There is no doubt that technological development and increasingly rapid rates of change in so many areas have made making ethical decisions more difficult than it used to be. Now that is not to say that getting agreement about the rights and wrongs has ever been easy. Moralists have disagreed through all of history. And Jesus had a hard time getting some of his core values across, even to those who were most devoted to him.
But these days self-doubt has set in among Christians, and it has set in on a large scale. Loss of clarity about a distinctly Christian ethic has become widespread. There are various reasons for this, but let me offer you just a limited list. First, there is so much that Christians have done in the past that embarrasses and shames us. Second, there are the clever things that scholars have done to give parts of the Bible a totally different sense from how they have traditionally been understood. And third, Christians have largely lost sight of the importance of the Old Testament for their faith and life.
For us who are Christians radical values for a confused society must come from our Lord. And what I have in mind to appeal to here is Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.
In the sermon Jesus first uses the beatitudes to point to the good news of the coming kingdom. God's face had turned away and his hand had been heavy in judgement on his people for many generations. But now things were changing. God was now announcing his intention to turn in blessing, and to bring to fruition all his longstanding promises of a better future. Indeed things had already begun to change, as Jesus both announced the kingdom, and in his own ministry marked its beginning.
In the school of hard knocks God can teach us a lot, and that had been his purpose for his people through the long years of bleakness. Jesus' beatitudes celebrated what had been learnt by many in the school of hard knocks, but they also pointed towards what would be necessary remedial learning for others. With that foundation in place the way forward now involves throwing in one's lot with Jesus. This distills and concentrates all that God had been seeking to teach his people over the centuries. But it also represents a moving forward in the purposes of God. What is involved in doing so is tough, but also exhilarating (Matthew 5:11-12).
Against this background, Jesus tries to help people catch a vision for the living out of an abundant righteousness (v. 20) – a righteousness that is generous and not calculating; a righteousness that is invested in going all out for God. Part of this vision of an abundant righteousness is spelled out in verses 21-48 with six antitheses. In each case we are given a traditional view of some area of ethics – how some feature of the Old Testament law was being taken up and related to, which is then contrasted with Jesus' challenge to a higher standard.
Was Jesus setting aside the Old Testament laws in favour of a new gospel ethic? The Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount already anticipated this kind of misunderstanding in verses 17-19. He did not come to abolish and there is no place for relaxing even the least of the commandments of the Old Testament law.
So what is Jesus doing? I can only give you three pointers into what is going on here. But I hope they will help you to catch something of the thrust of Jesus' intention.
In the first antithesis (vv 21ff) Jesus is interpreting the murder commandment in the light of the love commandment (the focus of the final antithesis). All through the antitheses Jesus is seeing the issues involved in the light of the love commandment. In Jesus' hands all the commandments attract to themselves the same relational focus that is evident for the love commandment. Jesus intends to take up and radicalise the highest demands of human solidarity, and then insist that we practice them for the benefit of even those who are our enemies.
In several of the antitheses Jesus sets himself against an approach to the commandments that restricts their application to how they could function in a court of law. Murder, adultery and divorce were all matters of law and rightly have a place in the legal justice system. But legal justice systems are fairly crude instruments. They can only deal with quite a limited range of all that is involved in the doing of good and bad. The idea that I am OK if a court wouldn't convict me is totally opposite to the thrust of Jesus' concerns. Where the legal system can only get at extreme cases, the sensitive conscience of the disciple needs to be alert for anything that has the slightest whiff of what the Law stands opposed to. For the Matthean Jesus the murder commandment can only have its proper force if it is allowed to speak against every expression of human alienation from another and every expression of hostility towards another. Courts can't do anything about most of this, but the ultimate sanction here is not the courts but the judgement of God.
Third, in the eye-for-an-eye antithesis, from verses 38 on, the movement is in quite the opposite direction. Here a part of the Law that was meant to be sharply focussed on the functioning of the legal system was being generalised in quite an unhelpful way. It looks as though a statement from the Old Testament Law which in its actual wording could only refer to a principle of proportionate retaliation had by abstraction come to stand for a principle of aggressive protection of one's own interests. It had lost its whole-community focus and become narrowly selfish. There is no encouragement to be a doormat in how Jesus responds in this antithesis. Rather, to sum it up, but all too briefly, Jesus is suggesting that the hostile behaviour of the other person is to be challenged not by giving as good as you get but by the moral strength of one who is happy enough to call a spade a spade, but can provocatively signal a preference for suffering wrong over feeding the spiral of violence.
Ethical decisions are not suddenly easy. We will make mistakes along the way. But there is a basis here for is a renewal of confidence in our basic moral paths as Christians. As in all things Jesus points the way. Despite all the changed and changing circumstances and all the competing views on offer, he took up with confidence the Old Testament material base for his ethics. Then he focussed and prioritised it in relation to the new thing he was bringing into being: he brought it into connection with the good news of the coming kingdom and interpreted it in the light of the central call to love. And finally he brought it to bear sharply on the lives of those to whom he spoke. We should want to do no less.
This is a shortened version of a lecture given by Revd Dr John Nolland, Tutor in New Testament, and Academic Dean at Trinity College Bristol. John hails originally from Australia but has lived and worked in the UK for several decades.
The full length version of this lecture was given at the 2008 EFAC International conference in July.