Jesus' Ethics: Four Observations
One of the lectures I give each year in my Gospels class is titled “Who’s Invited and What Should They Do?” In the first part (“Who’s Invited?”), I talk about who it was Jesus invited (invites) to follow him, to repent and believe, to enter his kingdom. Here we talk about what the label sinner meant in the first-century and how it described those who’d transgressed both God’s law and the “laws” of Palestine’s religious establishment. In the second part (“What Should They Do?”), I try to sketch Jesus’ ethics. What sorts of behavior did (soon-to-be-king) Jesus require of his disciples. Here we look at the epitome of Jesus’ ethics found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). I’ve yet to finish off this talk feeling like I’ve done justice to Jesus’ sermon. And, considering its importance—these are Jesus’ ethics, after all!—I’m very interested in doing a better job. Just yesterday, in fact, I received in the mail a new book I’d ordered on the sermon. It’s part of a new commentary series (!) by Zondervan entitled “The Story of God Bible Commentary.” It’s by veteran Gospels scholar and teacher Scot McKnight. In his introduction, McKnight summarizes Jesus’ ethics with four observations that I found helpful. Here I thought I’d simply share them and encourage any of you puzzled by the sermon to get McKnight’s book and see how (if?) each observation plays out in Jesus’ ethics. (That’s, at least, what I’m going to do.) Before I list them, let me also say that the first three are what, it seems to me, McKnight thinks sets Jesus’ ethics off as biblical ethics, over against the ethical programs of Aristotle (virtue ethics), Kant (duty or deontological ethics), and Bentham and Mill (utilitarianism; cf. consequentialism). And the last one sets his ethics apart as fulfillment-era ethics. That is, it reflects the fact that these are ethics coming from one who came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17–20). So, according to McKnight, Jesus ethics are . . .
(1) ethics from above. Jesus’ ethics are divinely-revealed ethics. Just as the Torah came from God, so also does Jesus’ “law.”
(2) ethics from beyond. Jesus’ ethics, like the prophets of old, encourage the people of God to live in the present in the light of the future. (Here I couldn’t help thinking of the way Peter puts this in 2 Pet 3:11.)
(3) ethics from below. Jesus’ ethics, like Israel’s wisdom traditions, encourage the people of God to live in God’s world in God’s way. Live in light of the way the world works (or, is supposed to work).
(4) messianic ethics. Jesus’ ethics are ethics for the new era brought about by messiah’s death and resurrection and, moreover, they are possible only for those filled with the eschatological spirit, Jesus’ new community.