More about the Christian life

Jesus’ Exasperating Ethics

One of the biggest drawbacks to being a Christian is that Jesus has this exasperating habit of turning simple situations in life into serious moral dilemmas. For example, I once heard about a group of men who were driving to a wedding when they saw a helpless motorist tinkering with her engine by the side of the road. One of the men in the car said he recognized right away what was wrong, and he was sure that he could have helped, but they didn’t stop because they didn’t want to get their fancy usher outfits messed up. Anyway, they might have been late for the wedding. They weren’t comfortable even with their own excuse, and because of the eerie parallel with the story of the Good Samaritan (in which religious people passed up a stranger in distress by the side of the road in order to avoid ritual impurity) they weren’t sure they did the right thing. Incidents like that make you squirm in your seat when you think about them, and if they are discussed in Sunday School, the class runs overtime.

However, when you stand back and look at these dilemmas from a distance, the picture looks right. We should expect masters to be greater than their servants, parents more mature than their children, and teachers wiser than their students. If Jesus were just another man, I suppose it would be easy for us to reduce His ethical teachings to a formula. But as it stands, we find His teachings somehow compelling and perplexing at the same time—just the way servants react to a master, children to a parent, and students to a teacher. So perhaps our moral discomfort—and the discomfort of generations before us—is direct evidence that Jesus is more than just a humble field preacher from Galilee.

Today we read:

...if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
—Matthew 5:23-24, NIV

To the modern Christian, this passage conjures up an image of a person rising from the congregation, walking to the front of the church, and laying a large check on the Communion table. However, while that picture certainly embodies the spirit of the situation, its details are wrong. At the time that Jesus said these words, there were no churches, there were no Communion tables, and there were no checking accounts. At that time, the Temple still stood, and the Jewish sacrifices were going on. The picture we should have in mind when we read this passage is of a Jew bringing (say) pigeons to the Temple, as in Luke 2:21-24, where Mary and Joseph are depicted as offering a sacrifice at the Temple upon the occasion of Jesus’ birth.

Whichever picture we may have in mind when we read this passage, we can be certain that Jesus was not concerned with pigeons or bank drafts. He was concerned with the relationship between ethics and spirituality. We see here an embodiment of a principle revealed by prophets of old:

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of the rams.
—1 Samuel 15:22, NIV

We cannot conclude that Jesus was banning all religious observances because then the passage from Matthew would read:

...if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, forget about your gift and be reconciled to your brother. That is the gift that God wants.

Instead, Jesus says that the process of giving the ritual gift should be interrupted, not superseded, by the act of reconciliation. Therefore if we attain ethical superiority, we are not exempt from attending church, taking Communion, or any other duties which we may label “ritual” when we find them inconvenient.

We also cannot conclude that Jesus was revealing that the entire purpose of spirituality is to produce ethical behavior, because then the passage from Matthew would have read:

...if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, you have eyes to see the altar, and ears to hear the commandment, but you do not discern the purpose of God in them. Forget about the gift and the altar! Go and be reconciled to your brother and realize that gifts and altars are just training wheels.

Jesus is teaching us about two aspects of our lives, our ethical behavior towards each other, and our spiritual relationship with God. These are two separate things, in that we cannot exempt ourselves from religious obligations on the grounds that we are ethical towards others, nor can we exempt ourselves from ethics because we have religious duties. Ethics and spirituality are separate but they are interrelated. Ethics forms a lower layer that stands between us and spirituality. A religious person is a hypocrite if he fails to love his neighbor as himself, in deed as well as in slogan.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.
—1 John 1:9-10, NIV

Note that John does not say, “whoever loves his brother lives in the light and has attained perfect fellowship with God,” rather he says, “there is nothing in him to make him stumble.” Thus we see that the ethical person who loves his neighbor as himself has a clear path to God, but has not necessarily traveled it yet.

So what are we to conclude?

If we rely upon Jesus to save us—that is to say, if we are saved by our faith in Him—then our first concern in life is to keep that relationship in good order; that is, we should be concerned to stay on good terms with Him through obedience to His commands and through good stewardship of His trust. Jesus teaches us in this passage that our ethical behavior towards each other can cloud our relationship with Him. Our ethical behavior must be in order before our religious behavior is considered acceptable. We are exempt from neither; we must do both.

Therefore, all of us who truly trust Him will strive in every way to behave responsibly towards other people. Sometimes dealing with other people properly may result in messing up our fancy clothes or even in personal danger, but if we truly trust Jesus, we won’t have to worry about such things. If we can’t trust Jesus to look out for us in this world, how can we say without hypocrisy that we trust Him to look out for us in the world to come?

Suppose you dropped your mother’s birthday present into the mud. Wouldn’t you have it cleaned before giving it to her? Then shouldn’t you, through the help and power of the Holy Spirit, clean up your life as you continually present it as a living sacrifice to the one almighty and eternal God?