The Ethics of Jesus

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 5:38-48

Some of the most famous things Jesus ever said, things like “Love your enemies” and “Turn the other cheek” point us to the very heart of his ethics.

These verses fall into the category of things we might wish Jesus hadn’t said. Those of us who are Christians, of course, place a high premium upon following Jesus. It’s what we do, but it isn’t easy. Turning the other cheek, going the second mile, cheerfully lending to anyone who asks for anything, refusing to retaliate or defend ourselves, loving our enemies – it all sounds so impossible. Can Jesus have meant us to take these sayings literally? Does he actually expect us to try to live this way? He can, and he does.

As I drove into the office the other day, I was listening to a news report on the radio about another suicide bombing that killed dozens of innocent people. What an incredible contrast between Jesus’ ethics and the ethics of hatred and revenge that motivate so many people. Does anybody doubt whose teaching would make the world a better place?


Why can’t people be more like Jesus? Why can’t they see that his commands are the only way to true happiness and peace? While it would be wonderful if everyone on earth learned to practice tolerance and forgiveness and love, we shouldn’t be surprised that so few actually do. You see, Jesus’ ethics aren’t natural. He’s continuing his assault on the world’s value system with the list of actions he commands here. Jesus has already been extolling the blessedness of poverty over wealth, hunger over fullness, weeping over laughter, rejection over acceptance. As if that wasn’t topsy-turvy enough, now he proceeds to stand the world’s code of conduct on its head.

He begins by telling us not to resist one who does evil to us or to defend ourselves against those who try to take advantage of us. Now Jesus is not forbidding legitimate self-defense, nor is he telling us not to protect others from evil. The illustrations he chooses all come from private, personal relationships. For instance, when he talks about being slapped on the cheek, that’s an example not of an assault but of an insult. When Jesus tells us to turn that other cheek, what he means is that we should practice forgiveness rather than retaliation. In the other examples, he’s telling us to be generous instead of resentful even when people make selfish demands upon us. Perhaps most disconcerting of all is when he tells us to love instead of hate those whom we would naturally dislike. “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I tell you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

This directly contradicts the way the world operates. It goes against every ordinary human instinct. The basic law of human relationships, the one we learn from childhood up (for that matter, we don’t really have to learn it, it’s something we’re born with) is “tit for tat.” Give what you get, and then some. Don’t get mad, get even. Help your friends and hurt your enemies. Be good to those who are good to you and pay back those who attack you in kind. But Jesus says no to all that. Our treatment of others is not to be determined by their treatment of us. Our words and actions must not be controlled by what others do to us, but by love. Do good to others, even when they deserve the opposite, Jesus says. Help people even when they can’t or won’t help you in return. Here are the ethics of Jesus. This is the heart of Christian morality. This is the way Christians behave.


It is really not difficult to understand what Jesus is telling us to do here. What is difficult is accepting what he says. No one could actually live this way, could they? Worse than that, it seems stupid, even dangerous to try. No one should live that way. Jesus’ ethics look like an invitation for people to step on us, take advantage of us, roll right over us. They seem to be a recipe for allowing evil to dominate the world. While we should not press his examples beyond their illustrative function, or apply what he intended as teaching on personal relations to social institutions or governments or to people in their official capacities, still we who follow Jesus are obliged to take his commands seriously.

Jesus gives us two clear reasons for doing this. First, we must follow Jesus’ commands, as difficult as they seem, because Christians are supposed to live differently from non-Christians. Of course Christian morality is unnatural. We should expect it to be. If faith in Christ doesn’t make us live better than we naturally live without it, what good is it? If being a disciple of Jesus does not make a discernable difference in our attitudes and actions, why bother making the claim? For Christians to live the way that comes naturally, to play the world’s games by the world’s rules – well, it’s just not good enough. We must do better. “Look,” says Jesus, in effect, “even Nazis can be good to their friends and kind to their children. What’s the big deal about that? I’m expecting much more from you.” What is at stake here is the reality of our discipleship. Jesus isn’t encouraging us to think we’re better than everybody else, but he is expecting that if we really do believe in him, then our faith ought to be able to change us so that we will act better – that is, more graciously and lovingly – than we otherwise would.

Secondly, we must act the way Jesus tells us to because this is exactly how God behaves, and God is our Father if we are Christians. Think about God’s outrageous goodness. He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good. He sends rain on the just and on the unjust. He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, says Jesus elsewhere (Luke 6:35-36). That is really quite astonishing. We tend to worry about the practical consequences of following Jesus’ commands. What if I try to show this kind of love and people take advantage of me? What if I give mercy and kindness and I’m paid back with ingratitude? What if I forgive and they just laugh at me and play me for a sucker?

But isn’t that exactly how most people treat God? Every day they take his good gifts and demand still more without so much as a thank you. They live oblivious to him, as if he didn’t exist, spending months on end without a serious thought of him. They make fun of him. They disregard his will. They laugh at his commandments and spoil his fair creation and desecrate his image by the way they treat their fellow humans. They blaspheme the living God even while eating his food and breathing his air and basking in his sunshine. And what does God do? He sends the sunshine and the rain and all the other general blessings of life indiscriminately to everyone. “He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35). You know, we need to be like that too. We need to give love to the unlovely and mercy to the undeserving, not because we naively think this will somehow magically change people and make them good in return (it probably won’t) but because this is what our heavenly Father does. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). We want to show a family resemblance that proves whose children we really are.


When I was in school, whenever the teacher would give us an assignment, someone in the class was always bound to ask, “How much do we have to do for an A?” We all want to know what the minimum standard is so we can make sure we attain it. We all want to find out the least we must do to succeed because, as Emerson said, “man is as lazy as he dares to be.” Well, there is a minimum spiritual standard too, and Jesus tells us what it is. Would you like to know the least you have to do to be saved? Just how religious do you have to be? Do you have to go to church a certain number of times? How much money must you give? Is there a maximum number of sins permitted, beyond which condemnation is automatic? Do smaller sins count less than major ones, ten lies, maybe, equal one adultery?

If you want to know the lowest requirement for going to heaven, here is it, straight from Jesus: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Nothing less than this will do. That hardly seems fair. Asking for perfection from humans is like asking pigs to fly or frogs to sing. It’s just not in us. But Jesus was completely serious. When he says we must be perfect as God is, he’s not thinking of some sort of fussy flawlessness or a cautious mistake-free existence. It’s not like a golfer who never makes bogie or a footballer who never draws a yellow card or a driver who never has an accident. The word Jesus uses means to be complete or finished. Jesus is requiring of his followers moral maturity. He wants us to be ethical grownups. “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds” – that’s what he’s saying. This is how one student of the Sermon on the Mount summarizes it: “Maturity is looking at every person we meet and saying, at least to ourselves, ‘I will never, God helping me, do anything to hurt you, neither by angrily lashing out at you, lustfully sidling up to you, faithlessly slipping away from you, verbally oiling you up, protectively hitting back at you or even justifiably disliking you’” (Dale Bruner).

Maybe you’re thinking, “When all is said, this kind of goodness, this humility and restraint, this kind of maturity, this sort of love – it’s just not possible. God sets us an impossibly high standard. No one can really live this way.” But Someone did. And remember, nothing is impossible with God. The same Jesus who makes these ethical demands upon us also comes to live within us by faith. His Spirit makes us new creatures and by his power we can and will be like him some day. “O God,” prayed St. Augustine, “command what you will, only give what you command.” And by faith you can pray the very same thing, and in God’s good time, that prayer will be answered.