Every approximation to the Reign of God in humanity demands an advance in the social relations of men, that is, an advance in ethics. Every really epochal advance must have it or slip back. There must be, first, better obedience to the moral principles already recognized and accepted by society; second, an expansion of the sway of ethical duty to new fields and wider groups of humanity; and third, a recognition of new duties and the assimilation of new and higher ethical conceptions.
To what extent did Jesus appreciate these supreme needs?
First Day: Living up to the Old Standards
In the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he came into all the region round about the Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
He said therefore to the multitudes that went out to be baptized of him, Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And even now the axe also lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. -- Luke 3:2-9.
The ABC of social renewal and moral advance is for each of us to face our sins sincerely and get on a basis of frankness with God and ourselves. Therefore Christianity set out with a call for personal repentance. If we only acted up to what we know to be right, this world would be a different place. But we fool ourselves with protective coloring devices in order to keep our own self-respect. Take our language, for instance; it reeks with evasive euphemisms intended to make nasty sins look prettier. We call stealing "swiping" and cheating "cribbing." When we have been drunk we say we were "squiffy." As soon as we face the facts, we realize that what we call peccadilloes in ourselves are the black sins that have slain the innocents and have hag ridden humanity through all its history. That is the beginning of social vision. Personal repentance is a social advance.
What equivalent have college men and women for the plea of the Pharisees that they were Abraham's children and had a pull with God?
Second Day: Expanding the Area of Obligation
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and made trial of him, saying, Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And he said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, desiring to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor? Jesus made answer and said, A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance a certain priest was going down that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And in like manner a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion, and came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on them oil and wine; and he set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow he took out two shillings, and gave them to the host, and said, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, I, when I come back again, will repay thee. Which of these three, thinkest thou, proved neighbor unto him that fell among the robbers? And he said, He that showed mercy on him. And Jesus said unto him, Go, and do thou likewise. -- Luke 10:25-37.
A meaty story and a famous one. The lawyer found his own answer uncomfortably simple when it was taken up in such a matter-of-fact way. It was suddenly up to him to act on his own advice. He tried to hedge by raising a new question: "Love my neighbor? Certainly. But who is my neighbor?" Who is within the cordon of fraternal fellowship with me? All men of my people and religion? Or only the good and desirable people? Where do you draw the line? Follows the story of the Good Samaritan. "Your neighbor? The alien and the heretic." The logic of the reply demanded that some good Jew would be shown caring for a wounded Samaritan. Jesus gives it a smashing effectiveness by reversing the role and showing the hated Samaritan as the heroic lover of his kind. To get the situation we must remember the historic enmity between the Jews and the half-breed aliens who had stolen their land and their religion while they were exiled. If we substitute Spaniard and Moor, Kurd and Armenian, Serb and Bulgar, we may get the tension.
Who are our American Samaritans?
Third Day: Raising the Standards
We must live up to what we know is right, and we must expand the area of ethical obligation to take in even men of alien race and hostile religion. But beyond that, we need a conscious advance in the ethical standards themselves. Jesus worked out this principle with perfect clearness in a part of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:17-48. He states the need, and then shows in six cases how such an advance would work out. We shall take these up in their order. Matthew has introduced scattered sayings of Jesus which serve as corollaries, but which do not bear directly on the real course of the argument; for instance, Matthew 5:23-26; 29-30. In our quotations in this and the following days we shall confine ourselves to the main line of thought in order to concentrate attention on that.
Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil.... For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. -- Matt.5:17, 20.
Apparently conservative Jews soon felt the spiritual freedom and force in the teachings of Jesus. He seemed to them to be attacking the sacred Law, the foundation of morality and religion. Jesus mentions the charge but denies it. His purpose was not destructive but constructive. He demanded not less righteousness but more. The lines of right living needed to be prolonged. The traditional standards were no longer adequate. A man might obey them and yet not be a good man. The scribes and Pharisees were the model church members of Judaism and experts in piety, yet they were not qualified to enter the Kingdom of God.
Are we also good people who are not good enough?
Fourth Day: The Sins of Hate
Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the hell of fire. -- Matt.5:21, 22.
The Law of Moses forbade murder; a man-slayer was amenable in the ordinary court. Was this an adequate expression of the sacredness of human life and personality? It never even scratched a man or woman who assaulted the soul of another with anger and curses. Jesus proposed that these sins be restandardized. Plain anger ought to be valued about as murder used to be. And if anybody went so far as to revile a brother and deny his moral or intellectual worth, the Supreme Court and Gehenna would be about right for him. The lawyers' gauge of culpability can not get down to the subtler expressions of lovelessness which break the prime law of the Kingdom.
By what methods is contempt expressed in our own social life?
How highly do we rate the moral value of self-respect?
Fifth Day: The Sins of Sex
Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart....
It was said also, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress; and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery. -- Matt.5:27, 28; 31, 32.
These two cases deal with sex. The old law forbade adultery, the infringement of family life, and stopped there. Jesus goes back of the act to the lustful imaginations and the wandering eye, which may lack opportunity but which are the real spring of all uncleanness. He runs the line of ethical obligation farther back.
The law of divorce (Deut.24:1), especially as interpreted by the scribes, was very comfortable -- for the male. He could divorce his wife for almost any cause. Her only protection was that a formal paper had to be given her which enabled her to marry again. As a woman's economic and social standing in that age depended almost wholly on her family relations, she was at the mercy of the man. Jesus demanded more protection for her. To him the relation was indissoluble. The Mosaic provision for divorce was a concession to the low moral level of the people. The ideal was the "one man, one woman" provision of the Creator. (See Matt.19:3-8). The disciples ruefully remarked that such a strengthening of the bond did not add to the attractiveness of marriage -- for the male (19:10).
Where do we draw the line between the rightful, natural desire of sex and lawless predatory lust?
Sixth Day: The Sins of Words
Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: but I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one. -- Matt.5:33-37.
Current morality had reached the point of insisting on truthfulness when a man was under oath. Solemnly to call God to witness a statement and yet to fool your neighbor by it, was downright wicked. But it was very handy. So they developed a joyful lot of casuistical distinctions as to which kind of oaths were binding and which didn't count. See how Jesus ridiculed this (Matt.23:16-22). Here he proposed that the obligation of veracity be extended to all statements. A truthful man needs no oaths to assure a doubting world that this time he is really telling what is so. Oaths are a device of the devil to limit the amount of truth in the world.
How about oaths for legal purposes? Could they be dispensed with? Have they done more good or harm?
Seventh Day: The Sins of Strife
Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. -- Matt.5:38-48.
The Law restricted the natural desire for revenge to the limit of a strict equivalent. If a man knocked out your tooth, you could knock out one for him, but not two teeth, nor all he had. Of course retaliation never heals a feud. Jesus proposes to limit revenge still farther and to retaliate only by acts of kindness. That is, in fact, the only way to end a quarrel completely and victoriously. It reestablishes fellowship and kills an enemy.
The Law called for love for one's neighbors; the scribes had added the permission to hate one's enemies. Jesus raises the standards of good-will. The law of love applies to all. There is nothing great in loving those who love us. Anybody can do that. Heroic love begins where no love comes to meet it. Those who can win that triumph show the true family likeness of God, and are now living in his Kingdom.
What are our personal experiences as to the utility of revenge?
What is the difference between the non-resistance which Jesus proposed, and cowardice?
Is there such a thing in fact as loving your enemies?
Study for the Week
The Hebrew religion was an unfinished religion. That is one of the best proofs of its divine inspiration. The prophets had the forward look. Great things were yet to come. As one of the most daring expressed it, the old and hallowed covenant, made by God at the Exodus, would be superseded by a new and higher relation; God would write his law into the hearts of the people; the old drill in outward statutes would disappear, for all men would know God by an inward experience of forgiveness and love (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Jesus not only shared this expectation of a new religious era, but set it in the center of his teaching. Religion to him was not static. He lived in a moving world. A new age was coming, and he would be the initiator of it. "From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of God suffereth violence, and men of violence take it by force." John had been the greatest of the prophets; with him a new swift movement had begun; but something far greater was coming; even the least in the new age would have an advantage over John (Matt.11:11-19).
The popular conception expected the new age to come by divine miraculous interference simply. The Messiah would descend from heaven with angelic legions, expel the Romans, judge the nation, punish the apostate Jews, and then the new Jerusalem, which was already complete and waiting in heaven, would descend from above. That was the Utopia of Jewish apocalypticism. Jesus never eliminated the direct acts of God and the significance of divine catastrophes from his outlook. But in his parables taken from biological processes (see especially Matthew 13) he developed a conception of continuous and quiet growth, culminating at last in the judgment act of God. The Kingdom of God, he said, is like a farmer who sows his grain and lets the forces of nature work; he goes about his daily tasks, and all the time the tiny blades come up, the ear forms and gets heavy, and then comes the harvest (Mark 4:26-29). Jesus was working his way toward evolutionary conceptions. They were so new to his followers that he put them in parable form to avoid antagonism.
Such a conception of the Kingdom brought it closer to human action. It was already at work; it was in one sense already present (Luke 17:20-21). It was possible then to help it along.
The most obvious duty was for every man to clean up his own backyard and repent of his sins. Every one should approximate the life of the Kingdom by living now as he would expect to live then. But, as we have seen from his sayings, Jesus went far beyond this. He demanded an elevation of the accepted ethical standards. It was not simply a matter of erring and lagging individuals, but of the socialized norms of conduct. He had deep reverence and loyalty for the religion of his nation, and never told his followers to break with it. But he asserted boldly that the customary ethics of Judaism, based on the Decalogue and its interpretation by the Jewish theologians, was not good enough. It was good as far as it went, and he had no destructive criticism of it, but it needed to be "fulfilled" and to have its lines prolonged.
We have studied the six sample instances which he offered in order to explain his principle of moral and social progress. In each case he accepts the law as it stood, but asks for more of the same thing, more respect for personality, more reverence for womanhood, more stability for the home, more truthfulness, more peacefulness, more love. Thus he combined continuity with progress, conservatism with radicalism.
The platform for ethical progress laid down in the Sermon on the Mount is a great platform. When Tolstoi first realized the social significance of these simple sentences, it acted as a revelation which changed his life. Even men who reject the supernatural claims of Christianity uncover before the Sermon on the Mount. Yet its fate is tragic. It has not been "damned with faint praise," but made ineffective by universal praise. Its commandments are lifted so high that nobody feels under obligations to act on them. Only small sections of the Christian Church have taken the sayings on oaths, non-resistance, and love of enemies to mean what they say and to be obligatory. Yet all feel that the line of ethical and social advance must lie in the direction traced by Jesus, and if society could only climb out of the present pit of predatory selfishness and meanness to that level, it would be heaven.
Do you and I believe in it? Do we believe that it is not enough to keep out of the spiritual hell and damnation of adultery, but that a clean mind would be the most efficient and cheerful mind? Do we believe that a man who forgives and keeps sweet is happier and safer than a man who always resents things and stirs the witches' caldron of hate in his soul? If a man loved his enemy and turned the other cheek, would he be everybody's door-mat or everybody's temple of refuge?
Suppose we mark for the present those parts which we are willing to accept as our own standards of action. If there are portions which do not seem practicable, let us post them in our minds as debatable propositions, as points to be tested by the experience of coming years, or as working hypotheses in the science of living.
But whatever we may think of single points, let us stick to the leading thought of Jesus, that every advance toward the Kingdom of God, that is, toward the true social order, involves a raising of the ethical standards accepted by society. This is a principle of social progress which every leading intellect ought to know by heart.
When Jesus offered his six sample cases of ethical progress, he had no intention of exhausting the principle of advance which he laid down. There was more to say about the Jewish law. It is now for his followers to treat the inherited ethical conceptions of traditional Christianity with the same combination of reverence and courage with which he treated the Jewish law.
From the beginning Christianity taught self-control and the mastery of the spirit over physical desires. It always condemned drunkenness. But ancient Christianity never demanded abstinence from fermented drink. With modern methods of manufacturing alcoholic drinks and modern capitalistic methods of pushing their sale, the danger has become more pressing. With modern scientific knowledge the physiological and social problems of drink have become clearer. Modern life demands an undrugged nervous system for quick and steady reactions. It was said of old time, "Thou shalt not get drunk"; but today the spirit of Christianity and modern life says, "Thou shalt not drink nor sell intoxicants at all."
In every case in which the interests of woman came before Jesus, he took her side. At that time woman was the suppressed half of humanity. The attitude of historic Christianity has been a mixture between his spirit and the spirit of the patriarchal family. Today Christianity is plainly prolonging the line of respect and spiritual valuation to the point of equality between men and women -- and beyond.
From the beginning an emancipating force resided in Christianity which was bound to register its effects in political life. But in an age of despotism it might have to confine its political morality to the duty of patient submission, and content itself with offering little sanctuaries of freedom to the oppressed in the Christian fraternities. Today, in the age of democracy, it has become immoral to endure private ownership of government. It is no longer a sufficient righteousness to live a good life in private. Christianity needs an ethic of public life.
It was said of old "Thou shalt not commit murder." It is said to us, "Ye shall not wear down life in the young by premature hard labor; nor let the fear of poverty freeze the fountain of life; and ye shall put a stop to war."
It was said of old, "Thou shalt not steal." It is said to us, "Ye shall take no unearned gain from your fellows, but pay to society in productive labor what ye take from it in goods."
This matter of raising the moral standards of society is preeminently an affair of the young. They must do it or it will never be done. The Sermon on the Mount was spoken by a young man, and it moves with the impetuous virility of youth. The old are water-logged physically. They are mentally bound up with the institutions inside of which they have spent a lifetime, and they want to enjoy in peace the wealth and position they have attained. We shall be just the same forty years from now. But while we are young is the time to make a forward run with the flag of Christ, the banner of justice and love, and plant it on the heights yonder. We must not only be better men and women than we are now. We must leave a better world behind us when we are through with it. Whatever we affirm in our growing years will work out in some fashion in our years of maturity and power. If fifty thousand college men and women a year would range themselves alongside of Jesus Christ, look at our present world as open-eyed as he looked at his world, see where the social standards of conduct are in contradiction with his spirit and with modern need, and work to raise them, the world would feel the effect in ten years. And those who would strive in that way would live by faith in the higher commonwealth of God and have some of its nobility of spirit.
Suggestions for Thought and Discussion
I. Living Up to the Old Standards
1. What would happen if a college community began to live up to the standards of work and honor which all acknowledge?
2. Does human nature welcome a moral advance?
II. The Ethical Program of Jesus
1. What advance does Jesus' program make necessary? State the main principle in Matt.5:17-48, and the six applications made by Jesus himself. How was this principle connected with his idea of the Kingdom?
2. Can we agree with the principle? How far can we go with Jesus in his application?
3. Would a man get more or less satisfaction out of life if he obeyed these maxims in private life?
4. How far could a man hold his own if he obeyed them in a reasonable way in business or in public life? If a man loved his enemies and turned the other cheek, would he be everybody's doormat or everybody's friend and refuge?
III. Raising the Standards Today
1. On what ethical questions have we come to the point where the moral standards accepted by society can be and must be raised?
2. If you could purchase one single advance by your life, what would you choose?
3. How does an expansion of the area of full social obligation operate to raise the standards of conduct? Who is my neighbor, and who is not?
IV. For Special Discussion
1. A new intellectual age has opened with the rise of modern science; what new moral standards should be the result of our new knowledge?
2. A new economic age opened with the invention of power machinery and the social organization of labor; what new moral standards should have been the result of the new wealth of civilization?
3. A new political era opened with the rise of democracy; what new moral standards should be achieved in the life of States and cities?
4. A new era began in world-wide relations with the beginning of steam-carried commerce; what new standards are needed for international and inter-racial relations?