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Conscience & Christ : six lectures on Christian ethics online

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' Matt, xviii. 17. The words are found in a section which has no
parallel in the other Synoptists, and is exactly of the same type as
not a few other sections peculiar to the first Gospel, passages referring
to and intended to support the ecclesiastical institutions which had
been developed by the time the Gospel was written. St. Luke
(xvii. 3) has : " Take heed to yourselves ; if thy brother sin, re-
buke him ; and if he repent forgive him " (R.V.). This is no
doubt much nearer to what our Lord actually said.

150 Conscience and Christ

circumstances of the early Christian community^ —
but not an actual saying of the Master. Even the
words " if he repent, forgive him" are by themselves
a serious qualification of the principle that forgiveness
is to be unlimited. Even the command to forgive to
seven times in a day is confined to the cases in which
there is repentance.

(3) Another detailed criticism of the same order repre-
sents our Lord as hostile to the institution of property,
as teaching a kind of Communism or complete self-
renunciation in the matter of worldly goods. This
suggestion is founded chiefly upon the words to the rich
young man, " If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that
thou hast and give to the poor " (Matt. xix. 21). Now
here, in addition to the considerations we have already
dwelt on, we must remember this fact, which is very
essential for the understanding of Christ's teaching —
that when Christ called men to " follow " Him, He
did not mean merely that they should accept His
teaching and endeavour to practise it in their lives.
He was calling upon certain of His disciples to devote
themselves to His great missionary enterprise, to
join Him in going about the world to preach the coming
of the Kingdom. It is to such men that the severer
injunctions of the Gospel pages are addressed — to take
nothing for their journey, save a staff only, no bread,
no wallet, no money in their purse, but to go shod

* And yet perhaps " Jesus would hardly have spoken so harshly
of the 'tax-collector.'" Montefiore. Syn. Gospels, II, 68i.

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 151

with sandals^ and the hke. The precepts form part not
of the Sermon on the Mount, but of what is sometimes
called the great ministerial commission. Even the
words about hating father and mother may have been
intended for those who received this commission. ^ To
become a disciple of Christ in the strictest sense meant
no doubt to join Him in His missionary work. Many
of these injunctions have, of course, an application to
all who would be in our modern sense of the word
followers of Christ, believers in His Gospel, members
of His Church ; but in their immediate and primary
signification, they were addressed to His Missionaries,
not to all His hearers. In the conditions of the time
to make such a complete renunciation of worldly
goods, to take up something like the life of a mendicant
friar, was probably the most effective, perhaps the only,
way of carrying on the work which He felt called upon
to do, of communicating to mankind the good news
which He knew Himself divinely commissioned to im-
part. Here for once the anticipation of the immediate
Parousia may be allowed to have influenced the specific
advice given by Jesus to His hearers. And yet, after
all, he surely would be a bold man who would seriously
pretend that he knew a way of proclaiming the Kingdom
of Heaven, or the eternal truths which were for Jesus

^ Mark vi. 8, 9 (Matt. x. 9, 10 ; Luke ix. 3. There are con-
siderable variations in detail).

2 They are addressed " to the multitudes " (Luke xiv. 25-6), but
they refer to him who would be Christ's " disciple." TheMatthean
equivalent (in a weakened form) is in the Commission to the Twelve
(x. 37)-

152 Conscience and Christ

enshrined in that conception, that would have suc-
ceeded better than the way actually adopted by Him.
The advice was not given to all His hearers — still less
to all mankind — but to those whom He called or who
felt themselves called to this special work.^ Jesus
never makes such complete renunciation necessary as
a condition of entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
He warmly commended the charity and honesty of
Zaccheus, who, under the influence of His preaching,
resolved to restore fourfold to the particular persons
whom he had wronged and to give half of his remaining
goods to the poor. 2 " To-day is salvation come to this

^ This limitation may be thought inconsistent with the words :
" So therefore whosoever he be of you that renounceth not all that
he hath, cannot be my disciple " (Luke xiv. 33). The words need not
necessarily mean more than the words of the preceding verse (26):
" If any man cometh unto Me, and hateth not his own father and
mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and
his own life also, he cannot be My disciple," which no one will
understand with absolute literalness — as an injunction to cruelty
or self-destruction. It may be understood as recommending com-
plete " detachment " from worldly goods as from family ties.
Or more historically it may be taken as referring literally to disciples
in the full sense — those called to join the missionary band. The
saying immediately follows the parables of the man building a town
and the King going to war with another King. It occurs in Luke
only. Many of the strong sayings about wealth peculiar to Luke
are probably genuine, but these particular words (xiv. 33) may very
well be suspected of being Luke's amplification of the saying about
renouncing father and mother — his way of pointing the moral of
the preceding paragraphs. Loisy calls it " une addition redaction-
die." Cf. the same writer on Luke xiv. 26 : " Ce sacrifice est
impos6 k qui veut ' suivre ' J6sus, et il n'est dit aucunement
que Ton puisse avoir, sans le ' suivre,' une part assuree dans le
royaumc " {Evan. Syn., I, 894).

* Luke xix. 9. The fourfold restitution was required by the
Mosaic Law in certain cases of theft, in others double restitution
(Exod. xxii. 1,4).

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Chnst 153

house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham."
We must not, of course, allow this consideration to
prevent our seeking to penetrate to the eternal
principle implied in the advice to the rich young man.
The meaning of what our Lord said was surely this :
'* If you want to do the best thing in the world, sell
all that you have and give to the poor, and " (it is
no doubt implied) " come and join my missionary band,
and preach the coming of the Kingdom." He went
away sorrowful, we are told — not because an en-
lightened political economy had told him that this
renunciation would not be the best thing he could do,
not because he doubted whether it would, if generally
imitated, be conducive to the true good of humanity,
or because he felt a call to other work which could
better be done with his possessions than without them,
but simply because ** he had great possessions." Was
our Lord wrong in saying that the reason why the
rich young man would not give up his possessions was
that he was too fond of them, that he had not love
enough to make the sacrifice ? Was He wrong in
saying that that is not the ideal of perfect love, or
that such an ideal of love and devotion should be striven

^ It is important to notice that the words " Thou shalt love thy
neighbour as thyself," which in Matthew are included in the com-
mandments which the young man had kept from his youth, are
absent in Mark and Luke. If they are omitted, it is clear that he
was satisfied with bare compliance with the negative commands of
the Decalogue. Not only was his love imperfect: he had hardly
shown any positive love at all.

154 Conscience and Christ

What, it may be asked, is the appHcation of this
principle to those who in modem times would accept
the principle of Christ's teaching ? Surely it is per-
fectly true that so long as a man is not willing, if and
so far as he sees it to be for the good of his fellow-men,
to renounce all worldly possessions in order to serve
them, he is morally imperfect. It does not follow that
in the existing state of human society the renunciation
of all worldly possessions is the best way for serving
our brethren which is open to all of us. There are ways
in which those who have love enough, and who feel
the call to do so, may serve their brethren most effec-
tively by literally selUng all their goods and giving
to the poor, or more probably by renouncing most of
the ordinary luxuries and comforts of well-to-do life
and devoting life and income to the service of humanity
in ways that are economically sound — that is to say,
ways which really do benefit the recipients in the long
run. It does not follow that this is the best thing for
all, or even for all who have the willingness to do it.
To love our neighbours enough to be willing to make
this sacrifice for them is part of the Christian ideal for
all : the duty for each is to make that use of his
possessions which, he being what he is, circumstances
being what they are, will enable him to do the best
service for his fellow-men — the particular service to
which he is called. Some even of those who have the
love may not be called to the more exacting kind of
self-renunciation : still more often those whose love is

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 155

as yet very imperfect. The actual words, " If thou wilt
be perfect/' may be an addition of the first Evangehst,
but it fairly represents our Lord's probable meaning,
and points to the eternally true and important prin-
ciple of Vocation. All are called to the loving service
of their fellow-men : not all are called to serve in the
same way. All modes of service imply self-denial and
sacrifice, but not all imply equal self-sacrifice. At all
periods of the world's history some men are called to
sacrifices as great and as literal as that which was set
before the rich young man, but not all men.^ " Let
each man do as he purpose th in his heart, not grudgingly
or of necessity, for God loveth a cheerful giver "
(2 Cor. ix. 7). That is a Pauline principle, which is as
full of the spirit of Christ as it is of practical wisdom
and good sense.

I may not linger on the wider social appUcation of
Christ's teaching about Property. To say that Jesus
was a Socialist is, of course, as unhistorical as to say
that He condemned Socialism or taught that " Religion
has nothing to do with politics." The principle which
underlies all His teaching about Property is simply
this — that wealth should be treated as completely
subordinate to the higher ends of human life, not only
for the individual himself, but for the whole com-
munity. What is the best way under existing con-

^ For further discussion of the problem, which at bottom in-
volves the question of " Works of Supererogation," I may refer
to my Theory of Good and Evil, Book II, chap. iv.

156 Conscience and Christ

ditions of apportioning the enjoyment of the wealth
which is created by the common labour is the most
important problem which it is incumbent upon Chris-
tians of the present age to work out. They must work
it out in the spirit of the Master's teaching. But they
will not find in His express words any detailed
guidance for its solution. The one thing which we can
say with absolute confidence is that the present dis-
tribution of wealth, and the use made of the wealth
which they call their own by most rich men, would have
caused His sternest and most uncompromising con-
demnation. Many considerations may be urged in
favour of a social system which allows some inequality
in the distribution of wealth ; many considerations
of social utility may be urged in favour of individuals
allowing themselves more enjoyment and indulgence
than on a system of anything like equal distribution
would be possible for all ; but we may be quite
certain that now as ever the spirit of Christ, no less
than the enlightened Reason of mankind, does call
for a much more rigid limitation of personal expendi-
ture on the part even of people whom the world would
hardly call rich than conventional religious teaching
has usually insisted upon.

(4) The question of Property leads on to the ques-
tion of Asceticism in general. It is often suggested
by the wilder kind of anti-Christian writers that Christ
taught a severe and morose Asceticism in which the
modern world does not and will not believe. Now

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 157

here I do not think the objector has even a plausible
case. Our knowledge of Christ and His teaching is
undoubtedly incomplete and fragmentary — that is a
fact often forgotten both by ardent Christians and by
sceptical critics. But, if there is one thing about Jesus
which is made perfectly certain by all the records
which we have about Him, it is this — that He did not
encourage Asceticism in its stricter sense, either by His
teaching or by His practice. The hardships which He
endured and enjoined upon others were the hardships
that were incidental to His mission and His work :
their motive was simply love of His fellow-men.
There is not the slightest trace of the idea that self-
inflicted suffering is well-pleasing to God, or that it
possesses any expiatory virtue for the doing away
of sin, or that all innocent enjoyment is wrong. There
is not even any encouragement of voluntary suffering,
in the shape for instance of fasting, as a means of dis-
ciplining or strengthening character. The constant
reproach hurled against our Lord and His disciples by
the religious world of His day was that He was not
ascetic. " Whereunto shall I liken this generation ?
It is like unto children sitting in the market-places
which call unto their fellows and say, We piped unto
you, and ye did not dance; we wailed and ye did
not mourn. For John came neither eating nor
drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son
of man came eating and drinking, and they say.
Behold a gluttonous man, and a wine-bibber, a friend

158 Conscience and Christ

of publicans and sinners."^ "Why do the disciples
of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Thy disciples
fast not ? "2 Our Lord accepted invitations to dinner
with rich tax-gatherers. Even those who are most
sceptical about the historical value of the fourth
Gospel may at least accept the story of the marriage
in Cana as showing that there was nothing in the
early traditions about His life which would make His
presence on such an occasion seem incongruous or
improbable. The argument from silence is not here the
precarious argument that it sometimes is. The legends
which grow up about a rehgious teacher, particularly
in the East, delight to represent him as exceeding
other men in Asceticism. Both the Jews^ and the
early Christians believed in Asceticism, though in
both cases only to a moderate extent as compared with
the ideas of other oriental Religions or of the later
Christian Church. Had our Lord favoured Asceticism,
His utterances on this head are just those that would
most certainly have been reported. If therefore, when
critically examined, the records of His life and teaching
do not support the charge of Asceticism, we may be
quite sure that there were no such utterances to report.
It is true that legend has begun, even in the Canoni-
cal Gospels, or in the received text of them, to impart
an ascetic tinge to His teaching and practice, but

' Matt. xi. 17-19 ( = Luke vii. 31-4).
* Mark ii. 18 ( = Matt. ix. 14 ; Luke v. 33).

' The Pharisees encouraged the bi-weekly fast, but there was in
general among the Jews no tendency to favour cehbacy.

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 159

criticism has here done a valuable service in enabling
us to detect its operations. Mere criticism of the text
shows that our Lord did not say, " This kind can
come forth by nothing but by prayer and fasting "
(Mark ix. 29) : in the R.V. you will find that the words
" and fasting " have disappeared. In the case of the
forty days' fast in the wilderness, we have to go behind
the actual text, and apply the methods of historical
criticism. It is easy to see how the story grew up. In
the first Gospel, it is true, we read that ** when He had
fasted forty days and forty nights, He afterward
hungered." But in the second Gospel we find what
surely represents the earlier tradition : ** He was in the
wilderness forty days tempted of Satan." ^ In St.
Luke's version also it is the temptation which lasts
forty days, though that Evangelist goes on to say
that " He did eat nothing in those days ; and when
they were completed, He hungered." Is it not probable
that the hunger implied by the first temptation sug-
gested the idea that the forty days of retirement in
the wilderness were also days of fasting ? And after
all there is nothing (especially in Luke's version) to
suggest that the abstinence from food was anything

^ Matt. iv. 2 ; Mark i. 13 ; Luke iv. i, 2. I do not think the
probability of this view is lessened by the suggestion that Matthew
and Luke used Q, and that Q is in general earlier than Mark. If
Mark used Q, the absence of the words about fasting makes it
doubtful whether they stood in his version of Q. Luke's version
of Q does not suggest ' fasting ' as a piece of deliberate ascetism.
If Mark did not here use Q, it will hardly be denied that in a
particular case Mark may represent the more primitive tradition.

i6o Conscience and Christ

but the natural consequence of retirement to a food-
less region.

When we have got rid of these allusions to fasting
which reflect the Asceticism of a later age, there
remain two genuine allusions to the practice. The first
is the merely incidental allusion in the Matthean version
of the Sermon on the Mount : " When ye fast, be not,
as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance . . . but thou
when thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face ;
that thou be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father
which is in secret ; and thy Father, which seeth in
secret, shall recompense thee."^ Here it is undoubtedly
assumed that some of our Lord's hearers were in the
habit of fasting, just as it is assumed that they would
be taking gifts to the altar in the Temple. There is
no emphasis on the practice, no express command to
fast, but there is also no declared hostihty. Not so in
the teaching about the new wine and the old bottles. ^
It seems to me impossible to deny that our Lord had
by this time come to realize that fasting — at least
fasting in obedience to definite ecclesiastical injunctions
at frequent intervals — was not congenial to the spirit
of the new gospel of the Kingdom which He was pro-
claiming. ^ It belonged to the old system of rites and

^ Matt. vi. 1 6, 17. The saying has no parallel in Luke, who
would certainly have had no bias against fasting. He might, how-
ever, have omitted the saying because it was directed against a
kind of hypocrisy which was not common among Gentiles.

* Matt. ix. 15-16 ; Mark ii. 19-22 ; Luke v. 33-39.

'It must be remembered that the Law of Moses prescribed but
one fast in the year — the Great Day of Atonement,

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ i6i

ceremonies, not to the new religion of the heart and
the Hfe which He was preaching. There remains the
difficulty of interpreting the words, " But the days will
come when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from
them, and then will they fast in those days." The
easiest and most obvious way of understanding these
words is to suppose them to mean " Fasting is a
natural expression of sorrow, and is therefore unsuit-
able now." We must remember that with Orientals
fasting was practised not merely as a religious observ-
ance, but as a sign of mourning : it was the usual
accompaniment of rending the garments. You will
recall the surprise of David's servants at his eating and
drinking after his son's death. Our Lord's meaning
may then be " Fasting will come as a natural expres-
sion of sorrow in due time, when the Bridegroom is
taken away from them." It is even possible, on the
assumption that the words were really uttered by
Jesus, that He was not thinking of literal, intentional
abstinence from food at all. You must remember the
spirit of the objection. The Pharisees had taunted our
Lord's disciples with the easy-going, unexacting
character of the Religion which their Master preached.
He may have met the spirit of the objection by
saying : " Don't think the ReUgion I preach is an
easy-going Religion. The call for self-sacrifice and
suffering has not come yet, but it will come in due
time. My disciples will have plenty to endure and
plenty of calls to self-discipline and privation, when

i62 Conscience and Christ

I am taken away from them. Then it will be seen that
the demands which their discipleship makes upon
them, though they assume a different form, are not
less exacting than the demands which John and the
Pharisees made of their disciples."^ But after all, I
cannot but feel that the words, taken in any natural
sense, are so difficult to reconcile with the previous
saying about the new wine and the old bottles that
M. Loisy is probably right in suggesting that here, too,
we have an addition of the Evangelist, reflecting the
growing asceticism of the later Church.

(5) I turn to another aspect of the ascetic ideal,
its attitude towards Marriage. Can we attribute to
our Lord any sympathy with the idea that virginity
is superior to marriage ? I answer emphatically that
we cannot. A high estimate of marriage is imphed in
this strict rule in regard to its permanence. How then
are we to interpret the words " there be eunuchs
which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom
of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him
receive it." » If the saying be genuine, the most natural
way of understanding it is to suppose that our Lord
meant that there is a peculiar blessedness in renouncing
marriage in order the better to do the work of spread-
ing the Kingdom of God among men. Even under
normal conditions there are many kinds of spiritual
or social work which are best undertaken by those

* Loisy remarks that our Lord did not usually speak of His
" being taken away from them." These words suggest a later date.
■ Matt. xix. 12.

Objections to the Moral Teaching of Christ 163

who are willing to postpone indefinitely, or even totally
to renounce, this great source of human happiness.
That Jesus might have suggested to His disciples the
blessedness of making, in view of the near approach
of the Kingdom, such a sacrifice as He had made Him-
self is quite conceivable. But it is equally possible
that this may be one of the numerous passages
peculiar to Matthew which are due to the ideas of a
later age, the days of an organized Christian Church,
a more ecclesiastical spirit, a growing respect for
celibacy. Under this category may confidently be
placed the committal of the keys of the Kingdom of
Heaven to St. Peter, the saying about the Church
being founded upon him, the command to bring
quarrels to the Church to be decided, and many others.
The saying about the three kinds of eunuchs may well
belong to the same class of ecclesiastical additions.
A parallel but stronger instance of this kind of ascetic
development may be found in the saying attributed to
Jesus by the Gospel of the Egyptians, " I came to
destroy the work of the female sex."^

(6) The question of Asceticism naturally leads on
to the more general suggestion that Christ's ideal is
one-sided and incomplete because it preaches the
doctrine of self-denial, self-sacrifice, social activity,
and says nothing about that other side of the moral

* Clem. Alex., Strom. Ill, c. ix. 63, The tone of both sayings
has a certain resemblance to the collections of mystical " Logia "
of our Lord which have recently been discovered, and few of these
have the ring of genuineness.

164 Conscience and Christ

ideal which is often summed up in the word self-
development. The Gospel says nothing about the
duty of self-culture, about the value of intellectual
activity, or of intellectual knowledge. Two points
ought, I think, to be unreservedly admitted about
this matter :

(a) There is this other side to a true ideal of human
life. Knowledge and the contemplation of Beauty,
intellectual development and aesthetic development,
Culture and the pleasures connected with it, are part
of the true ideal of man. They are among the best and
noblest things in human life : they form part of that
good which the ideal man should promote for himself

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