The Ethics of the Kingdom of God
Course: Biblical Theology
Lecture: The Ethics of the Kingdom of God
This is tape 2 in the series on the Theology of the New Testament Gospels.
In our first lecture, we discussed the central feature of Jesus' ministry as portrayed in the synoptic gospels: namely the arrival of the kingdom of God in a present and yet still future capacity, often summarized by the slogan already but not yet. The presentation contained much rich theology, but the listener could be forgiven for wondering at the end what practical difference the kingdom teaching of Jesus makes for Christian living. That question leads us naturally to the topic for this lecture, namely, the Ethics of the Kingdom. Almost as much of Jesus' teaching is about how His followers should live, as about what they should believe and how they should think about God's ways with humanity. We will reflect on Jesus' ethics (the foundation for Christian ethics) under nine headings and allude to a variety of passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
I. People in the First Century had a Corporate Mindset
As an important introductory topic, we may remind ourselves that people in the first century Mediterranean world often thought corporately, or communally. That is to say, they thought as members of groups. And they thought of their responsibilities and obligations to those groups, before they thought of individual rights or responsibilities. Because this is so different from at least the modern Western world, though certainly not in many other parts of today's world, it is a good reminder to place it as our first sub-topic. We do this before proceeding to commands where we potentially might misinterpret or not fully interpret Jesus' meaning because we were thinking as rugged Western individualists.
a. Matthew 6:33
Indeed, we may use two examples of this corporate dimension of Jesus' ethic here already under this first heading. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:33 (with parallels in Luke 12) declares, "But seek first God's kingdom and His righteousness and all these things [things that Jesus has just enumerated such as the basics of food and drink and clothing] will be given to you as well." But how are we to understand this text when many faithful, obedient Christians throughout history have not, at key junctures in their lives, had adequate food or drink or clothing? What about those who have starved to death? What about those who have languished without release in prison or even suffered martyrdom?
The observation that the personal pronouns in this verse, as so often in Jesus' teaching, are all plural, helps us make sense of His promise. But you (plural, the community of My disciples, what today we call the church) seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. And we know that part of God's righteousness is supplying the basic physical and material, as well as spiritual, needs, particularly of His followers. Therefore, as the church is obedient to this command, it will take care, at least at a minimal level, of the poor and the needy in its midst in Christian circles. Hopefully it will also move beyond this as well. But, at the very least, it will take care of fellow Christians. In this context, we do not need to speak of either broad generalizations or strictly heavenly interpretations of good in the life to come. Rather, we can quite literally claim the promise that, when the church functions as it has been called to, the basics of life will be provided for its members.
b. Mark 10:29
Or consider Mark 10:29 (and parallels), which also functions in a confirming way for the interpretation of Matthew 6:33 (and parallels) just offered. Here Jesus has been speaking to the rich, young ruler and then to the disciples about the dangers of wealth. Peter, ever the impetuous spokesman for the twelve, in verse 28 pipes up: "We have left everything to follow You." And Jesus replies, "Truly, I tell you, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for Me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields, along with persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life." Mark makes it very clear that His promise, quoting Jesus, is not strictly eschatological or reserved for the future. It includes new family members in this present age. How do Christians gain up to a hundred-fold new family members? Clearly in the family of God's people. So it only follows that the way in which they receive a hundred times as many homes and fields, property or material possessions, is also through the church. God's people share with those who are in need and make available their resources to their fellow believers with great generosity, sitting loose to their possessions and sharing them as appropriate.
II. Creating Community – Biblical Family Values
These two introductory texts lead us, therefore, to a second sub-topic of Jesus' kingdom ethics: namely, creating community more specifically and intentionally, or what we might call Biblical family values. This is important, particularly in light of contemporary political rhetoric that regularly cites family values, but does so for a whole host of competing perspectives.
a. Family Affirming (Mark 10:1ff)
Moving just back to the beginning of Mark 10 and the first two passages therein, we read about Jesus' prohibition against divorce. The parallel in Matthew 19 will allow for one exception in the case of sexual infidelity, but it is clear that the overall impetus from Jesus is to noticeably tighten up what, in His day, were very loose standards with respect to divorce (much like is true in many parts of the Western world today). Thus, we may speak of Jesus' ethic as indeed family-affirming.
He goes on after the first twelve verses of Mark to affirm little children in what certainly was a counter-cultural fashion for that time and place. In that culture, children were very much not merely to be seen but not heard, but often not even to be seen or treated as full persons until they reached adolescence (which, in those days, constituted adulthood).
b. Mark 7
Jesus will elsewhere, in Mark 7 for example, and the opening episode that spans the first twenty verses, reaffirm the central command from the Ten Commandments of honoring father and mother. He does this in the context of chastising certain Jewish leaders for reserving certain material possessions of theirs for later use in the temple while they could still profit by them, a practice known as Corban. They did this even when neglecting their own parents who were in acute need.
c. Loyalty to Spiritual "Family" vs. Biological Family
Yet intriguingly, perhaps more pervasive in the gospels than family-affirming values are family-relativizing values. Or to put it another way, recognizing that community with God and with all believers, when it comes into conflict with loyalties to one's biological family members, must take precedence.
1. Mark 3:31-35
Thus, we read at the end of Mark 3:31-35 (and parallels) what would have been a shocking scenario in Jesus' world. His biological mother and brothers arrived, standing outside a room in which He was ministering and they sent someone in to call Him. The crowd informs Him of this fact and His reply is to ask: "Who are My mother and My brothers?" And then He looked at those seated in a circle around Him, the twelve and other close followers of His at that stage of His ministry, and declared: "Here are My mother and My brothers. Whoever does God's will is My brother and sister and mother."
2. Luke 14:26
Or again in Luke 14:26, a passage that is perhaps even more striking, particularly in its Lucan form, Jesus is speaking to large crowds about counting the costs of following Him. He declares: "If anyone come to Me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, such a person cannot be My disciple." Fortunately there is a parallel in Matthew 10, which builds on the fact that love and hate, both in Greek and Hebrew, often did not have emotional connotations. Rather they referred to choose or not choose, prefer or not prefer. Therefore, we read in Matthew 10:37, "Anyone who loves their father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And anyone who loves a son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me." Jesus is not contradicting His commands elsewhere to honor father and mother, nor even His more sweeping commands to love all people (which certainly includes family members). But if there is a conflict between God and family, God must always take precedence. And the love must be so much greater for God, that loyalty to family may seem like hate in comparison.
3. Matthew 19:1-12
Finally, returning to the text on marriage and divorce and remarriage, this time in its distinctive Matthean form in Matthew 19:1-12, we read an additional segment not present in the parallel accounts. There are some called to a celibate life – to living as singles for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (see especially Matthew 19:12). In a world in which almost all healthy adult Jewish men were expected to be married, this is indeed counter-cultural and fits Jesus' own lifelong state of celibacy. There is a time and a place to recognize the greater lifelong devotion that one can give to God's kingdom work apart from marriage and family (even if that remains more of the exception than the norm throughout church history).
In short, we may sum up what Jesus is teaching under this heading of creating a spiritual community above concerns for a biological family with the little teachings in Luke 9:57-62 (and parallels) about the need for wholehearted allegiance to God. Jesus is on the road and is approached by a pair of apparent would-be disciples. One says: "I will follow You wherever You go." But Jesus replies: "Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head." Apparently the man is no longer interested.
He said to another, this time taking the initiative Himself: "Follow Me". But the man replies: "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." This is possibly not merely a reference to participating in a funeral of a recently deceased parent, but staying at home for the various Jewish mourning customs and family obligations after a death. These culminated in the exhuming of the body and reburying the skeletal remains in a smaller coffin or ossuary up to a year or so afterwards. Nevertheless, we do not want to take the sting out of Jesus' command as He replies: "Let the dead bury their own dead but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
Nor again, the appended saying in verses 61 to 62. Still another said: "I will follow you Lord, but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family." This perhaps again involves multiple days and an extensive set of ceremonies and festivities. Nevertheless, Jesus replies: "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." God's kingdom and loyalty to the church, the subjects of that kingdom, takes precedence over even the most poignant of family responsibilities when the two come into conflict.
III. Stewardship of Material Possessions
A third major topic of Jesus' kingdom ethics, and the one on which some have estimated up to 20% of all of Jesus' teaching in the four gospels directly addresses, is that of stewardship of material possessions. We take just two crucial, but representative triads of teaching.
a. Three Parables in Luke
In Luke, there are a trio of parables on the rich and riches, beginning in Luke 12:13-21 with the so-called Parable of the Rich Fool. At first glance, it could appear that this man is condemned simply because he had great possessions: a bumper crop (an unexpected surplus) and doing what would have otherwise been seen as good stewardship so that the harvested grain did not rot. He built larger underground silos to protect the grain. Yet, at the same time, in a world in which 70 to 80% of all of Israel's inhabitants eked out a marginal existence barely above the poverty line, the eight uses of the first person singular in the Greek of this passage proves striking. I will do this and I will do that. And there is not a mention anywhere of taking concern for the needy around him, with what is otherwise unnecessary, extra foodstuffs. We are grateful, perhaps, as we read at the end of the parable that this is how it will be with those who store up things for themselves, but are not rich toward God. This suggests that this rich man did not have a personal relationship with Yahweh, Jew though he may have been portrayed as. On the other hand, the very way that that lack of a relationship as demonstrated is by his utterly self-centered use and desired uses of material possessions. This is a strong rebuke to any of us who have surplus possessions and think only of ourselves as we accumulate them.
In like fashion, the so-called Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 even more strikingly appears to condemn a very wealthy man merely because he has so much wealth and pays no attention to give even crumbs from his table to a dying beggar at his doorstep, Lazarus. Again, we who have surplus perhaps breathe a sigh of relief, perhaps again too quickly, when we read, in verse 30, that now, in the life to come, he is concerned about his brothers who still are alive. He wishes someone to go to them from the world of the dead, so that they will repent. The probable implication is that he is admitting he too had never truly repented or been made right with God in this life. But again, the way this fleshes itself out in this particular story that Jesus invents to drive home His theological lessons is through the complete stinginess of one who has far more than he should be keeping for himself.
More positively, the immediately preceding parable in Luke 16:1-13 calls on God's people to be like a shrewd servant. Some have called this parable the Parable of the Unjust Steward. This often misleads people into thinking that Jesus was, through the master of the parable, praising the steward's injustice. That is not what the text says at all. Rather, verse 8 declares the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. He then makes an ironic aside that it is often true for the people of this world. Unbelievers are, we might add, often more shrewd in dealing with their own kind (with fellow unbelievers, that is to say), than are the people of light (that is, Jesus' followers). Therefore, Christ concludes: "I tell you to use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves." In other words, to pursue kingdom ethics which involve making and nurturing disciples, so that when it (that worldly wealth, money and all our material possessions in this age) is gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal dwellings. More literally, they will welcome you – those friends you have made or nurtured through the compassionate and Christian use of your material possessions.
b. Give to those who Need it more than we Do
What then specifically should we do with those possessions? A key focus in the gospels is to give a generous percentage of it to those who are in greater need of it than we are. Of course the most famous text is the text to which we have already alluded about the rich, young ruler in Mark 10:17-31 (and parallels). Is this a command that Jesus, by implication, gives to all Christians: "Go sell all that you have, give to the poor and come and follow Me"? If it were, then the vast majority of all Christians throughout human history have been flatly disobedient. But in fact, this is the only individual in all of Scripture to whom God or Christ issues such a command. And, as if to underline that fact, Luke soon afterwards juxtaposes the account of Zacchaeus. He is acknowledged as having exhibited repentance demonstrating salvation when he voluntarily gives up only half of his great wealth and promises to restore fourfold what he has defrauded people.
c. Investing Resources and Making a Profit
Even more encouraging in a largely capitalist world, no doubt, is the subsequent parable of the pounds (or menas) in Luke 19:11-27. Here the faithful stewards who are praised are those who take their master's money, invest it and make even more. There is certainly a time and place for wise investment for the sake of the kingdom. But the key is that it is for the sake of the kingdom. As in the parable, the master (God) will eventually require an accounting, not of what we have done with just a certain percentage of our material goods, but with all of it: some no doubt to give generously to others, and the rest to still spend wisely, rather than frivolously, on things that would please Him.
IV. Compassion for the Outcasts of Society
Giving away significant amounts of surplus wealth leads naturally to an even broader and a fourth fundamental sub-category of Jesus' ethical teaching, namely His compassion for the outcast of His society. These were such groups of individuals as the sick (most notably the untouchable lepers), the poor (overlapping with our discussions of rich and riches just completed), Samaritans (the descendants of the unlawful intermarriages in Old Testament times between Jew and Gentile), the full-fledged Gentile or non-Jewish person, women (at least to some degree), and prostitutes (the most notorious sinners of society). Interestingly tax-collectors are grouped in with them – that oft recurring slogan "tax-collectors and sinners". While they were not down-and-out like many others in this cluster of communities, their crimes and their lack of loyalty to Israel over against the Roman oppressors made them both particularly ritually unclean and ostracized or stigmatized. Some have called them the up-and-out of Jesus' world. Jesus declares that He has come to minister, particularly profoundly, to precisely such people.
His famous Nazareth synagogue sermon, given somewhere reasonably early on in His public ministry in Galilee, is described in fullest detail in Luke 4:16-21 (including His quotation from Isaiah 61:1-2). When reading from the Isaiah scroll, Jesus declares: "The Spirit of the Lord is on Me because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Despite some attempts to interpret these pronouncements in either exclusively spiritual or exclusively material categories, one should keep both together as one understands Jesus' announcement. He has come, as in the beatitudes, to declare the poor blessed. This is the literal physical poor (as in Luke 6:20), as well as the poor in spirit (the corresponding phrase in Matthew 5:3). These do not contradict each other, for the Greek ptochoi (poor in the plural), regularly in the Septuagint translates the Hebrew Old Testament anawim, a term for the pious poor in Israel. He came for those who are genuinely socioeconomically impoverished, but who recognize and turn to God as their only hope.
If a both-and approach, both spiritual and material poverty, is appropriate for good news to the poor, it certainly is for the imprisoned. Christ came to liberate people from the imprisonment to sin, but also He called on His followers to visit the sick and imprisoned in the famous Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. John 9 and numerous other shorter passages make it very clear that Jesus' announcement or discussion of the restoration of spiritual sight is regularly linked to His provision of physical sight for people and vice versa.
The same can be true of release for the oppressed. Thus, one of Jesus' central missions was, as in Luke 19:10, to come to seek and to save the lost (on which we commented in our first lecture). Nowhere is this illustrated more poignantly or in more detail than in the triad of parables of Luke 15 about the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost or prodigal son (or perhaps we should say lost sons). Jesus has compassion for the prodigal, the one who has deliberately rebelled and fallen on the hardest of times when he returns and is willing to repent. But He also has compassion on the more subtly lost son, the one who has never left home, but begrudges his father's welcome for his brother rather than joining in the restoration of a sinner. This was analogous to some of the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus' day and perhaps in some "Christian circles" in our day.
Compassion for the outcast extends to parables of social injustice and prayer as well. In Luke 18:1-14, the importunate widow begging an unjust judge for justice and God promising that He will much more readily be eager to grant justice to those who pray to Him than was this unjust judge willing, even though he could eventually be badgered into it. And then the parable about the Pharisee and Tax-collector, each of whom prayed. One prayed a self-righteous prayer, thanking God for how much better he was than the other. The other cried for mercy, based on no merit of his own. Jesus' reply is that it was this latter, the tax-collector, who went home justified (right with God), rather than the former.
Finally, it is interesting that Jesus' compassion for the outcast led to His regular table fellowship with them. When He created a little parable in Matthew 11 and Luke 7 (sometimes designated the Parable of the Children in the Marketplace), describing people's caricatures of His ministry and of John the Baptist, for that matter. He describes the caricature of Himself as being that of a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of tax-collectors and sinners. There is that strange combined phrase again. Imagine your profession being linked with sinners more generally. This does not demonstrate that Jesus ever did over-eat or over-drink to an extent that God would have considered sinful. But it does mean that He enjoyed a good meal and a good glass of wine. So that when people exaggerated their descriptions of His behavior, they portrayed Him, not as an ascetic, but as one over-indulging.
Is that how people caricature us, not because we do indeed over-indulge, but because we are so concerned to be intimately involved with those who do? We are so concerned for people who need the Lord, that we can be misunderstood in that respect. Or is it that we are caricatured as those who are so offended and repulsed by such behavior that we stay miles away? The latter is not what Christ had in mind.
V. Jesus' Critique of Religious Conservatives of His Day
Indeed, there is a striking contrast between this last and fourth sub-topic of compassion for the outcast and a fifth one that deals with Jesus' sharp critique for the conservative religious leaders of his world (see especially the extensive woes and invective against certain scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23).
The last quarter-century of scholarship has clearly demonstrated that at least three features, to varying degrees, characterize the theology of Judaism in the first century in Israel. As has classically been understood, there was a certain dimension of legalism – of belief that certain good works were a requirement for salvation – against which Jesus and Paul strongly protest. More common, was what has been dubbed covenantal nomism. This is the belief that, while one was saved by grace, one worked out or lived out one's religious life by detailed observance of all of the works of the law. To some degree, under the covenant at Sinai, this was true. But again, motives could transform what was intended to be joyful service to God in gratitude for His salvation into attempts to merit further blessing (even if not initial relationship with God). It would appear that Jesus and the New Testament authors are equally rejecting of covenantal nomism in such passages that we have just seen as the Pharisee and the Publican. Then thirdly there is a fair body of evidence to suggest that Israelite Judaism in the first century was at times inappropriately ethnocentric, even as Christian circles have sadly far too often become throughout church history. This is putting national interest above universal interest. Jesus' critique is a sharp one then, and now, as the various points of Matthew 23 and elsewhere unfold.
VI. Jesus Exalts Humility as a Virtue, Contrary to the Values of the Culture
Conversely, a sixth element of Jesus' kingdom ethics: He exalts what particularly in the Greco- Roman world of the first century was not considered much of a virtue at all, namely, a humble demeanor. He makes this into a center or central sub-point of His ethical injunctions. Here we may think especially of Matthew 18:1-5 and the commands to become like little children. He is not suggesting that children are subjectively necessarily any more humble than any other people of other ages. Rather, that objectively, like it or not, they are profoundly dependent for life and well-being on the adult world. In the same way, Christians of all ages, just as indeed people of all ages, ought to acknowledge, and Christians hopefully do, that they are dependent with respect to God. Or to phrase it alliteratively: Jesus does not commend childishness but child-likeness – in this sense of being in an objectively humble and perhaps at times even humiliating position.
VII. Jesus' Commands for Servant Leadership
A seventh sub-point that we may mention briefly is Jesus' commands to servant leadership (see especially Mark 10:35-45 and parallels). Again, this is a sharp reversal of pagan autocratic standards. A central concern to this day in church and Christian leadership is how easy it is for legitimate authority to turn authoritarian. Whereas leaders should have a profound self of regularly sacrificing their agendas for others. Leaders should have trusted counselors who will speak the truth in love to them – who will hold them accountable and give them honest feedback in terms of whether they are doing so or not.
VIII. Love as the Centerpiece of Jesus' Kingdom Ethic
Perhaps as a climax to this list and eighthly, we may therefore turn to love as the centerpiece of Jesus' kingdom ethic: the so-called great commandment of Mark 12:29-31 (and parallels). This is the summary of the law under the twofold heading of loving God and loving neighbor with all one's heart, soul, mind and strength and combining that twofold great commandment with the lawyer's question to Jesus in Luke 10:25-37 that triggered His parable about the Good Samaritan. If we lose sight of the fact that Jews and Samaritans were often enemies in Jesus' world, we lose all of the shock value of the passage. Yes, this is a command to go and do likewise (Luke 10:37). But far more than just loving the needy, it is a call to do likewise by loving the enemy, rather than passing by even in the name of religion, as the priest and Levite may well have done.
Indeed Matthew 5:44 and its parallel in Luke put it most poignantly in commanding Jesus' followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. Samuel Sandmel, a generation ago commenting on how so many of Jesus' ethical teachings find at least partial parallels in antecedent Judaism, nevertheless conceded that the least paralleled teaching of all of Jesus' ethics in previous Jewish thought was that this unambiguous, straightforward declaration of enemy-love. One wonders, not least because of all of the wars fought in the name of Christianity throughout church history, how often this distinctive of Christianity has been preserved.
IX. Continuity between Jesus' Ethic and the Torah
What then results – this reflects our final sub-topic for this lecture – in terms of continuity and discontinuity between Jesus' ethic and the Torah or Law of Moses? The clearest answer to this question comes in Matthew 5:17-20, when Jesus reassures His listeners (perhaps already in the Sermon on the Mount beginning to wonder if He was in some sense overthrowing the law of Moses) that He had not come to abolish the law. He had come to fulfill it. And yet fulfillment is not the natural conceptual opposite of abolition, such as preserving intact without change.
And it is very clear from Jesus' subsequent teaching that He sets the stage for what, the apostles recognize after His death, is the doing away of literal animal sacrifices because He has offered the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of humanity. He sets the stage for the doing away of literal observance of the laws of ritual purity beginning with the kosher or dietary laws thanks to the vision, reinforcing Jesus' teaching in Mark 7:19, that Peter would subsequently receive of unclean animals descending on a giant rug, as it were, from heaven, with the heavenly voice three times commanding Peter to rise, kill and eat. And as one continues through the New Testament, one recognizes that, while fundamental moral principles from the Old Testament law remain unchanged, countless elements of what have alternately been called the ritual or ceremonial laws, as well as civil injunctions for Israel as a theocratic state, no longer apply in the same way to believers in the church of Jesus Christ.
Indeed the subsequent and so-called antitheses (the opposites) of Matthew 5:21-48, immediately after verses 17-20, focus more on the discontinuity with the law than with the continuity. In six instances, Jesus declares: "You have heard it said of old" and then quotes a fundamental moral teaching of Scripture – not to abolish it, but to sovereignly reinterpret it in a variety of ways. Sometimes He actually makes it more stringent or internalizes it, as with the murder and adultery and divorce commands. Sometimes He formally supersedes it, as with the command on oaths, but establishing a higher order principle in this instance that one's word be of such integrity that no oath is needed to accompany it to assure people of one's truth-telling.
Whatever the approach toward an individual passage, it is clear from the sermon and from Jesus' ethical teaching elsewhere that He speaks with a sovereign authority that only one believing Himself to be a divine Messiah could. That is why at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew declares at the end of chapter 7 that the crowds marveled because Jesus taught not like their leaders, but as one who had authority. It is a strange remark when one thinks how authoritative the Jewish religious leaders already were. But it was an authority that was always derivative. Every legal teaching or application had to be supported by a text from Scripture (the Hebrew Scriptures, or what Christians call the Old Testament) or by citing a previously trusted and acknowledged rabbi. Although Jesus touches on many of the same themes in his ethical teaching as the Hebrew Scriptures, when He cites those Scriptures in such context, more often than not, as with the antitheses here in the sermon, He does so only to reinterpret them. And He certainly does not, in any instance, cite the precedent of some previous rabbi to support His claims. We have, at the very least, an implicit if not explicit claim here to divine authority or else Jesus was simply a liar or a fool and a blasphemer.
Thus, Jesus' kingdom teaching spans a wide swath of everyday living. It is a remarkably comprehensive picture of love worked out for all peoples – even if a tough love that has to challenge corruption and hypocrisy in some instances. It is a love that reverses many of this world's values and at times many of the church's values when too much of the world has gotten into the church.