This month’s letter from the Vicar
Most of us know that Jesus had serious arguments with the Pharisees. One of the key areas of disagreement between them concerned the relationship between ritual and morality. Let me explain.
According to the Pharisees’ way of thinking, correct ritual was crucial. Failure to observe correct ritual and ceremonial indicated moral failure. This was especially important in respect of food laws. It was vitally important to eat the right kind of food and to eat it in the right kind of way. Jesus vigorously questions this by teaching that it is not what goes into a person but what comes out of us that is corrupting. Evil thoughts, ideas and behaviour come from the heart, says Jesus, and these are the things that corrupt us.
I think I can illustrate what Jesus was getting at by telling you about two world leaders from the not too distant past. The first one experimented with drugs while he was in college, he had a mistress, he smoked copious numbers of cigars. He loved fine brandies and champagne and he was famous for getting drunk at parties, even while he was in office. The second one was a vegetarian and a non-smoker; he only drank beer in moderation, and he was faithful to his girlfriend. If their morality was to be judged by what went into them the second would clearly win hands down. The first one was Winston Churchill, and the second Adolf Hitler.
Jesus was railing against the Pharisees because they prioritised the external appearance of religion. Some of the things he opposed had been introduced into Judaism as ‘add-ons’ to the ritual law of the Old Testament, but Jesus does actually strike at that ritual law itself. In much of the Judaism of Jesus’ time observance of ritual law was seen as vitally important. There is no doubt that Jesus challenged all this. It is not that Jesus had no time or respect for ritual or ceremonial law. On the contrary he observed the ceremonies of his religion. But at least on two fronts Jesus brought an important new direction to religious morality.
In the first place he saw the importance of what is sometimes called the hierarchy of values. That is to say he saw that at certain times and in certain circumstances one law had to take priority over another. The is explained and explored no more powerfully than in the Parable of the Good Samaritan where the Priest and Levite obey the ritual law and avoid defilement but miss the point that a higher law was demanded of them, to care for the man in distress. Though we are not bound by ritual law we face the same dilemmas in our own lives. We sometimes have to decide, for example, whether the law that we must tell the truth has to take second place if a higher demand seems to apply. If someone asks us the whereabouts of a person they are planning to kill the duty to preserve life clearly comes above the duty to tell the truth.
The second new direction Jesus brought to religious morality was in his stress upon inner disposition, motivation and attitude. In much of the morality he encountered the crucial question was, “What have you done?” and (though much in second place), “What have you failed to do?” Jesus did not despise such questions, but he gave greater priority to the attitudes underlying our moral behaviour. For him the critical question was not “what have you done?” but, “what are the underlying dispositions which give rise to behaviour in the first place?” The crucial thing for Jesus, then, is not the deed itself, but the character of the individual carrying out that deed. Of course what we do or fail to do discloses our character, but a Christian approach to ethics will also take motivation into consideration. This is especially true when there is divergence of opinion over what is and what isn’t morally right.
If I consider a certain type of behaviour to be right and another person considers it wrong, how are we to decide? Well there are many factors, of course, which contribute to reaching a conclusion. But Jesus’ teaching must make us take seriously the attitudes, dispositions and motivations of the person or people who behave in this way. If their character and outlook is malicious or vicious then their behaviour is likely to be the same. If, however, their character is benign or loving then their behaviour is likely to be so too. This is not a guaranteed means of determining right and wrong, of course, but it can make an important contribution to moral decision-making where there is doubt.
Jesus encourages us to take the inner, motivational side of morality seriously. To look, not just at what is done or said, but also to consider the heart. And this, of course, means that we must consider our own hearts, our own attitudes and intentions. Does our behaviour stem from a desire just to stick to the rules or does it arise from a loving heart? There is nothing wrong, indeed everything right, about being law abiding, but what is most important is that our moral lives are rooted in loving and caring hearts, hearts inspired by the example of our loving and caring Lord.