For Jesus, love was to be the major guiding factor of one’s life. Originally the commandment in Leviticus referred to how Israelites should live together in their Israelite community. The “neighbor” was your fellow Israelite. You were to love – that is, treat – your Israelite neighbor as yourself. That didn’t mean you were supposed to love/treat anyone else that way. On the contrary, you were supposed to *kill* the Canaanites, Moabites, and Midianites. But your fellow Israelite you were to love as yourself.
Jesus had a broader vision, as I understand him. Your neighbor included even your worst enemies. You were to love them as you love yourself. And what exactly does that mean?
It’s debated of course (what isn’t?). But I think Jesus had a very simple understanding of it. You feed yourself, so you should feed anyone else who is hungry; you clothe yourself, so you should clothe anyone who is lacking; you provide shelter for yourself, so you should help those who are homeless. You should be as concerned for the welfare of others as you are concerned for your own welfare.
The other way Jesus expressed the same (or roughly the same) idea was in the Golden Rule, an ethical principle endorsed by numerous other ethical teachers both before and after Jesus. Normally the Golden Rule was expressed negatively: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” Jesus, though, expressed it positively, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The positive way of expressing the saying is much more difficult than the negative, since it requires action: doing things that are helpful rather than simply not doing things that are harmful.
I deeply admire both these summaries of Jesus’ ethical teachings (“Love your neighbor” and “Do unto others”). But I also have two problems with them. The first is practical and the other is theoretical. They both strike me as rather severe.
The practical one is that I really don’t practice either principle. I don’t really love my neighbor as myself. But do I really do everything I can? Not even close. I live in a nice apartment ; I drive a very nice car yet old car; I buy as many nice clothes as I can afford: I absolutely am not one who has given up everything for the kingdom. Not even close. If there is a future judgment scene with the separation of the sheep and the goats, I can pretty well imagine the cosmic judge saying, “What the h** were you thinking???”
The theoretical problem is one I’ve thought about a lot over the years, but is the thing that really hit me yesterday. Jesus’ ethics were completely grounded in a view of the world that I simply don’t have. Jesus believed the history of this world was very soon to come to a crashing halt, that God was soon to intervene to overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom here on earth, a utopian existence in which there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering.
Followers of Jesus were supposed to implement the ideals of that kingdom in the here and now.
In the kingdom there would be no war, so Jesus’ followers were to be peacemakers now; in the kingdom there would be no hatred, so Jesus’ followers were to live lives of pure love now; in the kingdom there would be no hunger, so Jesus’ followers were to work to alleviate hunger now; in the kingdom there would be no illness, so Jesus’ followers were to heal the sick now; and so on.
These ethical principles were predicated on the apocalyptic idea that God was ultimately sovereign over this world, and he was very soon to reassert his sovereignty by destroying all the powers of evil opposed to him and establishing an eternal kingdom here and now. The meaning of life in the mundane present was determined by the transcendent reality that was to become manifest in the near future.
I don’t believe any of that. I don’t think there is a divine realm above our realm. I don’t think that there will be a supernatural intervention in the course of human affairs in which all that is evil will be destroyed and all suffering and misery will be removed from the human realm.
I do believe in God although certainly not like other Christians believe. I do not believe Jesus was God in any sense. I believe he was a remarkable human with the cultural view of the world very much like others of his culture. But he had compassion for the unfortunate poor and sick.
I do believe we are living in God’s kingdom..just a very flawed kingdom since humans are in charge of it and some of them inevitably screw up anything they involved in. But there are millions of humans that do their very best to follow Jesus’s teachings. They do feed the hungry, heal the sick, help the homeless find shelter…they try to live good productive lives.
But Jesus’ entire ethics were completely predicated on the coming kingdom of God. And so even though I do try (in a small way) to follow the ethical principles of Jesus, it is for *entirely* different reasons.
If I happen to follow and admire some of the principles of Buddhism (for example, I meditate) that doesn’t make me a Buddhist; and if I happen to follow and admire some of the principles of Jesus, that doesn’t necessarily make me a traditional type Christian. Our culture has dozens of ways of expressing being "Christian". Some I definitely couldn't embrace
That, at least, is how I’m thinking about it at the moment.