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The Morally Problematic Jesus of Nazareth

The Morally Problematic Jesus of Nazareth June 10, 2021

“There was only one (morally) perfect man who ever walked the earth.” I was in the sixth grade when I overheard this claim made by one of our teachers. We were in a public school in the South. It was hardly a hotbed of secularism. I knew who she meant. Jesus Christ. It was unthinkable to consider Jesus was morally problematic. He was perfect. Jesus was sinless. He was divine. He rose from the dead because he died without sin. But a recent sermon given during this year’s Festival of Homiletics made me rethink this claim…again.

Sin As A Moral Problem

Paul claims, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus knew no sin. Does that mean Jesus was morally perfect? For many who hold a view of substitutionary atonement, this text is interpreted as meaning just that. Our teacher thought of perfect as being without any fault.

Hebrews claims “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with out weaknesses but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”(4:15) And then we read that High Priests “chosen among mortals” are “able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.” (5:2-3) If we argue, as many do, that sin is the same thing as immorality, we understand these passages to mean Jesus was morally perfect.

Morally Difficult Sinlessness

Jesus, according to the Gospels, is always accused of sin. His accusers claim Jesus was in league with demons, a blasphemer, a breaker of the Sabbath, and kept bad company. Let’s ask a question here. Were any of these acts sin? Yes. All of them were sin if he was really guilty of breaking them. Jesus never claims he did not violate the Sabbath. He claimed there could be good reasons to do so.

Recently I read the claim that Jesus did not eat with tax collectors and prostitutes to be “inclusive.” He did so to call them to repentance. The Gospels never make such a claim. Those who could easily define sin in others that were called to repentance. Jesus was not sinless in the eyes of many of his contemporaries.

Sinful Morality

Fundamentalists often claim Jesus took away the ceremonial laws of Moses. He kept the moral laws. Forbidding people to eat pork is ceremonial law. Homosexuality continues to be forbidden by the moral law. See how that works? If I want to do it, it was a ceremonial law. My prejudices are supported by the moral law. Neat trick. Unfortunately, my card was in the magician’s pocket the whole time.

Human beings have moral codes (both personal and social). We also have certain ceremonies that must be observed. One is expected to remain silent during a publicly lead prayer, for instance. It may not be a moral violation to whisper to your neighbor during such a time. But it is bad manners. Pulling the fire alarm if you see the fire is fine though. You won’t be blamed for the disruption.

Jesus demonstrates, as did many Rabbis before and after him, that there is no sin if a human need is met. He has no system of social morality. Jesus was not a Victorian, or a Puritan, or an Enlightenment Philosopher. Our own views of morality cannot be foisted upon him.

The Morally Problematic Jesus Story

Miguel De La Torre raised this question in his sermon from Mark 7:24-30. Did Jesus call the Canaanite woman a bitch? Well, let’s see. He calls a woman a dog. What would we call that? Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She replies, “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the table.” Jesus is impressed with her and says her daughter is healed.

It does not matter how we look at the context of Mark’s or Matthew’s overall purposes in using this story. Why do we have it at all? Jesus is walking on the edge of our morality. But he is not doing so on the morality and prejudices of his time. Morality may involve sin. But sin is not about morality or ethics. It is scandalous to think this way.

Put this woman in our context. Would we immediately accept her if she was an illegal immigrant? What about a white-trash deadbeat mother? Would one of our politicians consider her a black inner city “welfare queen?” Whatever else we can say, she is outside – the other. Jesus heard her request for her daughter. He claimed there were other “children” for whom he was more immediately concerned. She replies, my daughter is important enough.

The Messiah Learns

I have not answered all the questions about Jesus and sin this passage brings to my mind. But I recognize my questions have to do with when and where I live. I believe though Jesus would have sinned if he told the woman to mind her place and walked away.

Jesus in the Gospels learns about the faith of outsiders and the faithlessness of many insiders. Hebrews says Jesus is sympathetic to our human weaknesses. He may sympathize with our weaknesses that lead us to bad theological and moral conclusions. It does me good to know his life on earth is about how he learns as well as teaches.


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