We find the ethical teaching of Jesus of course in the writings of his followers that make up the New Testament. This essay is based upon the work of three authors as they examine it – Schillebeeckx in ‘Jesus: an experiment in Christology’, Curran in ‘the Ethical teaching of Jesus’ and Douglas, ‘A non-violent Christology’ and will look at the main characteristics we can expect to find in those who follow him. Curran, page 9, sums up the ethics of Christ as a call to live in union with God.
His ethics are not something in isolation but are to be seen as part of Christ’s mission to explain and bring about the reign of God on earth.
He mentions passages such as Jesus’ summing up of the commandments in passages such as Mark 12 v 28 – 34 which are concerned with love of God and neighbour. Love of God is a grateful love towards one who gives everything. Curran states that man’s relationship with God is shown in his relationship with his fellow men.
The characteristics that Christ expects and demands of that relationship are outlined in Matthew 5 -8. Christ saw himself and was prophesied to be a suffering servant savior – Isaiah 53 and 61 and he expected his followers to take on the same role – Philippians 2 v 7 describes him as ‘taking the very nature of a servant’.
Douglas challenges ( page10) Christians to be less self-interested and instead to concentrate upon the reality of Christ’s response to the needs of the world in suffering love.
We are told that we cannot just be content with rule keeping and caring for those who care for us. The love of Christ is universal and does not depend upon a loving response from us. Christ loved us despite our sin. He loves us even when we don’t know him We are given the example of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) to show us the universality of the neighbour i. e. someone in need. The Christian is challenged to love as Christ did.
He made no distinction – see John 3 v 16:- God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. In the Sermon on the Mount ( Matthew chapters 5-8) Christians are enjoined to be both the salt of the earth and its light. We are told to be meek as in Luke 6 v 29 where a policy of non-resistance is described. But does this fit in with what Christ himself did when he found injustice, as when he cleared the temple in Mark 11? The difference of course is that one refers to attacks on the self and the other to injustice for others.
I t is the latter that Christ and his followers must deal with. On page 97 Father Curran complains that the tradition of the Catholic Church has been content with keeping a few rules rather than fully taking up the path of Christ. He concludes that he himself cannot be a total pacifist where this would mean the loss of innocent lives. On page 98 he describes his church as avoiding the difficulties of the pilgrim life. He describes ( page 99) Christ’s ethics as both a gift and a demand. A gift that is never used is wasted and a demand that is never responded to cause only frustration. Christ lived on earth 2,000 years ago.
Much has changed so we must expect those who seek to follow his teaching in the 21st century to use his teaching to help them deal with modern situations. Curran states quite clearly (page 99):- I firmly believe that the mission of the Christian and the Church is in service in the world. While Christians always will need to re-think ways in which they can live out the ethical teaching of Christ, people have interpreted this idea in some very different ways – the non-resistance of people such as Gandhi who, although not a Christian admitted on more than one occasion that he was strongly influenced by similar ethics:-
The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount….. seemed to be part of my being and which I felt was being acted up to in the daily life around me. Gandhi’s non-violence was an aspect of his faith in voluntary suffering in the cause of justice for all. He looked upon Christ as the ultimate example of such selfless giving. Another great man of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is quoted as describing the teaching of Christ as ‘not a new religion, but a new way of life. Many are still bought up in Christian homes.
They hear the words of the Gospels from an early age, but it is only when they, for themselves, turn their backs on self and try to live as Christ would have them do are they truly living a Christian life. At the opposite extreme Curran describes some theologians as ‘Theological guerrillas’ who see revolution as the way ahead. Despite such clear teaching the church is of course not perfect and in some instances could even be described as corrupt.
Douglas, (page 10), says that the presence of the suffering love of Christ in one’s life over comes any shortcomings and is independent of any sin within the church. On the same page he talks about American Catholicism and how while members know the truth of Christ this does not necessarily come to fruition in ‘living suffering belief’. He believes rather that many are more concerned with self. Albert Schweitzer is quoted (page 9) by Douglas as believing that Christ meant his ethics to be only a short term measure, believing that the kingdom of God would be precipitated by his coming death.
Few follow his line of thinking, feeling rather that Christian ethics are a guide line for our life on earth and thinking that even if Schweitzer is correct what would Christ have changed? Those who do go along with his thinking might also conclude that this teaching was only meant to apply to the last days. That however would suggest that Christ had double standards – this is reminiscent of Cathers who were only fully initiated when close to death so that they did not have to keep strict rules all their life.
That being said some statements of Jesus apparently just do not work in our everyday life e. . ‘Give to everyone who asks’ (Luke 6 v 30), but the principle holds and the teaching of Christ is a whole rather than words in isolation and so if we take it in conjunction with other teaching such as the story of the widow’s mite, ( Luke 21 v 4) we realise that it is our attitude to giving that is the important fact together with the realization that all that we have comes from God and we are his stewards. Christ told several parables that illustrate this as in ‘The ten virgins’ (Matthew 25), and the parable of the talents in the same chapter.
The ethics of Jesus are also reflected of course in the words of his followers as in I Peter 4 v 10:- Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. ’ So however impossible it seems we are still enjoined to carry it out. Jesus by both his actions and words indicates the way in which his followers should aim, even if we fail from time to time. We should be able to recognize the followers of Christ by the way they behave. And that way is attractive.
Despite all the preaching, evangelistic campaigns and all the rest the majority of people still become interested in the Christian life when they see it lived out. When they witness a selfless action they wonder why someone should act that way and so they ask.
How many people have come to faith in this way would be impossible to measure, but Christ’s last words in the gospels are of course the Great Commission – Matthew 28 v 19:- Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit an detaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Those words are still in the Gospel and are still relevant. They may not seem to be directly ethical , but as the first followers lived out the Christian life as demanded by Christ’s teaching they were able to fulfil this command as we see in Luke’s record of ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. We live in a rather different world but cannot use those differences as an excuse to abrogate our responsibilities if we claim the name Christian.
There are still those who have never heard the Gospel, there is still injustice, hunger and other needless suffering to deal with and didn’t Jesus teach us John 4 v 34 ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work’ and Mark 10 v 44 ‘Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. ’ There are those who would prefer not to obey some difficult teaching as when in Matthew 10 v 37 we are told:- Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
This doesn’t mean of course that love and respect should not be given to family, but that ultimately our first duty is to God. It is a question of both attitude and resolve. In the 20th century we were encouraged to think of ourselves and those we care about as being the most important. ‘The American Dream’ is an individual one. But following Christ calls for rather different values. Who ultimately are the great people of the last 100 years – not the pop stars or presidents, not the most beautiful nor even great writers and thinkers.
It is those who lived selflessly and who were willing to set aside the world’s standards and replace them with what is of eternal value – Gladys Aylward, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and their like. Taking up our cross will mean different things to different people, but for all Christians it must involve an affirmation of Christian values and the taking on of a servant role. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) we see that we are to be stewards in the world and as such we have responsibilities to act as our master would have us do.
We must see people as Christ does – as worthy of his love and care whatever their race, social position, behaviour or beliefs. Christ didn’t come to save Christians. He came to create Christlikeness by restoring the relationship of all people with God . Yet we know that when we look at some aspects of the worldwide church, at some who claim the name Christian, we have to acknowledge that there are failings.
When people look at Christians they should be able to clearly see in action the words of Matthew 25 v 35:- I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you ave me something to drink……. I was in prison and you came to visit me. So the challenge is to both the church as a whole and to the individual member. Curran asks ( page 95) whether he himself would really go the extra mile, but this follows an examination of the position of the church . He asks whether the primary concerns of the church are with its own maintenance or whether it is truly concerned about the problems of the world. He questions whether the church’s apparent concern is really believable when on some issues it speaks but does not act and in some other cases is totally silent.
Yet we are told (Matthew 5 v 43, 44) to love our enemies and pray fro those who persecute us. Curran asks whether anyone, however much they may admire the principles, can truly live up to the ethical teaching of Jesus. The procedures of the church are measured up against the teaching and found wanting. For example in Matthew 5 v 37 we are told not to take oaths but simply to answer ’Yes’ or ‘No’ although the practice of the church is to ask people to make promises and take oaths as in the wedding ceremony or upon ordination.
In ‘The parables of Jesus’ we are told that Jesus himself is to be seen as a living parable of what God’s care for man. So it is not just by reading his teaching – it is by looking at his whole life – his words, but also his actions and his motives. We are challenged to consider the fact that the life of Christ as a whole, if it is to be of value in the world, must be reflected in the lives of both individuals and the community that carries his name. In Matthew 6 v 33 we are enjoined to ‘Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness’.
We may not be able, either as a church or as an individual, to live up to all that Christ asks of us and the responsibility seems too great for us. But look at the New Testament again – Peter, who denied him, was forgiven. Paul who persecuted his followers became his champion. The thief on the cross who asked Christ to remember him was promised paradise. In Luke 14 we have Jesus words about the cost of being a disciple. It requires careful consideration and all of our commitment. Christ gave his all. He asks the same of his followers.