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“Attitude Adjustment” Ethics (c)

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Jesus Traditions

Material in red = Mark .. in blue =   Q   .. in green = Special Matthew .. in fuchsia = Special Luke


Contents of Jesus Traditions


The Ethical Perspective of Jesus

It is hardly a formal ethical system that we have in the teachings of Jesus which have come down to us; we can however speak of his ethical perspective, and its main themes, evident especially in the six contrasts of the [so-called] Sermon on the [so-called] Mount.

   •  Inwardness. Jesus sought to internalize morality, as we have already noted in the six contrasts. Indeed, the virtues set out in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), as well as attitudes of serenity and generosity of spirit (Matthew 6:19-34; 7:1-5), can be encouraged but hardly imposed from without.

   •  Identifying the Sources of Our Actions. But in warning against anger and hatred as well as murder, and against lust as well as adultery, Jesus is in effect providing a perceptive analysis of the roots of human behavior in our character and attitudes.    

   •  A Lofty Standard. Each of the six contrasts raises the bar of moral obligation. It is obviously more difficult to avoid hatred than murder, or lustful thoughts than adultery; it is contrary to our inclinations to go the second mile or love one’s enemy. The lawyer Clarence Darrow, well known for his part in the Scopes trial, is supposed to have remarked that he had never killed a man, but had sometimes read the obituary column with great pleasure. The very loftiness of these teachings has made them seem irrelevant or perfectionist, an impression not dispelled by the imperative which concludes the six contrasts: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). 

   •  A Non-Legalistic Approach Centered upon Love (Agapê). There is no evidence that Jesus bought into the elaborate rabbinical legal system of his day (click on Torah in Judaism). Casuistry is the name given to this process of applying rules (sometimes called laws, or commandments) to particular cases, in the process developing a system of case-law and precedents. Casuistry has no place in his teaching. 

This point may be made in different terms, by inquiring: Who could write a rule prescribing right conduct in the case of a traveler who encounters a man who has fallen among thieves? Whether or not it was Luke who first connected the love commandment with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the connection is a stroke of moral genius. The only thing that can be prescribed is love (agapê), the compassionate problem solving exhibited by the Samaritan.

The gospels report that Jesus did enter into formal discussion with Jewish lawyers on points of law, and could use a rabbinical style of argument to his advantage (Mark 7:1-13; 12:35-37); but he did not accept the ultimacy of Torah. He does not hesitate to use selectively certain teachings of the Jewish Law, but he seems equally free to nullify others. This is true not only of the third to sixth contrasts (Matthew 5:31-47) but also of dietary regulations (Mark 7:14-23). Thus he assumes a superior position relative to the authority of Torah, and can declare that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).

More positively, apart from these observations about the non-legalistic character of his teachings, the gospel tradition supports the view that Jesus gave pride of place to love (agapê), the kind of love which means selfless concern for others (click on Love (Agapê)).  Agapê is presupposed, or explicit, in all six of the contrasts:


Beyond Legalism

Agapê presupposed?



Warning against anger and hate Agapê, the antidote 5:21-26


Warning against lustful thoughts Beyond erôs to agapê   5:27-30


The permanence of marriage (equal respect of persons) Can agapê and erôs meet? 5:31-32


No oaths: integrity, as assurance of the truth Agapê, a cure for the self interest, at the root of mendacity? 5:33-37


Reconciliation through creative use of suffering Agapê, the motive for costly reconciliation, instead of retaliation 5:38-42


Loving one’s enemy
Agapê, the basis for seeking the enemy’s best interests 5:43-47

[erôs = desire, romantic love]           

It should be evident that casuistry would contribute little to the kind of attitudes being encouraged in these six contrasts, whereas agapê is what is needed.

Admittedly, it is no easy matter to make such attitude adjustments. Little is said in these chapters about how to do so. Hints are dropped in the beatitudes (poverty of spirit, meekness) and elsewhere: repentance (Mark 1:15; cp. Luke 13:1-5); and becoming childlike (Mark 10:15 || Luke 18:17; cp. Matthew 18:3). An “attitude lobotomy” would certainly be useful (the phrase is Thomas Friedman’s), but it is easier said than done. In the gospel tradition, it was deemed sufficient that Jesus had made loving God and neighbor a command. At the same time, we need not overlook the extent to which the personal influence and example of Jesus would be crucial motivating factors.


Jesus and Public Policy Issues

The sympathy of Jesus with the Hebrew prophets is evident in a number of ways: his spirituality, his universalism (Matthew 5:13-16), and his intolerance of religious formalism (Q: Matthew 23:23-26 || Luke 11:39-42), to mention a few. Yet there is little or nothing in his teaching that quite matches an Amos, or Isaiah, or Micah, in their repudiation of social evils, especially the oppression of the poor, and the demand for justice.

   •  Jesus had more to say about the problems of being rich, than the problems of being poor (Luke 16:19-31); see Mark 10:17-22; Luke 12:13-21 (cp. Mark 4:19; Luke 6:24-25).

   •  His words about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:13-17 || Matthew 22:15-22 || Luke 20:20-26) are not a statement about how religion should interface with the political order; these words leave unanswered the question of what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God. 

   •  His eloquent counseling of trust in God for food and clothing (Matthew 6:25-34 || Luke 12:22-31) is surely not to be mistaken for an economic program.

   •  Though the Jesus tradition provides little basis for supposing that he was committed to social change, it is also true that the tradition generally portrays him as anti-establishment (Mark 11:15-19; 12:38-40; Luke 13:31-34), a position which links him with the prophets (Amos 7:10-17; Jeremiah 22:13-19).

   •  The one area where there might be some specific guidance on a public policy question is the issue of capital punishment. Jesus did after all nullify the lex talionis (Matthew 5:38-42), and thus removed the argument often used by supporters of retributive justice. But there are still thorny issues to be resolved: whether, for example, capital punishment contributes to social utility, or whether it is an effective deterrent to crime.

Thus the gospel tradition, for reasons we can only speculate about, has provided us with relatively little guidance on social or economic problems. With the Roman occupation of Judea (from 63 B.C.E.  onward) was there little prospect of anything changing in Jewish society? In view of the end-of-time teachings in the gospel tradition, with a fore-shortened future, was there little interest in social change? Or is social progress a more recent idea which we should not try to read back into the biblical period? 

It is within this context that we acknowledge the difficulties felt by those who are serious about addressing questions of war and peace, on the basis of contrasts five and six, earlier considered.

Matthew 5:38-47  

[Contrast #5]  38You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

[Contrast #6]  43You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

The case for pacifism might seem to be self-evident: Jesus is laying upon his followers the obligation to seek reconciliation, whatever the cost, and to love their enemies. Surely one does not show love for enemies by shooting them or bombing them. How could people who are seeking to obey the teaching of Jesus possibly participate in war? Why are all Christians not pacifists?

Some historical perspective is useful here: in the pre-Constantinian period, down to about A.D. 315, virtually all Christians were pacifists; when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman empire, participation in war—at least, a just war—became acceptable or normal.


Without blunting the force of Jesus’ moral imperative, we need to keep in mind other considerations in a quest for the peaceful resolution of disputes.

   •  Jesus did not repeal the commandment to love one’s neighbor; thus a moral dilemma exists in situations where love for neighbor and for enemy are mutually exclusive. Regrettably, Jesus did not deliver any casuistic guidelines for balancing the competing claims of love for enemy and love for neighbor.

   •  Even if a case can be made for allied forces having used armed force in the interests of the neighbor to check the spread of Nazi despotism, it is enormously more difficult to ensure the interests of the neighbor (and of ourselves) in an age when nuclear capability is being acquired without the proper constraints, and terrorist campaigns can be mounted by groups which are no easy target. Thus,

   •  There is relevance to altruistic and informed policies and actions which would lead to campaigns of conflict resolution. There are surely pragmatic as well as principled grounds for making friends of enemies, or potential enemies. 



Revised September 27, 2003


Contents of Jesus Traditions


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