In my previous posts I have been explaining in brief terms how people thought about “ethics” in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, that is, how they decided what kinds of human activities were best for themselves and for their society, how they were to interact with one another, what values and virtues they should hold and what values and vices they should reject.
Part of my thesis – which I hope to spell out in my next book – is that Christianity changed how people understood virtuous activity and the good life, how they urged people to behave, and why they did so. My argument will be the what we think of as the driving force of most ethics today is not at all what people in the world at large in antiquity thought. At all.
So far in these posts I’ve tried to show how pagans were particularly concerned with “well-being” or “happiness” as a guide for how to live. Jesus, however, rigorously adopted a Jewish view that the main criterion for behavior was concern for the other person, even if that person was a stranger, a nobody, or even an enemy. You won’t find *that* in Greek and Roman discourse.
But it was the center of Jesus teaching and became the linchpin of early Christian ethics. I pick up here where I left off in my last post. As I indicated there, the only way for anyone (whether Jew or gentile) to enter the “Kingdom of God” that was soon to appear was by
behaving in ways he demanded. Jesus appears to have had very little concern with the cultic laws and purity regulations of Scripture emphasized by other Jewish teachers (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.). He had a minimal interest in sacrifices and ritual. He was instead concerned with the “love commandment,” which in our earliest account of his teaching (Mark 12:28-34), is presented as a double commandment, to love “the Lord your God” with your entire being as required by Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and to “love your neighbor as yourself” as enjoined in Leviticus 19:18.
In his ethical teachings, Jesus is quite clear: those who loved others – not in how they felt toward them but in how they treated them – would enter the kingdom. That meant being as concerned for others’ well-being as for your own. You feed, clothe, and house yourself. You are to do the same for others. Give to those who are in need. Even if it requires a personal sacrifice.
This act of love without condition was not to be directed just to fellow Jews, but to everyone. You are not to hate, hurt, or destroy outsiders, but act in ways that most benefit them. Your “neighbor” is the despised Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). You are actually to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:43-48). When you are mistreated you are not to retaliate; if you are abused by others you should instead turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-42). You are to forgive those who have hurt you just as God forgives you (Matthew 6:12). And you are to forgive them not just, say, “seven times” (i.e., a lot) but “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).
Most surprising, Jesus proclaimed that this kind of behavior would bring salvation in the coming kingdom to everyone who practiced it – not only Jews but even pagans who worshiped other gods. Jesus claims there will be many who come from other nations who will enter into the kingdom when many Jews have been excluded (Luke 13:28-20). In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), it is the peoples from the pagan nations of the world who have never known about Jesus, let alone worshiped him, who are brought into God’s kingdom – precisely because they provided for those who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, in prison, and lonely. All those who refused to do so, regardless of ethnic identity or religious practices, are sent to a fiery death.
The love command of Jesus is repeated throughout the writings of his early followers, by Paul (Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14), James (James 2:8), the Didache (1:2; 2:7); the letter of Barnabas (19:5), and on into church leaders of the second and third centuries (Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and so on). Even so, over the course of Christian history most readers of the Gospels have either claimed or assumed that Jesus’ radical teachings on love cannot be taken literally. These teachings are clearly impracticable on both the individual and societal level. But it is a very big mistake to think that Jesus was concerned with practicalities. He himself realized it was incredibly difficult to enact the principles he propounded: those with wealth are to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor if they want to have “treasures in heaven.” But who can do that? Jesus himself said it would take a miracle: it would be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” (Mark 10:25). And that’s just on the personal level. Jesus’ ethics could never govern large collectives. Any nation that based its foreign policy on the Sermon on the Mount would not last a week.
That was of no concern to Jesus. The end was coming very soon. What mattered was entering into God’s kingdom. To do that meant engaging in energetic actions to help those in need, even at great personal sacrifice. God was the God of the poor, and to be admitted into his reign required championing their cause.