The following is an excerpt from my latest book project. The working title of this new book is “Ethics; What Happens When Life Gets Messy And The Rules Aren’t Enough?” If past history is any indication I’ll like change that title about 400 times between now and publication. I’m shooting to release this book sometime on late 2014 or early 2015. Keep an eye on this blog for further excerpts and revisions as I go. As always, your questions and comments are always welcome…. Lauren
Turning Away; The Garden of Eden
Any work on Christian Ethics needs to begin by looking at what Jesus himself taught on the subject and what was considered ethical by His students.
Jesus’ students were God fearing Jews. Jewish tradition begins in Genesis with the creation and subsequent fall of man and builds its ethical teaching on the Ten Commandments of Moses. But before Moses we see a hint of a few dominant ethical codes that can be gleaned from early history.
First off we need to examine what mankind really did in the Garden of Eden to break covenant with God.
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” [Genesis 2:16-17]
Harsh words and not at all what you would expect from a loving father. It smells like a trap. How many parents know that once you tell your children not to do something, that’s all they can think about? But that is our fallen nature coming out, at this point man had not yet sinned, the entire concept of sin was foreign to him, there was nothing in Adam that would have questioned God’s judgment, the suggestion to do other that what God commanded had to come from outside of Adam and Eve.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it;
Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with his origin. [Dietrich Bonheoffer; Ethics]
According to Bonhoeffer, God’s warning to Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is really a warning not to take your identity from anything other than Him. Once you start to take your identity from things outside of God you are on the path to learning things that you were never designed to handle. The knowledge of good and evil is the foundation of destruction. We were designed by a loving father, who at the end of the sixth day of creation declared all things good (even the tree of knowledge). So for us to now “know” evil is an abomination of the original design. It shows that we are somehow separated from our origin, as Bonheoffer put it. The whole reason we even need to have a discussion surrounding ethics is due to this one act.
And so, foundationally the study of Christian Ethics begins in the Garden of Eden when mankind turned his back on God and first learned evil. The story of Israel, indeed the story of the entire bible is a story of mankind’s constant struggle to regain what was lost while the story of Jesus is the story of God coming to earth and restoring our relationships both with Him and with each other in light of our “evil” knowledge. It is not until we resolve to no longer know evil that we can begin to live an ethical life.
As the apostle Paul put it;
..I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. [1 Corinthians 2:2]
But how do we do that?
Turning Back; The Sermon on the Mount
Just was we turned our backs on God in the Garden of Eden we must now turn back around and face God, face our origins in him and as Paul put it, “resolve to know him”.
The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7 is the longest single teaching of Jesus recorded in the any of the gospels. Much of what he said is closely mirrored by the Sermon on the Plain as recorded in Luke’s gospel, chapter 6: 17-49. Scholars have debated whether or not this is one sermon, remembered slightly differently by two of Jesus followers or two separate incidences where Jesus repeats himself for two different groups. At this point in his ministry Jesus was essentially an itinerant preacher so either explanation is valid, he could just have easily given similar talks to different groups as given one talk remembered differently by two people who were there. I don’t care. It’s the overarching message that matters, and whether or not it was delivered once, twice or many times throughout His life doesn’t make a stitch of difference.
Throughout this work I am going to spend a lot of time hovering over these few chapters of Matthew and Luke’s gospels. This is where the rubber meets the road, if we are going to take Jesus seriously as our greatest ethical teacher, which is what the phrase Christian Ethics implies, we need to start with his teaching.
Now don’t get me wrong, Jesus is far more than just a great ethical teacher, as I’m sure you’ll agree, but since this is a book on Christian Ethics we need to start with the assumption that he is teaching at least a little bit about ethics and morality here. It kind of goes without saying but unfortunately much of the church today waters down or downright ignores what Jesus actually taught in favor of some more culturally acceptable facsimile. This happens with equal fervor on both the Christian Right and Left. It is my hope that I can ignore the temptation to swing toward either one political spectrum or the other and drill right down the middle. At times I hope I cause concern and maybe even offence on both sides, if I do it in equal measure than I think will have done it right.
So here we go.
Jesus begins his sermon by challenging a very familiar refrain among his Jewish followers. The first twelve verses of Matthew 5 and Luke 6:20-26 are a parody, or at the very least a re-working of Psalm 1. When he begins, “Blessed Are…” I’m sure most in the audience who were present would have thought to themselves, “ah yes, this old song again”. That is until he said the next words, “the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”
In order to understand why that would have been so scandalous let’s back it up a bit and look at Psalm 1.
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction [Psalm 1]
David wrote a poem about how to be righteous to a culture built on the rule of law, tribalism and hierarchy. Not surprisingly he concluded that in order to be good you need to stay away from the bad people and follow the rules.
This kind of thinking leads to self-righteousness on the part of the followers of the law, isolationism, fear and mistrust. Not insignificantly it also leads to a feeling of inferiority on the part of those to whom the law as not given and further isolates them from the love of a close community built up around this arbitrary set of rules. If you do not follow the law you are wicked, like chaff to be blown away by the wind. David opens his song book with a song of exclusionary internal community building by saying blessed is the one who isolates himself from bad influences.
Remember our old friend Dietrich Bonheoffer? He said;
There are two possible attitudes to the law; judgment and action. The two are mutually exclusive. The man who judges envisages the law as a criterion which he applies to others, and he envisages himself as being responsible for the execution of the law… The “doer of the law”, unlike the judge, submits to the law; the law never becomes a criterion for him such as he might apply to his brother; the law never confronts him otherwise than summoning him to personal action. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Ethics
David is very clearly in the former. He is making the law about keeping score. In David’s world you gain salvation by playing by the rules and at some point you will be deemed righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus on the other hand opens his famous sermon by saying something entirely different. It’s not about staying clear of the bad people “out there” but about going deeper within yourself to become a better image bearer of God and so project God’s influence on the world.
The opening verses of Matthew 5 illustrate that;
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted. [Matthew 5:3-4]
For Jesus it’s not about separating yourself from the wicked, it’s about recognizing your own weaknesses, your own part in sin and wickedness, and mourning your shortcomings. It’s all in the attitude. This, as Bonheoffer put it is how you become a “doer of the law”.
Poor in Spirit
So what then does it mean to be “Poor in Spirit”?
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of explanations of this but the best understanding I can make of it has to do with the idea that the first step to turning your attention away from what’s “out there” is admitting that you don’t have it all figured out. At the end of the day being poor is spirit is all about humility.
While David said in essence, blessed are the righteous, Jesus says blessed are the humble. The Amplified Bible puts it this way;
Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous—with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions) are the poor in spirit (the humble, who rate themselves insignificant), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven! [Matthew 5:3]
That’s a mouthful, with all the explanations in parenthesis like that, but Jesus spoke in Aramaic so getting at the essence of what he said in English is a bit of a challenge, all that further clarification is useful though in getting at the meaning of the words he spoke. A briefer paraphrased translation can be found in the Living Bible, it says it like this;
“Humble men are very fortunate!” he told them, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them. [Matthew 5:3]
The Living Bible loses the connection to Psalm One by changing the translation of blessed to fortunate but the idea of humility comes through loud and clear. In order to turn back to God, to reunite with him and then live ethically we must first humble ourselves before him and become “poor in spirit”.
Jesus of course doesn’t stop there. He then repeats the opening words of Psalm 1, perhaps allowing some of his listeners to relax again before hitting them with the next zinger, “Blessed are… those who mourn.”
Once you realize you have failed at something the next step in turning back to the right path is to take a minute and mourn your failure. David said blessed are the good people, Jesus says once you realize you have missed the mark and fallen short of the standard David set, it is okay, even good, to be a little sad about it.
Mourning in this sense is really about recognizing what has been lost. By living in David’s world of rules and regulations we have lost a connection to real community. If you focus your time and effort on making sure you are always pure, especially in the way you interact with the people around you, you can miss out on something. Diversity, especially diversity in community, is the spice of life. If we are constantly concerning ourselves with keeping the law, staying clear of people who don’t do things exactly the way we do them, our community is damaged.
But it goes even deeper than that. The whole reason we have the law in the first place is because we turned our backs on God. When we humble ourselves, become poor in spirit, and turn around to face him the emotion of that moment can be overwhelming. I don’t know about you but when I face God I can’t help but weep in the knowledge of my own failures. I mourn my failing and inadequacy.
This mourning though is a necessary step in the turning around process. Jesus tells us that we are blessed when we mourn and that in so doing we will be comforted. It’s never fun to mourn but the promise here is that if we do it, it won’t last forever, and he will comfort us.
I’m reminded at this point of a song.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
Music teacher, Helen H. Lammel wrote those lyrics in 1922 while teaching at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She wrote them in response to the work of author, Lilias Trotter. Trotter, another of Moody’s disciples was a painter and daughter of a wealthy London stock broker. While Trotter’s art gained critical acclaim and her artist carrier was starting to take off she felt an inner conflict between art and missions. After struggling in prayer for over two years she came to the conclusion that she must lay down her paint brush forever and focus her energy completely on the mission field. She subsequently served as a missionary with Moody for 38 years and wrote several books and tracts. It was the tract “Which Passion Will Prevail” that led Lammel to write her famous song.
It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Dare to have it out with God, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His Glory. Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him. [Lilias Trotter; Which Passion Will Previal?]
The core of Christian Ethics is this; we find our identity in our relationship with God. That is how mankind was originally intended to operate and in so doing all questions of right and wrong, good and evil melt away. It is no longer a question of can I do good things on my own and is instead re-framed as a question of what is God’s will in this situation. In this post-Christian world in which we live turning around to look at Jesus is a difficult process, one that will surely raise a few eyebrows but at the end of the day, if done correctly there is nothing truly negative anyone can say about it.
The apostle Paul eloquently laid out the requirements for an ethical life in his letter to the church in Galatia.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:19-23]
It’s that last part that is the key here. “Against such things there is no law.” There was nothing in the Jewish Torah that prevented any of these things in principle. In practice however there were a number of customs that could make it difficult for someone act in this way toward their fellow man. Most of those customs were centered on the idea of cleanliness and purity. The parable of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:25-37] is an example of the type of conflict that can arise in us when we are faced with the human reality of law versus ethics. Paul rightly states that there is no law against being kind, but there was a law against entering the temple after having touched a dead body. It was only the Samaritan, living outside the Jewish law, who could approach the dying man and offer assistance because he did not weigh compliance with the law against “doing the right thing” and yet even the Pharisees who heard the story agreed it was the Samaritan who had acted righteously.
And the same is true today. The so called Fruit of the Spirit are viewed in today’s society with an air of nobility. But when put into practice are viewed by the same people as a bit naive and impractical. But ethics happen when life get’s hard. Nobody said this was going to be easy. But if you’ll join with me and at least turn around and face Jesus we can put the expectations of the world behind us and begin walking together in the right direction.
 Bonheoffer, Dietrich “Ethics” Fontana, 1964
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich: “Ethics” Fontana, 1964
 Lemmel, Helen H. “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, 1922
 Trotter, Lilias; “Which Passion Will Prevail?”, Moody, 1899