That Upon Which Morality Depends
Posted by Margaret Manning Shull on May 15, 2012
Perhaps it is an understatement to suggest that we live in very complicated times with regards to morals and ethics. What has always been accepted as “good” and “right” appears to be constantly subject to revision. While there are many reasons that contribute to the current moral quagmire, the simple fact remains that there are diverse moral visions for our world. For those who call themselves Christians, there is the struggle to present a unified moral voice and with articulating a moral vision that goes beyond simply calling out what is wrong or what to stand against.
An example from our recent past serves to highlight this dilemma. During the election season of 1992, some Christians were scandalized by Billy Graham’s decision to give the inaugural prayer for Bill Clinton. After all, never in any other election, Christians argued, “has a presidential candidate with such an explicitly unbiblical platform been elected to our nation’s highest office.”(1) For these Christians, this presidency was suspect, to say the least, with regards to commonly held standards of morality. Billy Graham’s participation was viewed as an endorsement of Clinton’s values, and it appeared he was compromising on the general standards of right and proper conduct within the Christian community.
Ironically, if morality is defined strictly by the observance of the standards of conduct that are generally accepted as right or proper, then Jesus might be seen as immoral himself. Indeed, it is one of the great ironies of the biblical narrative that Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders of his day, and embraced by the “outcasts” of his society. Jesus was aligned with the wrong group of people and this alignment propelled the religious leaders of his day to seek out ways to destroy him. They accused him of being possessed by the chief demon and considered him a lawbreaker. Those who would have him killed cited his eating and drinking with ‘sinners’ his healing on the Sabbath, and his critique of their cherished religious traditions as evidence of his immorality. If this wasn’t enough, he called, among other questionable figures, a national traitor—a tax collector—to be among his intimate circle of followers. Clearly, if morality is only defined by keeping rules and regulations, drawing lines of inside and outside, and defining people as moral or immoral based on what they did or did not do, then Jesus was morally suspect.
Of course, Jesus was not immoral in his conduct, even though those around him saw him in this light. Nor was he unconcerned about righteousness. Indeed, Jesus told those around him, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In fact, Jesus had an expansive vision of morality. His vision extended to the deepest heart issues: one’s motivation and intention. It wasn’t enough to say one had not committed murder—that is, to measure one’s righteousness by what one had not done. Jesus argued that if a person had hate in his or her heart whatsoever, it was the same as committing murder. Indeed, the Ten Commandments by which Jesus ordered his life were not simply rules one could check off at the end of the day, having affirmed one’s own sense of morality. Jesus expands the letter of the Law to the spirit, or intent, of the Law. Jesus summarized the entire Law in one saying: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with your mind….you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus based his moral vision and measured morality on the law of love, a love demonstrated both vertically in reverence for God, and horizontally towards one’s neighbor.
These are indeed conflicting and confusing times. But they are not that different from Jesus’s own day. There is still the temptation to simply define morality in terms that only speak to what one is against, rather than what one is for. There is the all too human desire to draw the lines in such a way to secure those inside the lines from those outside. Jesus exemplified a moral vision that went beyond easy distinction or categorization. He expounded a morality that was more than the “letter of the law.” He frequently revealed the motivation and intention of the hearts of those who sought self-righteousness. He demonstrated the “spirit of the law” rooted and grounded in love—love for God and neighbor. It is a vision that expands, not narrows, and a vision upon which morality depends.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Cited in Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 2.