IT is a notable characteristic of Christianity that the ethical teachings of its Founder are inseparably connected with his religious teachings. "Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself" is not given by him as a separate and detached precept, but as one of two."Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart; and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the great and first commandment.And a second like unto it is this, thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hangeth the whole law and the prophets." Observe that the two precepts are not simply placed side by side, they are united: "on these two.'" In like manner the first four of the Ten Commandments present duties to God, the others present duties to men; the opening petitions of the Lord's Prayer are that God may be honored, the others that we may be blessed.
In the great judgment scene described by Jesus, where he himself will sit as king, the rewards and punishments of the future life are made to turn upon the performance or the neglect of duties to him in the person of his people. Everything religious in Christianity is made to furnish a motive to morality.We all condemn the fanatics who would make religion sufficient without ethics. Some teachings of this sort are absurd, and some disgusting. But on the other hand, shall we think it wise to regard ethics as sufficient without religion?Is it not true that he who would divorce religion and morality is an enemy to religion, and at best only a mistaken friend to morality? Among the Greeks and Romans, in the historical period, these two were little connected.
They were not even generally taught by the same persons; the priests taught religion, the philosophers taught morality. Some of the actions ascribed to the deities themselves were grossly immoral. The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus were severely rebuked by him for their traditional directions as to Corban.A man might refuse food to his own father by saying that this particular food was Corban, a thing offered to God, thus setting aside for the sake of a supposed religious service the profound moral obligation and the express commandment of God's law, to honor father and mother. So likewise Jesus pronounced woes upon the hypocritical Pharisees for scrupulously tithing the least important vegetables that grew in their gardens, and then leaving "undone the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith"; for carefully cleansing the outside of the cup and the dish, while their contents were the product of extortion and excess.
Ethical obligation, according to the Saviour's teachings, is enforced by the yet higher religious obligation. Our duties to men are really a part of our all-comprehensive duty to God. Why must I love my neighbor as myself? If it be placed on utilitarian grounds, meaning personal utility, then I ought to love my neighbor as myself because it will benefit me, that is, because I love myself better than my neighbor.If the utility consulted be general, then why ought I to care as much for the general good as for my own? We are back where we started.
Herbert Spencer, with all the ability and earnestness shown in his "Data of Ethics" makes a reply which I think men in general cannot recognize as philosophically conclusive or practically cogent. Natural sympathy with others, we are told, if frequently exercised, hardens by force of habit into altruism, a sense of obligation to others. Is that all?Nay, I must love my neighbor as myself because I am the creature and the child of God, whom I must love with all my heart, more than my neighbor and more than myself. Shall we then, it may be asked, accuse every man who is not definitely religious of being gravely immoral? Nay, individual moral convictions may be largely the result of inheritance, education and present environment, and may subsist notwithstanding the individual lack of those religious convictions which are their proper, and, as a general fact, their actual support.Observe further that Jesus not only tells us what we ought to do, but shows how we may be able to do so. He presents in his own character and life an inspiring example, satisfying our noblest ideal of morality, and yet conforming itself to the conditions of our own existence.
He tells how we may obtain divine assistance in obeying his precepts.Many other teachers have given wholesome precepts, but left men to keep them in their unaided strength. Jesus tells of a divinely-wrought change so thorough as to be called a new birth, of a divine spiritual help which our heavenly Father will readily give. It is in this, and not simply in the great superiority of his precepts, that we find the unapproachable excellence of the Christian ethics.In connection with this point we must remember that Jesus constantly pre-supposes the sinfulness of human nature. Many ethical precepts, and even whole systems of ethics, appear to assume that men have no particular bias toward evil.
But it is far otherwise with him; and he meets the demands of the situation by providing atonement, renewal and divine sanctification.Another thing quite without parallel is the unique authority which these ethical instructions derive from the faultless life and character of the Teacher himself. Every other instructor in morals comes manifestly short of his own standard, as indeed befalls the teacher in every other department of practical human exertion.Even the lessons given by the best parents to their children are subject to inevitable discount on account of the faults in parental character and conduct of which the children are aware and the parents are conscious. Here alone among all moral instructors the example is absolutely equal to the precept. Are the ethical teachings of Jesus original? Some have thought this a question of great importance.
Opponents have taken immense pains to show that certain of his precepts find a partial in previously existing pagan writings; and some Christian apologists have been nervously unwilling to recognize the fact. It needs no great reflection to see that a wise teacher of morals must bring his instructions into close connection with what men already know, or what they will instinctively recognize as true when suggested by his lessons. If you are teaching a child, you do not present ideas entirely apart from and above the child's previous consciousness; you try to link the new thoughts to what the child has thought of before.We need not then be at all unwilling to admit that for the most part Jesus only carried farther and lifted higher and extended more widely the views of ethical truth which had been dimly caught by the universal human mind, or had at least been seen by the loftiest souls.
This was but a part of the wisdom of his teachings. The most familiar and striking instance is the so-called golden rule, something more or less similar to which is ascribed to various contemporaries of Jesus and to earlier teachers. Thus Hillel said, “What is hateful to thee, do not do to another," and he was but repeating a passage in the book of Tobit, " What thou hatest, do to no one."A Greek biographer of Aristotle relates that being asked how we should behave towards our friends he answered, "As we should wish them to behave towards us"; and Isocrates had previously said, “What you are angry at when inflicted on you by others, this do not do to others." A similar negative form of the precept is also frequently quoted from Confucius, "What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.
"But Confucius really taught, though not in form, the positive side of the same idea. A follower asked, "Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life?" Confucius replied, "Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." Dr. R.
H. Graves a distinguished missionary for many years in Canton, who went from Baltimore, replies to my inquiries that "reciprocity" seems to be a fairly correct translation.And this saying of the Anav lects is in the doctrine of the mean so illustrated as to leave no doubt that Confucius intended a positive, and not merely a negative precept. I have taken pains to bring out this fact as a matter of simple justice and exact truth. And indeed if we did not gladly "seize upon truth wherever 'tis found," we should not be faithful to the spirit of Jesus.A recent writer (* Matheson, "Landmarks of New Testament Morality.
") has pointed out that the Christian ethical system harmoniously combines principles which had been separately emphasized by the Greek philosophers. The Epicurean laid stress on self-love; the Stoic on love for others; the Platonist on love to God, in a certain limited sense.There can indeed be no basis for moral conduct other than " the love of self, the love of humanity, the love of God; and the religion which unites these has become the foundation of absolute morality." This is not at all saying that Jesus derived these ideas from the pagan philosophers. In fact they reside in the moral nature of man, and his relations to the nature of things and to the Creator.
Jesus combines in harmonious completeness truths which one or another had separately and imperfectly taught. The Old Testament ethical teachings he assumes as already received among his hearers, and in a general way endorses. The two foundation precepts, as to love of God and love of our neighbor, were both drawn from the Law of Moses, though not there given together, nor either of them presented as fundamental.But have we not been frequently told of late that Jesus undertook to revolutionize the Old Testament ethics? Did he not supplant the Law of Moses by his own authoritative and better teachings? No, nothing of the kind. He expressly declared in the Sermon on the Mount, that he came not to destroy the law, as some Jews imagined the Messiah would do in order to make life easier, but came to complete the law.And the examples which follow this statement are not at all examples of teaching contrary to the Law of Moses, but in every case of going further in the same direction.
Thus the law condemned killing; he condemns hate and anger. The law forbade adultery; he declared that a lustful look is virtual adultery.