As a follower of Jesus it is my ambition to live in a Jesus-shaped way. In seeking to do this the Bible is one my key resources. Yet understanding how it applies to me can be difficult, for while I have grown up believing that what the Bible says, God says, it is clear that there are things the Bible commands or permits that are not what God says to me today – eg the permission to take a wife as part of the bounty of war; the requirement to return land to its original owners every fifty years; the permission to keep slaves; and the encouragement to wives to call their husbands ‘lord’ and be fully submissive and obedient to them.
I have found it helpful to recognise that the Bible speak to our ethics in two ways:
First, by painting a picture of the world as it should be and one day will be. The movement of both history and Scripture is towards a time all creation will be brought fully under God’s reign. It is a time of shalom, which Christopher Marshall summarises like this
The positive presence of harmony and wholeness, of health and prosperity, of integration and balance. It is a state of soundless or flourishing in all dimensions of existence – in our relationship with God, our relationships with each other, our relationship with nature, and our relationship with ourselves. Shalom is when when everything is as it ought to be. In this sense, Shalom encapsulates God’s basic intention for humanity – that people live in a condition of “all rightness” in every department of life.
(Chris Marshall, Little Book of Biblical Justice, pages 12-13).
Biblical ethics fills me with this vision of the world as it will be and calls me to live out its values in the present. This is what gives Christianity its reformist tendencies. The vision of the reign of God causes us to be discontent with cultural, political, economic, and social systems that impede the experience of shalom.
Second, the Scriptures show us how people worked out their faith in the world as it was. At the same time that the vision of the future creates a reformist streak within us, the reality is that we live within the world as it is, a world that falls far short of the vision of the future. In the Bible this sets up a delicate interplay between seeking to live out the values of the world as it will be and the realities of the world as it was. No-one can escape the cultural, economic, political and religious systems within which they live, so biblical ethics always consisted of an attempt to determine how the values and vision of the world as it will be could be lived out in the world as it was.
At times this worked itself out as resistance – seen for example in the refusal of Christians to worship any God other than the God revealed in Jesus and in the determination to defy social conventions that divided people on grounds of ethnicity, gender, or social status and instead embrace one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
On other occasions we see an effort to infuse the values of the future into social, cultural and political systems that fell far short of the vision of the future. The household codes of the New Testament are a good example of this. They recognised that first century Christians lived in societies in which the household was organised along patriarchal lines – with a male at the head of the household and wife/wives, slaves and children subservant and subordinate to the male head. Held up against the vision of the world to come this was an ugly structure that diminished people and left them exposed to abuse. Yet it was also the reality in which people lived. The strategy of the household codes was to urge people to infuse the system with love, grace, compassion and kindness. As an ethic for all time it is clearly compromised and inadequate, but it was an ethic that moved first century Christians closer toward the biblical vision. Similarly, the permission given to the Israelites to take wives as part of the bounty of war seems designed not to offer approval of the practise, but, knowing it will happen, to regulate it so as to minimise the harm.
Recognising this pattern in the Bible has helped me move beyond a simple equation of biblical commands with the will of God for all people and all times, or the assumption that some biblical instructions are culturally shaped while others transcend culture. It encourages me to see that “being biblical” does not mean replicating the life of the first Christians, but following the pattern of the Scriptures which is to allow the vision and values of the future reign of God, so vividly and profoundly incarnated in Christ, to shape the way I live in my place and time.
One of the most confronting parables Jesus told was his account of the sheep and goats (found in Matthew 25). The end of the age has come and humanity is gathered before Christ for judgement. Humankind is sorted into two groups: sheep, who the king claims fed him when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, provided hospitality when he was a stranger, clothed him when he needed clothes, looked after him while he was sick, and visited him while he was imprisoned; and goats, whom the king says failed to do these things.
Both groups are bewildered. They cannot recall ever seeing the king in a state of need, to which the king replies “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” The sheep are then welcomed into eternal life, while the goats are condemned to eternal punishment.
The story is difficult on a number of levels. First, it seems to set a standard for belonging to God’s kingdom that is impossible to meet. Who among us cannot recall a time we walked past a homeless person in the street; expended money on truly discretionary pursuits when we could have donated more to a charity helping people living in poverty; or let an opportunity pass to care for somebody who we know needed it at the time? If we are honest with ourselves it would seem that pretty much all of humankind would be goats.
Second, there are divided interpretations on whom Jesus is referring to when he speaks of “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”. Some interpreters believe the phrase identifies followers of Christ, with the parable then speaking of the community of believers caring for one another at the same time that they are vilified and rejected by those outside the community of faith, or to itinerant missionaries who travel from town to town depending upon the goodwill and hospitality of those who embrace their message. Others argue that the least of these is a reference to all people in a state of homelessness, hunger, poverty, or victims of unjust treatment.
Here’s my take.
First, in telling this parable Jesus buys into a debate taking place during his time. As best we can tell, in the day of Jesus almost all Jews affirmed the notion that the time would come when the nations would be gathered judgement. The debate was on what grounds judgement would occur. Some argued that the sheep would be the Israelites and the goats the Gentiles. Others argued that the sheep were Israelites who were faithful to the law, and the goats were all others. Some allowed that there may be gentiles who were faithful to the law and so were part of the kingdom. Jesus subverts all of these interpretations, suggesting that the key issue is how they were related to him, the king.
Second, it seems to me almost certain that “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” should be understood as a reference to human beings in general and not to the followers of Jesus in particular. The reason for this is that the one who speaks is identified as “the King”. He is clearly king over both the sheep and the goats, that is over all humankind. In the biblical tradition of kingship it was the sacred duty of kings to secure the rights of the poor and vulnerable groups such as widows and orphans (see Proverbs 30:1-9; Jeremiah 22:1-24; Daniel 7). The king is not to see his subjects as people to be exploited and oppressed, but as neighbours to be loved. The parable sets Jesus up as King over all humankind, so that “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” are those subjects of low status who were pushed to the fringes of society and left hungry, homeless, exploited, and oppressed.
The point of the parable is not to suggest that entry into the kingdom of God is a reward merited by a life of virtuous behaviour, but to point out that those who belong to the kingdom are those who have identified themselves with the King and the King’s mission to bring kindness, justice, and mercy to those commonly denied it.
Moreover the parable calls us to much more than serendipitous responses to those we meet who are in need. In the culture of the biblical eras and particularly of Israel, people were hungry, homeless, physically weak, and imprisoned because the political and economic systems were designed to exploit them and the rich and powerful colluded to appropriate their wealth and labour. Read the Old Testament prophets and they don’t identify hunger, homelessness, and disadvantage as bad luck, an inevitable part of life in a broken world, or because of the laziness of poor. They consistently sheet the issue home to a failure of the rich and powerful to recognise the claim of the poor to land, to loans, and to debt relief.
The parable is a call for us who know the King to see ourselves as the king’s hands and feet in creating a world in which our fellow human beings are freed from violence, greed, exploitation, oppression and the evils these bring.
Finally, we need to be careful to read this parable in the light of the whole corpus of Jesus’s teaching. It would be a mistake to see this as suggesting any single failure to love those in need disqualifies us from belonging to the kingdom of God. Jesus speaks about the patterns of our lives as an indicator of the direction of our hearts and the nature of our faith (e.g. Matthew 7:15-23). This informs how we read the meaning of his parable of the sheep and goats. He is not suggesting that the sheep have never failed to love the hungry, the naked, the weak or the imprisoned, but that the pattern of their life is one of investing in those who are disadvantaged and oppressed. A comparison would be how we think of our parents. My parents were extraordinarily good parents to me because the pattern of their life was one of grace, love and generosity. This did not mean they were perfect. There were times of course when they failed to act with wisdom, grace or generosity, but these were not the pattern. Moreover Jesus’s relationship with his disciples was one of extraordinary grace as they learned to take the journey with him. Indeed in the Gospels are seen to stuff up more than they get it right, but the overall direction of their lives was one towards the way of Christ rather than away from it.
The parable and is not designed to induce anxiety over some lapse we may recall from our past, but to shape us as people who identify with the mission of King Jesus to bring hope, healing and deliverance to all human beings who are suffering exploitation, oppression and persecution.
I was out for dinner this week when someone wondered whether in 20 years time gay couples will be welcomed and affirmed in our churches and whether we will be as embarrassed by our present opposition to gay relationships as we are that Christians once argued in support of slavery, racial segregation, and female subordination? If history is anything to go by, rightly or wrongly, I think the answer is “yes”.
We evangelicals fondly declare that in Jesus and the bible God has given us his universal moral absolutes. Yet our history is littered not with examples of Christians discovering God’s universal moral absolutes and sticking to them but by constant and dramatic changes of mind. To the examples given above add complete about-faces in our ethics of war, government, wealth, sex, environment, divorce and remarriage, and more.
The pattern is almost always the same. We baptise the prevailing view of our culture or sub-culture and equate it with biblical teaching. We declare the bible is crystal clear and our only responsibility is to obey. Then as culture shifts we take another look at Scripture and develop new interpretations. Once the genie’s out of the bottle there’s no putting it back. As culture shifts Christians will gravitate toward interpretations of the bible that provide the best fit with the new cultural context and a new Christian norm comes into being. Conservatives, wedded to the culture of the past, declare the sky is falling in and question the faith of those challenging the ethic of the past, while progressives, wedded to the emerging culture, make the case that God is calling us to a different way and that should we not follow we will wound the vulnerable and consign the church to irrelevance.
It it seems to me that we have a methodological problem, which is built on our belief that Scripture provides universal moral absolutes. Convinced of this we over-read biblical texts, either to support or challenge the status quo. But what if the ethical centre of Christianity is not finding and observing universal moral absolutes but cultivating Christlike character, building lives and communities that reflect the character of God revealed in Christ – just, loving, compassionate, generous, forgiving, graceful, merciful, faithful, etc? What if ethics is no more and no less than this? What if the imperatives of the bible are not universal rules for every generation to follow but examples of how generations long past lived out the character of God within the cultural setting of their time?
I fear we are about to become embroiled in yet another nasty debate where the same old nasty patterns will be repeated only this time the issue will be gay partnerships. Rather than being captive to the character of Christ we will once again show that our ethic is little more than a pale and belated echo of culture. Isn’t it time we admit that the real problem isn’t the presenting issue but a flawed methodology that can’t deliver the universal moral absolutes we demand of it?
I was on the train from Newcastle to Sydney a few weeks back. It was a Sunday afternoon and the train was packed. I was sitting in one of the designated quiet carriages where conversations must kept to a minimum, phones are to be put away, and if you listen to music you must do so through headphones.
At Gosford a woman of similar age to me boarded the train and set beside me. She was rather annoyed and flustered because on this particular Sunday afternoon the quiet carriage was anything but quiet. Shortly after the train resumed its journey she noticed my trembling right hand and asked what the condition was. When I replied that I had Parkinson’s she reached across and gave me a long and warm hug. Upon release she commented that her grandfather had died with Parkinson’s and she felt for me. It was a spontaneous, generous display of empathy.
Moments later I saw the opposite. A Chinese man was speaking rather loudly into his mobile phone for an extended period of time when my travelling companion turned to me and muttered “Bloody Chinese. They think they can come here and do anything they want!” I suggested that perhaps a more likely explanation was that the gentleman across the aisle was not a frequent user of the train and simply didn’t know it was a quiet carriage. My companion would have nothing of that.
What strange creatures we are, that we can engage in spontaneous, generous displays of empathy towards one human being and lack it altogether towards others. The nub of the problem it seems to me is who we view as belonging to “us”. When we see another person as like us we find it easy to empathise, but when we view them as other, as unlike us, empathy makes way for a hardness of spirit.
So I was doubly blessed by this stranger who got on the train at Gosford. I was touched by her generous display of empathy towards me, and I was reminded by her distinct lack of empathy for our Chinese traveller of my need to continually work hard at seeing every fellow human being as a member of “my group”.
I was delighted today by a newspaper article on David Ferrer, the world no. 3 ranked tennis player often overlooked by spectators and press. He is quoted as saying.
Tennis has given me much more than I thought it would…but my family, my friends and the people around me – in the real life, we have to be good people. This is the aim of my life.
To win one major title would maean very much to me…but it would not mean everything to me in this life to win at playing a sport.
Ferrer seems to have a genuine humility about him. He recognises that being great at sport does not make you great at being a person, and which of these matters most.
Humility is a misunderstood virtue. We often associate it with quietness, but in my experience a quiet person can be as proud as a loud one. I recall a church leader renowned for his humility on the basis of his quietness once angrily protesting to me that he was being treated like a servant when I suggested the communion servers sit in the front row rather than come up onto the stage…not so humble.
Humility as i understand it is to think honestly about yourself in relation to others, to own your strengths and weaknesses, to see that others also have strengths and weaknesses, that they are often strong where you are weak, to celebrate their strengths while exercising yours, and to learn from them whiile contributing back what you can. Moreover, it is to be free of the need to feel validated as a human being on the basis of achievements.
This is what struck me as I read David Ferrer’s story, and what I strive, with varying degrees of success, to make part of my own.