us to betrayal, and victimization, fear, and evasion of responsibility.

God is calling us to follow him, my sisters and brothers, and he will give us the strength to do so. So let us choose then, and choose wisely, to follow him, through whom alone we find the way to eternal life.+