December 9, 2003

The Ethical Teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels


In the following paper, I examine the ethical teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels and then compare his teachings with those of Immanuel Kant and Aristotle.

I will not attempt to discover which sayings were spoken by the historical Jesus and which were inventions of the early church. The limited amount of space I have prevents me from conducting my own search for the historical Jesus. And I would not be justified in assuming that any one scholar’s historical Jesus is the right one, as current scholarship (both Christian and non-Christian) is so deeply divided on this issue. So, instead of discovering the historical Jesus and then discussing his ethical teachings, I will merely discuss the ethical teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels. Even if it could be shown that the historical Jesus did not utter most of the claims recorded by the Gospel writers, my study would still be worthwhile. For, as countless people have declared for millennia now, great truth and wisdom is found in the teachings of the Jesus of the Gospels. This figure has commanded respect from even those who have not believed him to be the Son of God—e.g., Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy. Just as we can pick up a piece of literature known to be fictitious (e.g., Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) and learn moral lessons from it, so too can we learn from the Gospels, whether they are pure fiction or something more.

Jesus and the Old Testament Law

One cannot understand Jesus’ ethical teachings without understanding the Mosaic Law. Jesus did not see himself as abolishing the Old Testament Law and introducing an entirely new ethical system; rather, he believed he was merely fulfilling the Law.[i] Many New Testament scholars reject this view and claim that Jesus taught his followers to break the Mosaic Law. But, as Craig Blomberg writes, “There is no evidence that Jesus ever actually broke one of the written laws of the Pentateuch or taught others to do so.”[ii] On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that Jesus upheld the Law. For instance, he often commanded his followers to obey the Pentateuch.[iii] Moreover, he seemed to believe that “Isaiah and the other prophets were truly prophets of God, since he quoted them with approval.”[iv]

Instead of opposing the Old Testament Law, Jesus reinterpreted and intensified it. First, Jesus often reinterpreted parts of the Law. For example, certain Jewish leaders of his time interpreted the Law to forbid one person from healing another person on the Sabbath. When accused of breaking the Law after healing a crippled woman, Jesus, instead of claiming that he had broken or changed the Law, claimed that his action was actually lawful. No one, he pointed out, believes it is unlawful to care for an animal on the Sabbath (by giving it water); therefore, it follows that it must also be lawful to care for a person on the Sabbath (by healing him or her).[v] Second, Jesus intensified the Law. An example of this can be found in the so-called antitheses of Matthew 5.21-48. Throughout this passage, Jesus repeatedly replaces an Old Testament command or a common Jewish teaching with his own teaching—e.g., in 5.38-39, he states, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist and evil person.”[vi] In such passages, E.P. Sanders notes that Jesus was not opposing the law; rather, he was demanding “a stricter code of practice,” which, if followed, would in no way break the law.[vii] For instance, the aforementioned antithesis would only be breaking the law if the law commanded that evil people should not be resisted; but it does not. “[H]eightening the law,” Sanders writes, “is not opposing it.”[viii]

The Two Greatest Commandments

So Jesus advocated the ethical teachings of the Old Testament. He only differed with many of his contemporary Jewish teachers in his reinterpretation and intensification of these teachings. We will better see how Jesus intensified the Old Testament commandments by examining his teachings on what he believed were the two most important Old Testament commandments: to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[ix]

Jesus taught that the ultimate duty of every person was to love God. To love God is, first of all, to approach him with a humble attitude. A good example of this is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In the parable, both men go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee commends himself before God, thanking him that he is “not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” The tax collector, on the other hand, “would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast, and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” It is the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, Jesus tells us, who will be justified, for “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”[x] Humility before God, Norman Melchert writes, is so important for Jesus because “humility is the opposite of pride, and pride is the very root of sin. It is pride—wanting to be like God—that leads to the sin of Adam.”[xi]

To love God, one must also give him “a kind of undivided and absolute devotion.”[xii] Only God is to be worshipped, and not Caesar.[xiii] Moreover, our love for God is to be greater than the love we have for our families and even the love we have for our own lives. As Jesus hyperbolically states, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”[xiv]

The commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves is an extension of the commandment to love God. As Melchert puts it, our love for God “will express itself in our observance of God’s law concerning our fellow men. And that requires loving our ‘neighbor’ as ourselves.”[xv] Jesus teaches that loving one’s neighbor involves both external and internal dimensions. First, loving one’s neighbor requires actions. For example, he condemns people who fail to give their parents financial support[xvi] and exhorts people to give to the poor.[xvii]

But loving one’s neighbor also requires the right type of attitude. Not only should one not murder, but one must not even be angry with his brother;[xviii] not only must a man not commit adultery, but he must not even look at another woman lustfully.[xix] People are condemned, not just for committing evil actions, but for failing to forgive others.[xx] Perhaps the inner attitude most emphasized by Jesus is humility. Not only does pride lead humans to rebel against God, but it “sets human beings against each other; the proud man, glorying in his superiority, cannot consider his neighbor equal in importance to himself and so cannot love as Jesus requires.”[xxi] Therefore, Jesus declares that it is the poor in spirit and the meek who are blessed.[xxii] He praises children for their humility and claims that those who humble themselves like children will be “greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”[xxiii] And he tells his disciples, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”[xxiv]

Not only did Jesus intensify the commandment to love one’s neighbor by emphasizing the importance of possessing the right attitude, but he also intensified this commandment by broadening the definition of “neighbor.” His love truly had no boundaries. He commanded others to love those of different ethnic and national backgrounds, as is evidenced in the parable of the Good Samaritan.[xxv] He commanded his followers to love their enemies.[xxvi] He associated with “sinners” and emphasized his concern for those condemned by the Jewish religious leaders.[xxvii] He was a defender of the poor, declaring that those “who gave large sums of money to the temple…still lacked the virtue of the poor widow who gave only a fraction of a penny.”[xxviii] Moreover, he went out of his way to minister to the sick[xxix] and showed compassion on both women[xxx] and children.[xxxi]

Comparison with Kant and Aristotle

As we have seen, Jesus’ ethical teachings are both action- and virtue-based. In other words, he emphasizes the importance of both good deeds and good motives. We will conclude our study by comparing Jesus’ ethical teachings to those of Immanuel Kant (a proponent of action-based ethics) and Aristotle (a proponent of virtue-based ethics).

Christian ethics are often compared to Kant’s system, as both are said to be deontological. Both Christians and Kant, it is said, believe that an action is not right or wrong because of its consequences, but simply because it is intrinsically right or wrong. The Christian says that the morality of an action is determined by God’s will, while the Kantian says that the morality of an action is determined by the Moral Law. When we look at Jesus’ teachings, however, we find no proof that he is a deontologist. If anything, he seems to be a consequentialist, as his moral injunctions are often followed by a reminder of the consequences that will follow if that action is performed. For example, he encourages his followers to love their enemies so that they will become sons of God,[xxxii] to do their good deeds in secret so they will be rewarded by God,[xxxiii] and to forgive the sins of others so that their sins, too, may be forgiven.[xxxiv] Conversely, he warns his followers not to judge others so that they will not be judged[xxxv] and not to cause a child to sin so that they will not be thrown into hell,[xxxvi] and he warns some Jewish leaders that their wickedness and unbelief will result in condemnation.[xxxvii]

These and other teachings of his make Jesus sound like what Kant would call a Mystic of Practical Reason. That is, it seems that, like Plato, Jesus believes an action is good if it will reap good rewards in the next life and bad if it will reap punishment in the next life. Although Jesus’ teachings seem to indicate this, it seems unfair to label him a consequentialist. For it could be possible that Jesus believes that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by God’s will and that he only speaks of consequences to encourage people to act rightly. Jesus is a prophet, not an ethical philosopher; his focus is not on discussing meta-ethical issues but on proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. Since we do not have enough data to label Jesus either a consequentialist or deontologist, we should suspend our judgment on the matter and move on to issues that we do have enough evidence to discuss.

While Jesus is similar to Kant in his emphasis on actions, he is similar to Aristotle in his emphasis on character or disposition. Like Jesus, Aristotle believes that moral virtues must be accompanied by good motives. For example, if one acts courageously to impress his or her friends or to avoid being shamed, Aristotle would say that that person is not really courageous. In order to be courageous, one must both perform courageous actions and perform those actions with the right motives.[xxxviii]

Also similar to Jesus is Aristotle’s “correlation of virtue and telos (cosmic purpose), where proper conduct is conducive to human flourishing.” Just as Jesus believes that the righteous will ultimately be rewarded (e.g., the meek shall inherit the earth), Aristotle defines a virtue as a quality that enable people to live well. “But Jesus’ view is dissimilar as well, since Aristotle’s philosophy allotted the Prime Mover no ethical role in establishing, announcing, or rewarding moral character. For Jesus, God is central to the nature and experience of virtue.”[xxxix]

Despite these similarities, there are numerous differences between the ethics of Jesus and Aristotle. First, Jesus’ ethical teachings are entirely unconcerned with the political life. As W.T. Jones notes, the only political statement he makes (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”) is at best “only a negative injunction, and, taken by itself, it cannot serve as the basis for a political or social system.”[xl] The only state Jesus is concerned about is the kingdom of God and he believes humans can attain that regardless of the political state they live in. By contrast, Aristotle spends a great deal of time discussing politics, as he believes that humans can only achieve their highest good if he lives in the right type of state.

Another difference between Jesus and Aristotle is their virtues. Although they both emphasize the importance of virtues, their lists look almost completely different. For instance, there is “nothing in Jesus’ list of virtues that corresponds to Aristotle’s ‘intellectual virtues’—science, art, philosophic wisdom, and so on.” And Jesus’ virtues are even drastically different than Aristotle’s moral virtues. For instance, Jesus never teaches the importance of courage, which is extremely important to Aristotle. And whereas Jesus values humility, Aristotle considers pride to be “the crown of the virtues.”[xli] In sum, Jesus’ ethics is one of good and evil, whereas Aristotle’s is one of good and bad. Stephen Darwall explains the difference:
To put the point in Nietzschean terms, Aristotle’s is an ethics of good and bad rather than of good and evil. Its contraries are those of noble and base rather than of right and wrong. What is ignoble and base gives cause for shame, not guilt. Shame is the feeling we have when we see ourselves as worthy of disdain, scorn, or ridicule, whereas guilt is what we feel when we see what we have done as culpable or blameworthy.[xlii]

Related to this difference, Jesus’ ethics are focused on God and others, while Aristotle’s ethics are essentially self-centered. That is, the primary good for Jesus is outward-focused—loving God and others; on the other hand, primary good for Aristotle is inward-focused—achieving one’s telos.[xliii]

Another difference between the two men is their view of what Martha Nussbaum refers to as “luck and ethics.” According to Aristotle, contingencies play a fundamental role in ethics, as he believes that one must possess certain external goods that are beyond one’s control (e.g., intelligence, wealth, and beauty) in order to attain the good life. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to believe that one can attain the good life regardless of circumstances, as anyone, regardless of their intelligence, wealth, and beauty can love God and love others and, thus, achieve the kingdom of heaven.

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Works Cited

Blomberg, Craig L. Jesus and the Gospels. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.

Darwall, Stephen. Philosophical Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.

Groothuis, Douglas. On Jesus. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. Jones, W.T. The Medieval Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962.

Melchert, Norman. The Great Conversation. Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing, 1999.

Sanders, E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1993.

Thomson, Garrett, and Marshall Missner. On Aristotle. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.

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End Notes

[i] Matthew 5.17.
[ii] Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 393-94.
[iii] Mark 1.40-45 and Matthew 5.23.
[iv] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1993), 224. Sanders here refers to Matthew 11.2-6.
[v] Luke 13.10-16.
[vi] All Bible quotations in this paper are from the NIV.
[vii] Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 210.
[viii] Ibid., 212.
[ix] Jesus stated that these were the two most important commandments in Mark 12.29-31. He claimed that the commandment to love God (found in Deuteronomy 6.4-5) took precedence over the commandment to love one’s neighbor (found in Leviticus 19.18).
[x] Luke 18.9-14.
[xi] Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation (Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing, 1999), 226.
[xii] Ibid., 226.
[xiii] Matthew 22.21.
[xiv] Luke 14.26.
[xv] Ibid., 226.
[xvi] Matthew 15.3-9.
[xvii] Ibid., 19.21.
[xviii] Ibid., 5.21-22.
[xix] Ibid., 5.27-28.
[xx] Ibid., 6.14-15.
[xxi] Melchert, The Great Conversation, 226.
[xxii] Matthew 5.3, 5.
[xxiii] Ibid., 18.4.
[xxiv] Mark 9.35.
[xxv] Luke 10.25-37.
[xxvi] Matthew 5.43-48.
[xxvii] Ibid., 11.19; Luke 15.1-10.
[xxviii] Douglas Groothuis , On Jesus (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003), 69. Groothuis here refers to Mark 12.41-44.
[xxix] Matthew 8.1-4.
[xxx] John 4.1-42.
[xxxi] Mark 10.14.
[xxxii] Matthew 5.43-45.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 6.1-4.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 6.9-15.
[xxxv] Ibid., 7.1-2.
[xxxvi] Mark 9.42-50.
[xxxvii] Matthew 12.38-45.
[xxxviii] Garrett Thomson and Marshall Missner, On Aristotle, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), 78-79.
[xxxix] Groothuis, On Jesus, 66.
[xl] W.T. Jones, The Medieval Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962), 30.
[xli] Ibid., 31.
[xlii] Stephen Darwall, Philosophical Ethics, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 206.
[xliii] Jones, The Medieval Mind, 31-32.

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