A friend recently commented on an article I wrote about hypocrisy in which I referred to “God’s standard” without defining what that standard is. Of course, defining God’s standard of morality isn’t that easy. My friend made this point when he said:
“If you asked 100 self-proclaimed Christians, you will get 100 different answers. There are over 30,000 denominations of Christianity… all bible-based. The notion of a singular Christian ‘standard’ doesn’t really exist. Example… is killing ok?… I can find verses in the bible both for and against.”
He is right on a cursory level, though he overstates the proposition. The World Christian Encyclopedia puts the number of denominations at 33,000, of which there are “6 major ecclesiastico-cultural mega-blocs”. I would venture to guess, however, that 100% of them hold that murder is wrong.
While we might have virtually universal agreement on some things, and “consensus” on other things (perhaps, killing in self-defense), nuances will generate different answers among those different denominations, and individual Christians as well. We don’t all agree on topics like killing in war, capital punishment, abortion, etc.
Some disagreements are doctrinal (infant baptism or adult baptism). Some of them are conduct related. (Is it ok for Christians to dance? drink alcohol? or smoke?) Should Christians tithe? What is the standard of tithing? Is homosexuality a sin? If I walk past a homeless man on the street begging for money and don’t give him anything, is that a sin?
Most Christians agree on the ten commandments, but disagreement grows from there. We may not agree on the details of “God’s standard”, but virtually all Christians would agree that God has a standard of morality, regardless of whether we agree on what it is.
Still, it’s a fair statement to say that we shouldn’t be so glib as to assume some universal set of rules to which all Christians ought to subscribe – at least a universal statement of rules that we all confidently say is “the ” standard.
This got me thinking about morality from a Christian perspective, and it dawns on me that one of our failings is that we put too much emphasis on a set of standards that we can define. Yes, I think it is a failing, and I think Jesus would agree. Such a focus misses the point
Consider this: Moses gave us 613 laws; David summarized them in 15 laws; Isaiah reduced the summary to 11 laws; and Jesus reduced everything in the Law and the Prophets down to just two principles.
I am not sure that these figures are exactly right, but the point is that there is a progression in the Scripture. That progression goes from an intricate set of very specific rules to summaries of the law that get simpler and simpler – culminating in just two principles.
I believe this progression from many, very specific laws to just two principles correlates to the progression God wants us to make from law to faith.
When Jesus was asked by “an expert in the law” what must a person do to inherit eternal life, Jesus asked the expert a question in return: “what is written in law” and “how do you read it?” The expert responded:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (quoting Leviticus 19:18) (See Luke 10:25-27 (NIV))
These are the two principles.
The expert on the law did what any good expert does: he summarized the complex principles of the law into a simple, easy to understand formula. Jesus agreed with him, and then, Jesus added. “‘Do this and you will live.’” (Luke 10:28 (NIV))
That might have been the end of the conversation, but the expert pressed further asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29) And so it goes. After distilling it down, the expert wanted to parse it out.
Seems legitimate: Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love my neighbor? The questions could almost be endless.
Luke clues us into the motivation of this legal expert, however. He was looking to justify himself, which is what many of us try to do when we get into discussions of morality. We are hoping for some affirmation, some justification, some assurance that we are ok.
Some of us like to shy the other way, to leave it a bit nebulous. We say, “I just try leave people alone and not to hurt anyone”, or something similar. These statements are motivated by the same desire to justify ourselves, but these folks don’t to make too fine a point of it for fear of failing at some detail.
Maybe they realize that any standard of morality we affirm will come back on us! Unless we are going to fake it (like the Pharisees), we set the bar pretty low. But this is just the other side of the coin. Both responses miss the point.
Jesus stayed engaged with the law expert, but his answer was a bit unconventional. He launched into the parable of the “Good Samaritan” who helped an injured stranger that was ignored and passed up by a priest and a Levite (Luke 10:30-35).
Then, he asked the expert when he finished, which of the three characters in the story was a “neighbor” to the injured man. When the expert in the law answered, “’The one who had mercy on him,'” Jesus said (again), “’Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10:36-37)
We aren’t told how the expert responded to Jesus the second time Jesus dropped the mic. Maybe he didn’t say anything. What could he say?
I suspect, though, that he was disappointed. If he was looking for justification, he didn’t get it.
It wasn’t random that Jesus identified a priest (a Jewish expert and observer of the law) and a Levite (the priestly cast of Jewish ancestry) and a Samaritan in the parable. Samaritans were worshipers of Yahweh, the same God of the Jews. They even had Jewish ancestry, though it was mixed with pagan ancestry, and they were shunned by the Jews. Jews would go out of their way to avoid setting foot in Samaria, though Jesus had no issue traveling through Samaria, which he did on a number occasions. (See reference.com)
The juxtaposition of the characters was obviously meant to convey a point. The parable suggests that knowledge of the law, an ability to parse the details of law, and right ancestry are not what counts; the important thing is “doing the right thing”.
This is where faith comes in. In Chapter 14 of Romans, Paul spends a lot of time talking about rules of what to eat and what not to eat, which was a hot topic at the time. Paul said of himself that he is convinced “that nothing is unclean in itself”, but if another person believes something is unclean, “then for that person it is unclean“. (Romans 14:14) And if your brother or sister thinks something is unclean, then you shouldn’t eat it yourself if it causes them stress. (Romans 14:15)
The issue is maintaining a clean conscience before God. The issue is faith. The issue is relationship with God. In this context, “everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans (14:23)
Perhaps, we focus too much on rules and standards of conduct and too little on our relationship with God. Perhaps, we focus too much on holding to a standard of conduct to which we want other people to agree and not enough on maintaining a clean conscience between ourselves and God.
James says that “pure and undefiled” religion is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. (James 1:27) Is this the same thing as a clean conscience?
Either way, Jesus didn’t focus on rules to be kept, he focused on the heart. He didn’t focus on the details of the rules, he focused on the spirit of the rules, which he says is to love God and love your neighbor.
We progress from rules to relationship by faith. We aren’t justified by law (Galatians 3:11), we are justified by faith. (Romans 5:1) And faith brings us into relationship with God, our Father. For some additional thoughts on the topic, see Justification by Faith.