Were the ethics of Jesus new? The answer to that question is complex, not allowing a yes or no response. Some would see the ethical standards set forth by Christ as tougher, more stringent version of the Mosaic Law (Ten Commandments, etc.), largely then just an extension of the old ethical system.. Certain aspects of the Sermon on the Mount would seem to indicate as much. Others might contend that Jesus taught an original, more enlightened and therefore better standard for human conduct, one which was astoundingly new and diametrically opposed to human logic and assumptions (Love your enemies, for example).
I suspect the truth lie somewhere in between these two positions, containing aspects of each. Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law. He pointed out the law could be summarized by an overarching principle, one with amazing implications that extend far beyond where law keeping leaves mankind. Galatians tells us the Law, the old ethics of Judaism, was a precursor to Christ and by extension of His ethics. In some sense then the ethical standards propounded by Christ are a logical outgrowth of experiencing life under the Old Law.
In the final analysis, the real issue is not the newness or sameness of the ethics of Jesus.
Instead I see a number of other more important questions. What did Jesus teach about wise personal conduct? Who is the correct object of my right conduct (God, my fellowman, or somehow both simultaneously)? How can I internalize and therefore act upon these teachings in my personal life? Is the focus of Jesus’ ethical teachings abundant living here and now or later in the hereafter?
In answering the first question concerning what Jesus actually taught on ethics, people are divided. Some see Jesus as the judge and enforcer of moral and religious rules which demand strict conformance under the threat of judgment. Others note that Jesus professed some amazing thoughts concerning human behavior which even the skeptics admire, at least in the abstract. The former group would see the teachings which impress even skeptics as idealized concepts reserved for a later day and totally inappropriate to our present world.
In regards to the second question, the church typically emphasizes man’s right conduct in relation to God. Tangentially, conducting oneself properly in relationship with God should ultimately change our relationship with our fellowman, but that is very much secondary to our conduct toward God. Conduct toward God has eternal consequences, while proper conduct toward other men is ambiguous because of the claimed need to oppose and convert. The fact that Jesus equated service to man as equal to service for God seems lost in this theology.
If I conclude that the ethics of Jesus point me to primarily how I treat my fellowman and that the ultimate standard is how I would like to be treated, acting upon that conclusion is exceedingly difficult. Without a complete rework of how I typically think and react to various life situations, that will be impossible. It is understandable then, that many including most in the church, have chosen to idealize and therefore largely ignore the implications of what Jesus taught here. Given the space devoted in the New Testament to the subject of coming judgment, even in the words of Jesus, it has been very easy to focus on the subject of rule keeping and status in the hereafter to the exclusion of a higher ethical standard for relations with one another. In connection with this difficulty, I ask myself this question: What was the essential Truth that Jesus brought to make men free? It apparently was either something hidden in the Old Law or something entirely new. In either case, the Truth was meant to be acted upon, to be embraced. Either that Truth included the seemingly inapplicable ethical standards cited, or the standards aren’t true at all, at least not now. It may be appealing to postpone the validity of the Golden Rule to another future age but to do so simply leaves us grappling with all the age old problems of human behavior and relationships with nothing transformative to guide us. Thereby, the incarnation and work of Christ is rendered largely insignificant. Everything remains the same as before, except maybe God will change His mind about judging some of us.
To reiterate, where one lands in answering the previous question influences the answer to the final question. If right conduct is focused on God and not the rest of humanity, then it becomes easy, perhaps even essential, to conclude that abundant living is reserved for a future time when God is somehow nearer and more substantial. On the other hand, if right conduct as taught by Jesus is directed to our fellowmen, then abundant living is for now and should manifest itself in our world in our lifetime.
The significance attached to the ethics of Jesus is critical to how we view and understand the religion called “Christianity”. It is vastly different to accept that the ethical standards of Christ apply now on planet earth than to believe that such ethics are not a part of God’s plan at this moment and in this place. That difference is at the very heart of much of the religious confusion and contention within Christianity.