A Relational Ethic

moral-absolutes-and-moral-alternatives-L-0BhT3JIn the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story is told of a rich man who comes to Jesus, asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus responds by referencing the Jewish Law, mentioning a few of the “Ten Commandments”, as we now call them.  The man responds by telling Jesus that he has kept these commandments from his youth.  Mark’s Gospel says that Jesus looked at the man and “loved him”.  Then Jesus said to him, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’  (Mark 10:21).   The story then says that the man went away sad, because he had many possessions.

As with any Gospel story, there are a number of things we might take away from this one.  But I want to point to one of my take-away’s from this story.

When the man comes to Jesus with his question, Jesus’ response indicates, I think, his assumption that the man is asking the question out of what would have been the traditional religious paradigm of his time.  Jesus does not question the paradigm, or even challenge it at first.  Instead, Jesus answers the question according to that same paradigm.  In essence, Jesus says, “You know our tradition, and that tradition has set forth a set of laws that are to be followed if you wish to be in right relationship with God.”   When the man says that he has kept the tradition, Mark’s Gospel mentions that Jesus gave the man another look, and “loved him.”  I don’t think it is the case that Jesus failed to love the man as a person before this.  I think, rather, that Mark is saying that Jesus loved the fact that this man seemed to be unsatisfied with the traditional religious paradigm.   He was a man who was faithful to his tradition, who was religious in the way in which his tradition wanted him to be, and yet he yearned for something more.  Behind his statement, “I have kept all these from my youth” seems to be another question, “Is that it?  Isn’t there something more?”  It was at this moment that Jesus realized that the man was open to the possibility that there might be a different religious paradigm that might lead him to a deeper place.  And so, Jesus invites him into that new paradigm when he tells him to sell what he has, give to the poor, and then come and follow Jesus.

The man is clearly shocked by this invitation, and he goes away sad, for he is unprepared to receive it.  Of course, the Gospels don’t tell us any more about this man.  We cannot be sure what seeds Jesus’ invitation may have planted that day, and what that man might ultimately have done after he had time to consider Jesus’ invitation.   Perhaps the man eventually was able to accept what Jesus offered him, and was able to step out of his traditional religious paradigm into something new.

But just what was this new paradigm that Jesus was inviting the man into?

I think that Jesus was inviting the man out of a religious life rooted in law into a life with God rooted in relationship.   One of the fundamental criticisms Jesus made of the religion of his time was of the tendency to make the religious life one of following the rules, both ritual rules and moral rules, while forgetting the relationship with God to which those rules were meant to point.  Too often, Jesus repeatedly pointed out, the rules were used not to call people into relationship but rather to make the most vulnerable members of society feel excluded and unworthy of relationship with the divine.  It is why Jesus spent so much time with “unworthy” people, in order to teach them that they did have a relationship with God that was not dependent on rules of the larger community.

St. Paul expanded on this idea, going so far as to say that law does not have the power to bring anyone into relationship with God.  The law, Paul said, is very good at showing us how bad we are at following rules, and therefore, if our relationship with God is dependent on our following the rules, we are lost.  Thankfully, Paul says, Christ comes to change the paradigm, to free us from a religion rooted in law and invite us into relationship that is conditioned by grace, love, mercy — and that therefore is accessible to us regardless of any law.

The Christian churches have often lost sight of this fundamental insight.  We have too often resorted to imposing rules on people, and then used those rules to define whether or not a person is good.   We have sought to create ethical absolutes and then judged people by them.  We have used rules to declare which people are in good standing with God and which are not.  This is not the paradigm, or the community, that Jesus was inviting the rich man into.

Jesus was all about relationship — for him, everything came down to that.  Loving God, loving neighbor, loving self :  this was the heart of everything for Jesus, and it would be hard to find a more profoundly relational term than “love”.  To live in this new religious paradigm that Jesus represented means that our moral/ethical life flows not from obedience to an external code but rather by following the demands of love.  Jesus knew that human transformation cannot be imposed from outside, but rather must arise from within.  People can be loved into change, but can seldom be bullied into it.

If we were truly to live into this paradigm, and ask ourselves in every situation, “What does love require of me in this moment?”, I wonder how our debates over so many things would change?  I wonder how we as people would change?  I wonder how our faith communities would change?

In this season when we celebrate Resurrection, we are also celebrating God’s habit of overthrowing what we consider to be absolutes — like the absolute of death, which in the Risen Christ is shown to be no absolute at all.  In the Risen Christ, God invites us to abandon our certitudes, our black and white ways of thinking and judging, and to enter deeply into the messiness of relationship, where absolutes often don’t apply, and where questions often don’t have easy answers.  It is as hard for us as it was for the rich man in the story to give up his possessions.  But, as Jesus himself says, with God, all things are possible.

2 thoughts on “A Relational Ethic

  1. Thank you again, this is wonderful. I often feel that we live every moment as on a razor’s edge, sustained only by the life of God which is poured into the world, and its medium is love. To experience and be transformed by the love of God is a matter of life or death. This requires lots of prayer and relationship.

    (As an aside, I wonder if your Good Friday sermon can be made available on the Trinity website? This is at your discretion but it would be valuable for anyone to read or hear this again.)

  2. Rules are important, even in a relationship, but only insofar as they describe a course of growth, when they point the way to something greater than themselves. It is only when rules become dissociated from their object, and become ends in themselves that they become sterile, and oppressive.

    It ties in with what you said about the rich man having fulfilled all of the requirements of the law, but looking for something more. I wouldn’t say that the laws failed, but that they succeeded in pointing him towards something greater, whether he pursues that greater yearning, or reclines back into the security of ordinances is another matter.

    This, for me, has been the message of this Easter season – the need to go beyond, to reach outside ourselves for something greater – a call to a more actively lived faith. It is a theme that keeps repeating itself in everything I read – most recently your commentary, Matt.

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