GOSPEL ETHICS: both RADICAL DEMANDS and RADICAL MERCY

G. K. Chesterton, the early 20th century Christian apologist, wrote that, while “paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the conflict of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold them simultaneously.”[“This duplex passion,” Chesterton concludes, “was the Christian key to ethics.” He goes on to cite examples of what he means. The virtue of courage requires both love for life and willingness to die. Christians honor heroes who save life as well as martyrs who give it away. The virtue of modesty requires both the humble acknowledgement of our lowliness and a bold assertion of our dignity. For Christians, humility should never lead to despair and recognizing our God-given dignity should never lead to pride. The virtue of chastity requires of some a lifetime of married love and child rearing and of others a lifetime of celibacy. The communion of Christian saints includes St. Therese’s parents, who had many children, and St. Therese, who had none.  As Chesterton puts it, the Church “has at once been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink.”

Chesterton’s insight: that Christianity holds seemingly opposite convictions simultaneously, is best exemplified in the Church’s teaching about the natures of Jesus Christ. We hold that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. While various heresies in the early Church claimed that Jesus was either God or man, or that Jesus was something in between God and man, or some mixture of God and man, the Church maintained its both/and teaching: Jesus is both fully God and fully man. Using Chesterton’s analogy, we might say that the Church kept Jesus’ full divinity and full humanity “side by side like two strong colors, red and white” and rejected every heretical shade of pink.

The Church’s both/and moral teaching, like the Church’s both/and teaching on the natures of Christ, is rooted in the gospels. Just as the gospels clearly attest both to Jesus’ divinity and to Jesus’ humanity, so also they present both the most challenging of moral demands and the most extravagant examples of mercy.

We find the demanding moral teaching most especially in the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus condemns not only murder and adultery, but also anger and lustful thoughts. He prohibits divorce, calls remarriage adultery, and forbids swearing oaths, fighting back, and showing off. All of this is summarized in the most demanding precept conceivable: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).

Yet even as Jesus tells his disciples to what lengths they must go to avoid sin, he simultaneously shows them to what lengths they must go in forgiving sin. Jesus tells Peter to forgive not “seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22). He regularly consorts with tax collectors and other public sinners in his mission to seek and save the lost. He forgives sins even as he heals disease and casts out demons. He tells parables that give examples of extravagant mercy, most notably the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son.

Perhaps the combination of Jesus’ radical moral demands and radical mercy is best illustrated in his encounter with the woman caught in adultery. Jesus did not mince words when it came to condemning adultery. His teaching on the matter was so demanding that his disciples were led to remark that it might be better not to marry at all (see Matt 19:8-12). But when Jesus encountered the woman caught in adultery, he did not condemn her. After inducing her accusers to depart, he asks, “Has no one condemned you?” She replies, “No one, Lord.” Jesus then tells her, “Neither do I condemn you.” Then he immediately adds, “Go, and do not sin again” (John 8:2-11).

Jesus’ condemnation of sin combined with his non-condemnation of the sinner sets the standard for the Church’s approach to sin and forgiveness. We experience this regularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when we confess our sins, receive God’s total forgiveness, and resolve, with the help of God’s grace, to sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin. As Chesterton puts it, Christianity “divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all.” Jesus came to put sin to death and restore sinners to life. Christian ethics embraces both/and: both the challenge of imitating God’s perfection and the consolation of relying on God’s forgiveness.

  • All references to Chesterton are from Orthodoxy, chapter 6: “The Paradoxes of Christianity.”