the Fourth Week of Lent
Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
ETHICS.—A very little reflexion will reveal the unusual difficulties that lurk in a subject like the present—the Ethics of Jesus, or, of the Gospels. Even the uninitiated is aware that we cannot in strictness speak of the ‘Ethics’ of Jesus at all—in the sense, that is, of a doctrine systematically developed according to principles, and exhaustively applied to the facts of life. For His was no scientific or methodical spirit; His significance lies rather in the realm of personality, in the unique quality of His moral feeling and judgment, in the peculiar way in which men and things moved Him, and in which He reacted upon them. Hence we need not look for either an orderly arrangement of, or even an approximate completeness in, His ethical ideas. From the drama of His life we are unable to compile a system of morals, but we may see how a great Personality creates a moral standard by what He does and suffers, and how He elucidates it in His words.
But are we justified in connecting with Him the term ‘ethical’ at all? We speak accurately of Ethics or Moral Science only when we regard the conduct of men in their mutual relations as something by itself, abstracted from religious feeling and action, and when ethical ends and maxims are disengaged from religion, in virtue of their inherent worth; and such an independent position of Ethics, whether it appear worth attaining or not, is simply beside the mark in the case of Jesus. His moral and His religious principles are so closely interwoven, His moral feeling, e.g. His love for man, is so inseverable from the religious basis of His belief in the Fatherhood of God, that it would seem to be impossible to delineate His ‘Ethics’ without at the same time treating of, say, the Kingdom of God, the Divine grace, or the final judgment. And if, nevertheless, we venture upon the task, we must never lose sight of the connecting lines that run between His ethical teaching and His religious principles.
Then there is the question whether our sources are at all sufficient for the full and accurate representation of the moral personality of Jesus. In restricting ourselves to the Synoptic Gospels, we are doing nothing more than recognizing the claims of historical science. But now, to what extent can we regard the three older Gospels as adequate sources for our theme? If we investigate the oldest of all, viz. Mark, we find that it nowhere makes any attempt to portray the Ethics of Jesus as such. In reporting His conflict and controversy with the Judaism of His time, it casts but an indirect light upon this side of His character, and that, moreover, in a series of isolated scenes. Of these the most outstanding are the Rabbinical disputations regarding the Sabbath (Mark 2:23 to Mark 3:6), purity (Mark 7:1-23), divorce (Mark 10:1-12); then come the important passages narrating the conversation with the rich man (Mark 10:17-27) and regarding the ‘first commandment’ (Mark 12:28-34). Various other aspects of His conception of life are vividly illustrated by such utterances as that to the paralytic (Mark 2:5 f.), about the physician and the sick (Mark 2:17) the true kinship (Mark 3:35), children (Mark 10:15 f.), and tribute-money (Mark 12:13-17). In the section dominated by the three predictions of His death (Mark 8:27 to Mark 10:45) we have a mass of admonitions to the disciples—concerning readiness to suffer, loyalty, courage, humility, reverence for childhood, etc. We have here something of the nature of a primitive Christian catechism; not instructions (as in the Didache, let us say) for tranquil seasons and everyday life, but rather articles of war for the ecclesia militans of the persecutions, a manuale crucis.* [Note: J. Weiss, Das älteste Evangelium (1903).]
An entirely different kind of appeal is made by the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. In its extant form the Sermon is the promulgation of a great programme, in which the Evangelist seeks to give a definitive and approximately complete statement of Jesus’ relation to the Law, with a reference, moreover, to the representatives of the anti-legalistic standpoint, who think that He is come ‘to destroy the law.’ It is the purpose of the writer to convince these that Jesus, being in a general way the Fulfiller of Prophecy, is, as a lawgiver, the fulfiller of the prophecy regarding the second Moses, whom God was to raise up in the last days (Deuteronomy 18:15), and who, so far from abrogating the Law, will rather consummate and even transcend it.† [Note: J. Weiss, Die Schriften des NT, neu ubersetzt und für die Gegenwart erklart (1905), i. i. p. 236 ff.] In our reading of the Sermon we cannot afford to ignore this design of the writer; we must draw a distinction between what its words purported to him, and what they meant in the tradition he utilized. Similarly, in reading St. Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, we must bear in mind that he has materially abridged his material, not alone by discarding the Jewish and preserving only the typically human elements, but by considerably transforming it under the influence of his pronounced ascetic view.‡ [Note: p. 413 ff.] Both Mt. and Lk. thus throw us back upon the source of our Lord’s words, in which the primitive Jewish-Christian community had grouped the Logia of Jesus for its own instruction. Hence we are forced to distinguish between the Ethics of the Evangelists and the Ethics of their source. Further, we must make a searching examination of the characteristically Lukan tradition as it appears in the parables of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Good Samaritan, etc.;§ [Note: p. 380.] only so shall we be justified in attempting to answer the question, What was the ethical position of Jesus? An extremely complicated critical process must thus be gone through before we use our present authorities as documents for the solution of our problem. But as it is impossible to reproduce here the details of such investigation, only the results can be stated, with references to other works of the present writer.
In an account of the Ethics of Jesus, the reader also looks for a comparison and contrast between Him and His Jewish, perhaps also His Graeco-Roman, contemporaries. The fresh and original elements in His moral thought and feeling must be set over against traditional views. The favourite procedure in this connexion, that, namely, of placing His luminous figure on a background as sombre as possible, is one we cannot follow. Above all, the task of describing the ethical conditions of contemporary Judaism would take us beyond our allotted space, and is, moreover, beyond our capacity. Often as it has been tried, in more or less ingenious sketches, to reproduce some cross-section through the moral conditions of later Judaism, it has never been accomplished without subjective caprice and violent tendency-interpretations. Nor is this result to be wondered at; for it is quite impossible to describe faithfully, or estimate justly, the characteristic ethical complexion of a period so extensive as the two and a half centuries from b.c. 180 to a.d. 70, of the inner history of which we still know so little, which is represented by a literature so multiform, and of which the dominant currents veered so much—a period, moreover, meagrely equipped with first-rate or distinctly recognizable personalities. True, we can observe the behaviour of the circles from which sprang the Psalms of Solomon, we can lay our hand upon the devout breast of the pseudo-Ezra, we can enter into the spirit of the author of 1 Maccabees or Sirach; but how diverse are even these few casual types, and how impossible is it to make them fit into one harmonious picture! What, again, do we know of the Ethics of the Greek or Sadducean party? What vogue had the Essenes among the people? Are the Pharisees of the Psalms of Solomon identical with those of the time of Jesus? And, above all, what significance for our problem has the Talmud, so often named, so little known? Here, in sober truth, so many unsolved enigmas await the historian, that one cannot but marvel at the assurance of those who, in face of them all, are ready to sketch the Ethics of later Judaism as a foil for the Ethics of Jesus. We for our part renounce any such design. We have not the daring to institute a comparison between the Ethics of Jesus and the complicated historical phenomena of the period, and then, as impartial judges, to proceed to measure out the light and shade. We content ourselves with the question, How did Jesus regard and estimate the Judaism of His time? It is beyond doubt that His moral sense was chafed by many things, and in particular by Pharisaism, and that a material part of His teaching was formulated in antagonism to the Rabbis. We too must feel this antagonism, if we are ever to understand Him.
If, again, we are required to answer the question as to wherein consists the new and original element in the Ethics of Jesus, we are brought to a complete standstill. In His conflict with Rabbinism He is in close alliance with the Prophets, and is certainly not outside their influence. But to assume that a great gulf is fixed between the religion of the Prophets and Psalmists and that of later Judaism, is to forget that a goodly part of both the Prophets and the Psalms was a contribution of the post-exilic period, and, above all, to overlook the fact that these writings form the background, or, we might even say, the native soil of Judaism. However profoundly they were misunderstood, still it was not possible to prevent the intermittent welling up, from the soil, of many a copious spring; and many a document of the later period bears clear testimony to their influence. Thus we can do full justice to the moral creed of Jesus only by giving adequate consideration to the circumstance that He lived in intimate sympathy and steadfast accord with the noblest and devoutest thoughts of His people’s Bible. Hence, if in view of these facts we inquire concerning the originality of Jesus, the result will be a surprise. For we shall find that of almost all His ethical ideas there are anticipations, precedents, and even parallels in the OT, as also in contemporary Judaism. A mere glance at any collection of parallels, such as that of Wetstein, will be sufficient to purge us of the notion that the uniqueness or greatness of Jesus consists in the novelty of His ethical teaching. Theology is still tainted with the propensity, inherited from Rationalism, to see in the production of ideas the all but exclusive factor in the making of history or the progress of man. It often fails to realize how plentiful ideas are in times that are spiritually alive, or how in all ages humanity has been enabled to take a step in advance only by the emergence of a personality who, with unwonted energy, sincerity, and enthusiasm, absorbed, elaborated, and formed anew from his individual experience the choicest products of his age. So with Jesus; His ideas as such are neither so novel nor so revolutionary as to create a new world; they derive their procreative virtue solely from the fact that He made them His own, lived them, and died for them.
From these preliminaries we turn to the exposition proper, premising that we shall on principle forego any systematic or exhaustive development of the material from a fundamental idea. Our purpose is to survey the figure of Jesus in its specific operation, and what better situation for this can we find than the actual scene of His conflict with His environment? It was the friction with that environment which kindled the fire within Him; it was His unconformity with it that gave Him the conviction of His peculiar heritage. Just as His anger at the profanation of the Temple moved Him to an involuntary display of a religious feeling superior to, and more delicate than, that of His fellows, so His collision with the leading representatives of Judaism evokes from Him not merely an indignant criticism, but also a manifestation of His own inherent character. In this connexion the great discourse against the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 (cf. Luke 11:39-52) furnishes invaluable testimony. Even if its artificial form (cf. the seven Woes) be derivative, still the majority of the sayings grouped in it, so expressive of individual feeling, so original in form, unmistakably show the characteristic touch of Jesus. In any case the discourse clearly reveals the distinction He drew between Himself and the Rabbis, and the traits in the latter by which the disciples, filled with His spirit, felt themselves repelled. It is, above all things, the insincerity of their practice, the contrast between the reality and the appearance, which is so vividly brought out in the metaphor of ‘whited sepulchres’ (Matthew 23:27). The supreme business of the scribes,—to which they apparently devoted themselves with surpassing zeal,—viz. the instruction of the people in the law of God (Matthew 23:4), they discharged in such a way as to superinduce the very reverse of what was intended: instead of bringing men into the Kingdom (Matthew 23:13) they keep them out by imposing intolerable burdens, in the bearing of which they render not the slightest help. It is, in fact, evident that the work of leading men to God was for them a matter of no consequence whatever. A glaring light is thrown likewise upon the propaganda of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:15): under their tutelage a proselyte becomes a child of hell, twice as wicked as themselves (or, as it was probably spoken at first, twice as wicked as he was before). These severe verdicts show at a glance how highly Jesus estimated the sacred and responsible office of the leaders of the people, which they so direly abused. With keen moral indignation He passes sentence upon the complacent and self-seeking father-confessors, who, on the pretext of pastoral zeal, with ‘long prayers’ devour widows’ houses (Mark 12:40). He shows inimitably the unscrupulousness of their over-scrupulosity: straining out gnats and swallowing camels, they are squeamish and strait-laced in regard to trifles, in the great moral matters lax for themselves and lenient to others, even to the point of apathy—and such has ever since been the practice of a hierarchy clothed with authority (Matthew 23:24). In these utterances Jesus reproves chiefly the scribes’ insensibility to the primary moral sanctions; they keep cup and platter clean, but are indifferent to the nature of the contents; non olet, even though it has been accumulated by selfishness and greed, and is gorged with unbridled self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25). While with painful precision they attend to the tithing of the meanest garden produce, they neglect the weightiest matters of the Law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). In harmony with Micah 6:8 He enunciates the principle that the primary imperatives of morality surpass all ceremonial prescriptions in importance and urgency—a truth which, though ancient, needs ever to be emphasized anew. There can be no dubiety as to the purport of ‘justice’ or ‘mercy’ in this passage; they are meant to cover the great social obligations of the ruling to the dependent classes—the non-perversion of the Law, the succour of widows and orphans, the relief of the poor. As to the third injunction, the Evangelists do not seem to have been sure of its meaning; for ‘faithfulness’ St. Luke (Luke 11:42) substitutes the ‘love of God,’ probably interpreting πίστις as ‘faith’ (as Authorized and Revised Versions). Without doubt, however, Jesus intends this word also to connote a social and moral duty, viz. trustworthiness and candour in human relationships.
Mt. has in this verse inserted a clause (Matthew 23:23 b) which should almost certainly be deleted from Lk. (Luke 11:42), as a gloss involving a certain modification of the command. The preceding verses might lead us to infer that Jesus did not only set less store by the ceremonial law, but was willing to do away with it altogether. This, however, says St. Matthew, is not His meaning: ‘These (moral duties) ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.’ The Evangelist is, in fact, keenly solicitous lest Jesus be regarded as hostile to the Mosaic law, as he shows also in Matthew 5:17 and the prefatory words Matthew 23:2 f. (neither passage in Lk.), implying that the teaching of the scribes is good, but that their works are evil, since they do not practise what they preach. Taking into consideration the writer’s date and point of view, we can quite well understand the words; but we naturally ask whether this conciliatory and conservative attitude towards the ceremonial law truly represents the mind of Jesus?
The words about the cleansing of cups and platters, and about the tithing of mint, anise, and cummin, certainly sound so contemptuous as to compel us to ask whether Jesus set any value whatever upon the ceremonial side of the Law, and, in particular, upon the special casuistical precepts of the scribes. The question may be answered provisionally and generally: Jesus was not a Pharisee, and this means that His attitude towards many of the scribal maxims was a dissentient one; He was not a Judaean, but a son of the Galilaean peasantry, who knew how to evade the authority of Pharisaic doctors and lawyers, and who were, in consequence, liable to the curse merited by those who ‘know not the law’ (John 7:49); and, accordingly, He regards Himself and His followers likewise as above the Pharisees’ rules about purifying. But we also find explicit remonstrances against the ‘traditions of the elders’ so dear to the scribes (Mark 7:5; Mark 7:9; Mark 7:13); He characterizes them summarily as the ‘prescriptions’ (Authorized and Revised Versions ‘tradition’) of men (Mark 7:8), thus contrasting them with the commandments of God. In this He evinces His independent attitude, for a genuine Pharisee could live only by the belief that the additions to and amplifications of the Law, even if devised by human teachers, were yet expressive of God’s will. But Jesus goes still further, affirming positively that in their concern for these traditions the scribes reject, pervert, and even make void the commandment of God (Mark 7:8; Mark 7:13). He gives as an example the gross case of one who evades the plain human duty of supporting his parents by the manœuvre of dedicating to the Temple the money he might have spared for them: once the fateful word ‘Corban’ is spoken, then every penny so consecrated belongs to God, and is, as sacred property, interdicted from all secular uses, and so from that of the parents. It is bad enough that a son should so act; but that jurists and theologians should permit him henceforward to turn his back upon father and mother, should declare his pledge to be inviolable, and refuse to ‘release’ him from it, is neither more nor less than the disannulling of the Fifth Commandment.* [Note: J. Weiss, op. cit. i. 1, p. 124]
Now the assertion that the great moral demands of God’s law are of more importance than any ceremonial obligations, is primarily directed only against the traditions and prescriptions of the Rabbis; in reality, however, it is a principle which threatens the very foundations of the Mosaic system. Already in the OT we see the strained relations between prophetic piety and priestly legality—brothers again and again at variance. In the personality and preaching of Jesus the prophetic religion reappears with unparalleled force and clearness, and braces itself to the work of overthrowing the fabric of Levitical ceremonialism. To treat the ethical and the ritual law as of equal validity belongs to the very nature of the priestly theocracy: the moment the former is placed on a higher level the whole edifice becomes insecure. In this reference St. Mark preserves a short but pregnant saying of Jesus (Mark 7:15), viz. ‘There is nothing from without the man that going into him can defile him, but the things which proceed out of the man are those which defile him.’ As He is here speaking of clean and unclean meats, He says, ‘Nothing going into the man,’ but He might equally well say, and certainly means, ‘Nothing from without the man coming to him,’ i.e. coming into contact with him. But this is the reverse of what stands in the Law. For the whole complex of the Mosaic-Levitical legislation rests upon the postulate that a man is defiled by outer contact and contamination, or by partaking of certain foods, i.e. that he thereby becomes separated from God, is excluded from the sanctuary and segregated from the sacred community. Now the principle enunciated by Jesus cuts the ground from under all the particular commandments of the ceremonial law. It carries, indeed, a dissolving and explosive force. But His standpoint differs from mere rationalistic ‘illuminism’ by having a profoundly religious basis. Jesus had so intense a conception of man’s relation to God as an ethical one, that He could not tolerate the thought that God would exclude any one from His presence merely because he had touched a corpse or eaten swine’s flesh. It is the evil will, the impure heart, the false nature, that separate men from God.
All this, of course, is self-evident to us; but when Jesus uttered it, and acted upon it, He found Himself at cross purposes with the most exemplary personages of His generation, and compelled to resist the drift of an age-long tradition. He raised His voice not only against the scribes, but against the very spirit of the Law they expounded. Moreover, in actual practice, His bearing towards the Law is quite unconstrained. He adds to the exceptions already conceded by the Rabbis (e.g. works of necessity on the Sabbath), and allows both Himself and His disciples a certain freedom, without taking counsel of the specialists. When challenged, He appeals to the example of David (Mark 2:23-26). It is manifestly gratifying to the narrator that Jesus was able to justify His action so adroitly by the methods of Rabbinical exposition. But this is only an ex post facto justification, of which the disciples certainly were not thinking as they plucked the corn; they had acted without deliberation, simply availing themselves of the freedom which their fellowship with Jesus had made a matter of course. We learn the true meaning of Jesus from the twofold declaration subjoined by St. Mark (Mark 2:27 f.). Doubtless what the writer means is that the ‘Son of man,’ i.e. the Messiah, is Lord of the Sabbath, and can absolve His disciples from its observance; but originally the saying must have run thus: ‘Man has full power also over the Sabbath,’ which, again, is of essentially the same tenor as the other, viz. ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’* [Note: See J. Weiss, op. cit. i. 1, p. 87.] This saying, too, is more than an article in a confession; it is really a declaration of war against Mosaism. Scribe and doctor regard the Law as an end in itself, and obedience to it as the final purpose of human life, even if such obedience involve sacrifice, and indeed the surrender of life itself. But the assertion of Jesus that the Law is given for man’s sake, as something designed for his benefit, and the inference that he is free from it whenever its observance conflicts with his welfare, proceed from an entirely different point of view, and have far-reaching implications. The rigid and doctrinaire aspect of the Law is thus cancelled; its behests are viewed as means for the realization of God’s purposes of love towards men. All this, however, shows but the birth-struggle of an entirely new religious conception, destined in its further growth to do away altogether with the Law as law. A similar instance is the declaration (Mark 10:1 ff.) that the Mosaic regulation regarding divorce was a concession to the Israelites’ hardness of heart, and that it stands in antithesis to the statute originally promulgated in Paradise, which alone is the will of God and the precedent for man. Here the Mosaic ordinance is represented as something adventitious, as merely marking a stage meant to be left behind.
The boldness of Jesus in thus essaying to make a distinction within Scripture itself, and to discriminate between the law of God and human accretions, is of great moment for us. He has recourse to a mode of criticism which might be called subjective, but which really merits the attribute prophetic. This ‘Prophet,’ filled with Deity, this great religious Personality, ever directly conscious of His nearness to God, does not shrink from giving judgment as to what is the actual purpose of the Most High. Just as He fervidly announces the royal benignity of God towards both the evil and the good, just as He confidently speaks to the contrite of the Divine forgiveness, and without misgiving assures the wretched of the Divine succour, so He also undertakes, in face of the law of Moses, ‘that which was spoken to the fathers,’ to set forth a new law, in the glad conviction that He is thus expressing the will of God. Hence it is a misapprehension of the tenor and scope of the ‘antitheses’ in the Sermon on the Mount to imagine that in these Jesus is merely impugning the prevailing exegesis of the Law, or merely endeavouring to bring to light the real design of its promulgator. No; the rhythmical repetition of the phrase, ‘But I say unto you,’ makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is here reaching beyond Moses. And this undoubtedly corresponds to the historical situation. Take, for instance, the first two enactments, viz. regarding murder and adultery; it is clear that what Jesus means is that God asks more than mere abstention from these crimes: He demands perfect self-control and integrity of heart. The unheeded moments when the animal nature starts up in a fit of anger or of impure desire are grievously sinful in the eyes of God, as well as the actual misdeeds.
The religious-historical situation is as follows. The Jewish people were under a theocracy, and for them the Law of Moses was by no means restricted to religious or moral matters; it was at once a civil and a penal code, an order of legal procedure and a manual for the priesthood. Now it is the bane of a theocratic constitution that the Divine law, ingrafted as it is upon common life, tends to lose its majesty and inviolability. It has to adapt itself to the varied facts of existence by means of saving clauses and casuistical methods; and such a régime fosters above all the notion that the will and judgment of God reach no further than the arm of the civil magistrate, and that it is only the completed act, and not the intention, that God brings to judgment. Thus the moral relation of man to God sinks to the level of a legal one. Such a deterioration and externalizing of the religious life must all but inevitably ensue when its regulation and guardianship are committed to priests and jurists. It is the ‘Prophet,’ however, who now takes up the word. With incisive force He makes it clear that God looks upon the heart, the thought, the secret motions of the soul, and brings these things before His judgment-seat, and that the sin of intention passes with Him for no less than the overt act. To assert such equivalence of thought and deed may seem to us almost to overshoot the mark; for we rightly place a high value upon the self-command which keeps desire from passing into action. But the apparently partial view is to be regarded as the natural reaction of the heart and the conscience against the legalistic ossification and externalization of religion.
The verdict of Jesus upon divorce points in the same direction. The argument upon which He bases His prohibition of the separation permitted by Moses merits our attention. The statute laid down in Paradise is to be preferred, as the law of God, not merely in virtue of its great antiquity, but also on intrinsic grounds. When a husband puts away his wife, he places her in a position of moral jeopardy; for, should she associate herself with another man, whether in a second marriage or in a passing act of immorality, she thereby completes the dissolution of the first marriage, which hitherto was legally binding. The noteworthy element in this utterance is not that the ruptured matrimonial union is still binding, but in particular that the man is morally responsible for his wife, even after his dismissal of her; he must bear the guilt of her sin. Such is the only judgment possible, if marriage is to be regarded not merely as a legal bond, under the control of the civil magistrate, but as a moral covenant, for whose inviolability men are responsible, not to one another, but to God. See Divorce.
The profoundly irreligious subtlety of the lawyers is also exposed in Jesus’ prohibition of oaths. First of all He shows that the evasions and periphrases by which those who swear hope to escape the danger of profaning God’s holy name, are of no avail; every oath is and remains an adjuration of God. But more: to the finer religious feelings, every oath is a gratuitous and irreverent bringing down of the Most High into the sordid and trivial concerns of the hour—the grossest case being that of the impulsive Oriental who puts his head in pledge, as if he had power over life and death, forgetting his complete dependence upon God, and that life and death proceed from Him alone. Thus Jesus supersedes the scrupulous anxiety and the petty evasions of the Rabbis by a much deeper religious motive: the oath, in truth, is but an element in a world under the domination of sin and Satan (Matthew 5:37), and he who feels God’s majesty and purity in his inmost soul will have a sacred fear of bringing God upon such a scene, and will honour Him best by the plain and simple word of truth.
Of an entirely different character are the two final antitheses, viz. those relating to non-resistance and love of enemies, as given in Matthew 5:38-48. In the foregoing precepts we have simply the utterances of a more earnest moral sensibility; here we have the language of exultant and heroic enthusiasm, not meant to be judged by commonplace standards. In lieu of the typically Jewish principle of retaliation, which was applied both in legal and in personal affairs, viz. ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth,’ Jesus demands the entire renunciation of self-defence or self-vindication. Nay more; it is not mere tranquil endurance that He enjoins, but a readiness to present to the assailant the other cheek, to give more than what is asked, to surrender the cloak as well as the coat. These injunctions differ from those of St. Paul in Romans 12:19-21 in that they involve no thought of shaming or overcoming the adversary by pliancy and patience. St. Paul would seem, in fact, to have interpreted the words of Jesus in the practical didactic sense of certain Stoic admonitions. But the distinctive feature of the passage in the Sermon on the Mount is that the demands are made without any reason being assigned or any subordinate aim proposed, precisely, indeed, as if their authority must have been perfectly self-evident to the disciples. A theological exegesis has barred the way towards a right understanding of them by always starting from the question what these words mean for us, and how we shall obey them. And as a literal obedience to them seems to us impossible, recourse is had to new interpretations and modifications, by which the strength of their tremendous claims is sapped. Instead of putting such questions, we would rather ask how the words are to be understood in their original setting, and how Jesus came to utter them in that form. Now it is evident that their essential feature is a thorough aversion to the principle of retaliation by which the ignobler instincts of the Jewish national spirit were sustained and intensified. This aversion on the part of Jesus is so strong that the most emphatic utterance of the opposite quality is for Him precisely the right thing; a consummate zeal for forbearance and renunciation whets His demands to their sharpest point. But what is the source of this enthusiasm? It is no mere reformer of Jewish morals that speaks here, no legislator for centuries yet unborn, but the herald and apostle of the imminent dissolution of the world and of the Kingdom of God already at the door! Hence a man can prepare himself for that day in no more worthy or more earnest way than by the surrender of all the present life is based upon—earthly repute, business capacity, personal property; all these are but obstacles and fetters. Whoso renounces willingly, whoso suffers gladly—he is truly free, and ready for the great day that is at hand. We can appreciate and vindicate the words only if we interpret them by the mood appropriate to the twelfth hour.
‘If so, they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife—
Let these things vanish all!
Their profit is but small:
The Kingdom still remaineth.’
The same enthusiasm pulsates through the words about love to enemies. It is unnecessary to paint the background of Judaism too black, to cavil at the Jewish ‘love to one’s neighbour’ as narrow and partial, or even to lay too great a stress upon the ‘hatred of one’s enemies,’ in order to feel that the demand of Jesus is not only something ‘new,’ but also a puissant, transcendent, superhuman ideal. He says, indeed, that the man who so acts will be perfect even as God is perfect, a worthy child of the all-loving Father. Now it cannot be sufficiently urged that this obligation to love one’s enemies neither issues from nor can be fulfilled amidst the normal emotions of everyday life. If it is to be real to us, i.e. truly realized and not merely assumed, then it demands an enthusiasm which, if not ‘contrary to the nature,’ is certainly ‘beyond the power’ of the natural man. None but the possessor of a spirit profoundly religious and animated by the love of God, could possibly love his enemies, at all events according to the special sense which Jesus gave to the universal command, viz. ‘Love them which hate you, pray for them which despitefully use you.’
Our view of this supreme command of Jesus thus brings us to the twofold law of love (Mark 12:29 ff., Luke 10:25 ff.). It is beyond question that neither this conjoining of love to God and love to one’s neighbour, nor the focusing of the whole Divine law in that ‘summa’ is a specifically original thought of Jesus. According to the oldest form of the narrative (Luke 10:25 f.),* [Note: J. Weiss, op. cit. i. 1, p. 172 ff.] He elicits it from a scribe. Possibly enough there were earnest and pious Rabbis who, amid the jungle of thousands upon thousands of precepts, sought for some leading idea, and found in the requirement of love to God and man the nucleus of God’s primal revelation: but none of them was ever able to carry such unification and simplification into full effect. Here again it is not the mere thought which matters, nor the fact that Jesus gave it utterance. The great thing is that, over and above, He furnished in His own life such an embodiment of the Law as carries conviction to all. In His personification of the ideal He welded the love of God and the love of man in an indissoluble union, in which they might foster and strengthen each other. He expressed the ideal in a perfect form, and stamped it upon the soul of the race. Since His day it has become obvious that the highest form of religion is that from which there radiates the soothing, genial, meek, and helpful love of mankind; obvious also, that that love of man is the deepest, the truest, the most enduring, the most exacting, which has its roots in the depths of a soul pledged to the Most High, a soul which is permeated by His truth, and has been apprehended by His holy and gracious will.
Literature.—J. Weiss, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes; Bousset, Jesu Predigt in ihrem Gegensatz zum Judentum; Jacoby, NT Ethik, bk. i.; R. Mackintosh, Christ and the Jewish Law.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ethics (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​e/ethics-2.html. 1906-1918.