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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.

+ + +

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.+