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The Ethics of Jesus

Come back with me to the first of all,

Let us lean and love it over again,

Let us now forget and now recall,

Break the rosary in a pearly rain,

And gather what we let fall.


Should we be threatened with doubts as to what Jesus meant, we must steep ourselves again and again in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. They contain His ethics and His religion, united at the root, and freed from all external and particularistic elements.—HARNACK.

It is generally agreed among those who hold that Christianity has failed that the failure has been on its ethical side. Nietzsche’s attack on the moral teaching of Jesus has not perverted the vast majority of men from the conviction that in that teaching there is offered to the world the highest moral ideal. We are impeached, not for presenting to men an inadequate ethical standard, but for not practicing what we preach. Indeed, it was Jesus Himself who first warned His disciples that orthodoxy without moral effort was valueless. It is no doubt true that our age needs the restatement of Christian doctrine, but it needs much more the reassertion of the ethical principles of Jesus. For the same process that buried the Law under a vast superstructure of glosses and interpretations, till the word of God was made of none effect by the traditions of men, has concealed the simple grandeur of the ethical teaching of Jesus under a complicated system of compromises and casuistry. Yet under the accumulated debris of centuries the foundations of the temple still remain; the original script is still faintly visible through the comment of the scribes. It is true of Christian ethics, as of Christian doctrine, that men have built on the foundation gold, silver, precious stones; wood, hay, stubble. And the crisis of human history through which we are passing is testing, as by fire, the superstructure that we have built.

It is too soon as yet to say how the war has affected the attitude of the world towards the moral claims of Christianity. The depreciation of the moral currency of which we are all conscious may be only a temporary ethical exhaustion following on the long strain; but, on the other hand, it may represent a more far-reaching repudiation of the ethical standards of Christianity, not as undesirable, but as impracticable.

Any attempt to reassert the moral teaching of Jesus is certain to involve two consequences. In the first place, we shall find that the real difficulty of our religion lies in its moral rather than in its doctrinal side. It is far easier, for most men, to believe all the articles of the Christian faith than to be meek and merciful and pure in heart. “If ye know these things,” Jesus told His disciples, “ye are blessed if ye do them.” And, in the second place, we shall find the moral claims of the Christian faith not less an offence than its dogmas. “The very last things that will attract is a Christianity with the supernatural left out and all the old moral ideals intact.”1 The opposition will probably come from a different quarter, but it will be more vigorous and unrelenting, for while doctrinal controversies seem to leave the practical affairs of life unaffected, the moral challenge of Jesus strikes at the heart of the social and economic life of men and demands of every man an answer to the question, Are you for the Kingdom of God or against it?

It is true that the ethics of Jesus have worked like leaven in human society, and have affected the conduct of men far beyond the confines of the Christian Church. The whole world has become Christianized to an extent that we sometimes fail to recognize, and in as far as this is true, the penalty that the follower of Jesus must pay has become less severe; but the kingdoms of the world are not yet the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ, and no one has a right to expect that an attempt to live out the Christian ideal will bring comfort and prosperity. Unpopularity is not necessarily an evidence of goodness, yet we still need the warning, “Woe unto you when all men speak well of you.”

There are two lines of thought that have tended, in our own time, to make the ethical teaching of Jesus of none effect. The first of these is the tendency to “spiritualize” His teaching till it almost seems as though He did not mean what He said. Because His commands are difficult to obey, we are asked to assume that His language is figurative and metaphorical, and his moral ideal an exotic flower that must be sheltered from the rough winds of actuality.

The attention recently directed to the eschatological aspects of His teaching has brought with it another danger. Jesus, we are told, regarded the end of the age as close at hand. His ethical system was suited to the “little while” that was to intervene before the final catastrophe; it cannot be applied to a condition of society wholly unlike that which He contemplated. What amount of truth is there in this view? Jesus Himself told His disciples that as Son of Man He did not know when the end would be—that they were to live as men who wait for their Lord, at midnight, or at cock-crowing or in the morning. But however long the end might be delayed, for every individual life the time was short. His teaching was not an interimsethik in a permanent world, but an appeal to permanent ethical standards in a world that, for every individual, was passing away.

One more preliminary question needs to be considered. The conditions of the society in which Jesus lived and taught were far simpler than those of our own time. The complications of modern commerce, the social problems involved in the growth of great industrial communities, the moral issues involved in international relationships, make the application of the ethical teaching of Jesus extraordinarily difficult. The moral foundations of Wordsworth’s life were overturned for a time when he passed from the simple moral ideals of the Cumberland dalesmen to the “sorrow barracadoed evermore within the walls of cities.” Can we hope for any better fate if we attempt to translate the Beatitudes of Jesus into terms of modern life? The challenge is fundamental. Unless the moral ideals of Jesus are as valid today as when first they were spoken, Christianity is not what it claims to be, and we must turn wearily to the task of building up an ethical ideal with only self-interest and expediency to guide us. From this dreary alternative of a world passing into the shadow of disillusionment we can escape only by coming back to the guarantee that lies behind the teaching of Jesus, the life that lived out His moral ideal

In loveliness of perfect deeds

More strong than all poetic thought.

The earliest summary of the ethics of Jesus is given in the Beatitudes that open the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Before we consider the conduct of the children of the Kingdom, we are invited to study their character. We are to consider these in detail in succeeding chapters, but before doing so it may be well to say something about the way in which they illustrate the character of our Lord’s ethical teaching. The first feature of His teaching which impressed itself on His hearers was its assertion of independent authority. His precepts were not founded on argument, or on appeals to the authority of the great moral teachers of the past. He assumed that the conscience of men of goodwill would respond to the truth that He presented to them. This claim to independent authority was shown in His treatment of the Mosaic law. It is difficult for us to realize what men who had been taught to believe that every detail of the Law was directly given by God must have felt as they heard Jesus claiming the right to supplement or supersede it with His “but I say unto you.” He accepted the foundation principles of the Law—love to God and our neighbor—as unquestionably the expression of the will of God, but the attempt to construct an ethical code in the form of explicit commandments altogether failed to satisfy His moral instinct. In a community where the tribal or civic consciousness is more strongly developed than the individual and personal, it is of supreme importance that men should be compelled to act rightly. But Jesus refused to dissociate action from motive. Yet He was no moral anarchist, setting men free from all external regulation to follow the guidance of impulse. While relaxing the stringency of ceremonial observance, He claimed for the moral law a more absolute authority than it had claimed for itself. In regard to marriage, oaths, the duty of forgiveness, He swept away the qualifications of the older law as concessions to an imperfectly developed moral consciousness. The “inwardness” of the teaching of Jesus was balanced by the recognition of an absolute ethical standard of which the law of the Old Testament was a real, though imperfect, expression.

It was in the prophets rather than in the Law that He found the framework for His ethical teaching. For while the Law looked back to the ideals of the past and the things that our fathers have told us, the prophets looked for the fruition of their hopes in the future, when the mountain of the Lord’s house should be established in the top of the mountains. Apocalyptic literature gathered all the hopes of the prophets into the one phrase “the Kingdom of God.” Very various were the interpretations given to the conception of the Kingdom. In the centuries immediately before the Christian era it tended to become narrowly national and sometimes almost grotesquely materialistic. It became the refuge of the moral despair that saw no destiny before the existing world-order but destruction. Yet it never wholly lost its ethical character, and on the lips of Jesus it became once more what it had been in the teaching of the earlier prophets, the name for a world-order yet to be realized, in which righteousness should be the natural expression of a transformed character.

The idea of the Kingdom of God, built up within this prophetic framework, was at once individual and social. A kingdom founded on character must find its earliest realization in the life of the individual. A kingdom superimposed on an unwilling or apathetic world could not represent the victory of an ethical ideal. So Jesus took the Apocalyptic idea of a kingdom breaking into the world-order, and applied it to the life of the individual. For conversion is always Apocalyptic, since it is the response of the soul to the Apokalupsis of God.

Yet the idea of the highest good is not realized in the mere perfecting of the individual. By making the idea of the Kingdom the basis of His ethical teaching, Jesus established Christian ethics on an essentially social foundation. “The need of a world of men” is implied in every summary of the Christian character that Jesus gave to His disciples. The attempt to realize the idea of the Kingdom in an organized society was an inevitable outcome of His teaching. In so far as the attempt has failed, the failure has been due to the fact that the essentially ethical basis of church membership has been forgotten.

Another aspect of the idea of the Kingdom that Jesus restored was its universality. A Kingdom founded on an ethical basis could not be limited to a privileged class or a privileged nation. So the Kingdom that Jesus preached was a society that would welcome all who accepted its moral ideal. The only qualifications required for admission were repentance—willingness to abandon false standards of conduct—and faith—willingness to accept the status of sonship. Nothing in the ethical teaching of Jesus was more profoundly original than the interpretation that He gave to the impartiality of God. He did not present even virtue as a passport to the Divine favour. God does not love men because they are good, but because they are needy and helpless and hungry. It is not because He loves them less that He sends the rich empty away, but only because love cannot flow freely into unresponsive hearts.

The ethical ideal of Jesus was universal in another sense. The mediæval idea of “counsels of perfection” has no place in His teaching. There is one moral standard for all—one way to the blessed life that is open to all who seek it. The application of the moral law will vary with the circumstances of every individual life, but the Christian character is the same, whatever the circumstances of life may be; for it is the character of Jesus Christ Himself, reproduced in those who follow Him. And as it is the same for all men, so it is the same for all times. We constantly hear the demand for a modern gospel, a modern Christology, a modern interpretation of Jesus. But what we really need is not the translation of Christianity into terms of modern life, but the translation of modern life into terms of Christianity. Nothing is more remarkable in the ethical teaching of Jesus than the way in which He disentangled permanent truth from its contemporary setting. The Beatitudes suited the needs of the simple-hearted men to whom they were first spoken; and just for that very reason they suit the needs of simple-hearted man of every age. Only it is so hard to be simple-hearted—to become as little children that we may enter into the Kingdom of God. According to a well-authenticated reading of St. Mark 10:24, the actual words of Jesus were: “Children”—almost the only recorded occasion on which He used this tender word to His disciples1—“how hard it is to enter into the Kingdom of God”—hard, not only for the rich, though specially hard for them, but hard for all, because pride and selfishness and greed enslave and complicate life, and teach men to despise the childlike spirit that Jesus loved.

In yet another way the Beatitudes illustrate the universality of the ethical teaching of Jesus. For they represent, not different ways to the life of blessedness, but different aspects of one ideal of life. Gautama invited his followers to think of life as renunciation; the best of the Stoics were only saved from moral inertia by their conception of public service; but Jesus gathered all the colored rays of the moral values of the world into the white light of the Christian ideal. His moral teaching was catholic as no other moral teaching had ever been.

Different periods and nations have tried to give expression to aspects of the moral ideal of Jesus. The mendicant Orders tried to show the blessedness of poverty; pre-revolutionary Russia thought especially of the blessedness of the meek; modern England recognizes the blessedness of the merciful, and sees the essence of the Christian character in the kindly benevolence that is reluctant to condemn and ready to condone. So men have parted among them the seamless robe of the Master. But the life of blessedness that Jesus offered to men was not a life of moral excellence in some one direction, but a living whole like some perfect work of art from which no part can be detached without marring the perfection of its unity.

The foundation of all His teaching was the essentially ethical character of God. It was this essentially ethical character that He expressed by habitually speaking of God as the Father. The idea of God as an inscrutable despot, whose decrees have no relation to the moral law laid down for His creatures, is a direct contradiction of everything that Jesus taught men about the Father. And the goodness of God is shown in His desire that all His children should be like their Father in the heavens. Jesus Christ never belittled men by contrasting them with God. Knowing in Himself how the Son of God could also be the Son of Man, He sought to raise all the sons of man to the recognition of their status as sons of God. In the opening clauses of the prayer that He taught His disciples, He summed up the significance of sonship in the three ideas of reverence, loyalty and obedience—reverence that is eager that no dishonor shall be brought on the Name, loyalty that desires the coming of the Kingdom, obedience that sees in the fulfilment of the Father’s will the supreme good for which it prays.

The most striking characteristic of His teaching still remains to be considered. It is probably true that much that seems distinctive in His ethical ideas can be paralleled in the teaching of other great moralists. But His teaching was unique not only in the balance and catholicity of His moral ideals, but even more in the intimate relationship between His teaching and His person. The element of personality enters into the work of every teacher; but there is no other body of moral teaching behind which we are conscious, as we are in the moral teaching of Jesus, of the glow of intense personal life. “Never man spake like this man.” It was not only that He exhibited in His own life the moral ideal that He taught; it was not only that behind His words lay a calm assurance of knowledge, as of One who shared the intimate secrets of God; it was most of all that He made men feel that the touch of the Eternal had rested for a moment on the fevered life of the world. They might turn from the call of Jesus, like the young ruler, and go away sorrowful, but they knew that the Kingdom of God had come nigh unto them.

Jesus offered to men a new ideal of human character, but He also offered to them the power without which that ideal would have remained for ever out of reach. As He draws the outlines of the character of the children of the Kingdom, we feel “the desire of the moth for the star”; but the star that shone in the East as a far-off point of light came down and stood over the out-house where the Holy Child was born. The Christian character is not a natural product but a supernatural gift, not only something that we attain by effort, but also something that we recognize and welcome. It is the Christ in us who lives out still the life that He lived in the days of His flesh, up to the limit that our self-surrender makes possible.

1 Dr. Figgis, The Will to Freedom.

1 Cf. St. John 13:33. In St. John 21:5 the Greek word is different.

Masterman, J. H. B. (1921). Aspects of Christian Character: A Study of the Beatitudes (pp. 1–15). Longmans, Green and Co. (Public Domain)

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