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“Christian” Situation Ethics

by Dan Gatlin

Pharisees accusing Jesus' disciples of breaking the Sabbath by picking grain  In Matthew 12:1-8 (and its parallel in Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 6:1-5) we have recorded a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning the Sabbath: 

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, ‘Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!’  But He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? ‘Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?  Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple.  But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless.  For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.

This text prompts several questions.  Did Jesus’ disciples break the law?  Did Jesus defend and excuse the sins of His disciples?  Can we set aside God’s law in an “emergency situation?”  Did Jesus teach “Christian situation ethics?”  For many Christians the meaning and application of this passage is unclear. 

The Interpretation Given By Some Men

Situation ethics is the philosophical offspring of secular humanism.  To the humanist, right and wrong are mere human values and are determined by the situation at hand.  Secular humanism rejects the notion of a higher power and divine law.  What is wrong in one situation might be right in another, absolutes do not exist.

Many religious people also do not like absolutes and have embraced situation ethics while rejecting certain portions of secular humanism.  A re-interpretation of the above passage allows men to set aside the word of God when it is deemed “an emergency.”  This philosophy fits perfectly with the sectarian notion that the word of God is not a law and that to categorize it as such makes one a legalist or a modern day Pharisee (contrary to p assages like Romans 3:27, 8:2; Galatians 6:2; James 1:25, 2:12).  The view of many is that Christ died to make us free from law, any law, even Divine law.  So, we should not be surprised when denominations embrace and promote all kinds of immoral behavior.

Notice the following statements made in regard to Matthew 12:

“In other words, human need is a higher law than religious rules and regulations.  Or, to put it more exactly, love is the highest law in the universe and supersedes all other regulations.  And love demands that human need must be met, even if some legal technicalities have to be laid aside in the process. . . . It is obvious that this concept of true religion as consisting of a right attitude rather than ritual acts was central to Jesus’ thinking.” (Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, pp. 120, 121)

“The conclusion places mercy above ritual, and love above law . . . Jesus showed us that human need takes precedence over rites, codes, or cultural taboos.” (The Communicators Commentary, Vol. 1, p.152)

“But it was understood that if an emergency or positive commandment called for some physical act even on the sabbath day, then the regular law as to its observance did not apply or bind the parties to its usual observance. . . Lord of the sabbath does not imply that he would belittle the law of the holy days.  He was with his Father in all of the works of creation, also in the issuing of laws and dispensations for the conduct of human beings.  Any lawmaking power has the right to alter its own edicts if and when it sees fit to meet an emergency, hence Jesus was within his rights in the above conduct.” (Bible Commentary, E. M. Zerr, pp.41-42)

Consider the following questions that are prompted by this position:

Do human needs really take precedence over Divine law?  While on earth Jesus took on human flesh.  He faced all of the weaknesses and temptations connected with the physical body that we do.  In Matthew 4 Jesus fasted forty days and nights and was tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread.  Why did He refuse if human need takes precedence over God’s will?  The disciples could have fasted on that Sabbath day and survived just fine.  One day without food hardly qualifies as a “need.”

Jesus instructed His disciples before they preached to Israel, "Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.  And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:21-22).  Some might argue that the greatest human need (after our spiritual needs are met) is survival.  Surely Christ would allow the disciples to set aside some “small” portion of His law if one’s survival were at risk.  But the above passage indicates otherwise.  The same chapter also records, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28), and “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).  The message that “human needs take precedence over God’s law” is clearly false.  Consider Jesus response to Satan: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).  Is He not teaching that the word of God takes precedence over human need?

Does “the law of love” allow for the occasional disobedience to God?  First, Jesus taught that love requires complete obedience.  “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Which commandments? By implication we understand this to mean all of them.  Where does Jesus state that man may make  exceptions as “needed”?  Whatever exceptions exist are stated within the law of Christ.  We are, for example, told to obey civil leaders (Romans 13:1-7; I Peter 2:13-15).  The only exception to this is found in Acts 4:19-20 and 5:29.

For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (I John 5:3).  He is not saying that we keep only those commandments that are not burdensome (and by implication set aside those that are), rather, our love for God should far exceeds any burden we might experience. In the last phrase, “His commandments are not burdensome,” the verb is in the indicative mood implying the certainty of the statement.  His commandments are not burdensome because the child of God has an understanding of sin and its consequences and an appreciation for God’s willingness to forgive our sins.  If we truly understand the destiny that we avoid through God’s forgiveness, then any requirement (burden) God places on us pales in comparison. 

Second, what is meant by “the law of love?”  Most understand this to be some fuzzy, imprecise feeling that is motivated by good will.  Consequently, what we do doesn’t really matter as long as our intentions are “good.”  Make no mistake, there is a “law of love,” but it’s not what most religious people think.  “Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.  Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no harm to a neighbor; the refore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:7-10, see also Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8).  Love toward God and man does not violate God’s word, love keeps it.  If we love God, we will keep all of His commandments.  If we love our neighbor, we will follow all of God instructions on how to treat our neighbor.

Did Jesus, as lawmaker, make exceptions for Himself or others? Such reasoning would allow Jesus to violate any commandment by simply making an exception.  Could He steal if such would help the situation by  making an exception?  Could He lie if it would help out with “human need”?   Sin is defined as “lawlessness” (I John 3:4), so if Jesus violated God’s law He was guilty of sin.  Romans 5:13 says, “sin is not imputed when there is no law.”  But there was a law, the law of Moses.  Further, this interpretation contradicts  Jesus’ own words, “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18).  His sinless life (Hebrews 4:15) was not the result of making exceptions for Himself or others, but because He kept the law perfectly.

Did Jesus defend the sin of His disciples? No, because His disciples did not sin. They violated tradition of the Pharisees, but not the law of Moses. Matthew 12:7 states clearly that the disciples were “guiltless.”  But the real problem with this view is that it has Jesus defending the sins of others, which contradicts the law of Moses (Deuteronomy 13:8; Proverbs 1:10) and the law that Jesus was establishing.  The law of Christ condemns those who approve sin: “who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32).

If God allows us to set aside His laws without accountability, then which laws may we disobey and in what situation?  Such a philosophy necessarily leads to the conclusion that there are no absolutes, even with God.

The Actual Meaning Of The Text

To properly understand the events of Matthew 12 it is necessary to understand what the law of Moses  taught.  The law allowed for the disciples actions, “When you come into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not use a sickle on your neighbor’s standing grain” (Deuteronomy 23:25).  The Pharisees objection was not in what the disciples did, but when they did it.  Their tradition taught that the disciples were guilty of working on the Sabbath.  But what they did was not work.

The example of David

Jesus responded by pointing out what David did when he was fleeing from Saul (I Samuel 21).  The bread that David requested had been offered in the tabernacle and was only for the priests to eat (Leviticus 24:5-9).  Jesus clearly states that the showbread that David took “was not lawful for him to eat” (Matthew 12:4).  To assume that Jesus was defending David is just that, an assumption.  Jesus’ point is very simple: the Pharisees would never have condemned David when he broke the law, but they readily condemned the disciples though they did not break the law.

The priests

The Sabbath law had recognized exceptions, and the priests served as an example of such.  Though the command was not to work on the Sabbath, yet the priests had work to do.  Other activities were allowed on the Sabbath as well.  These included caring for the needs of animals (Deuteronomy 22:1-4; Matthew 12:11), circumcision (John 7:22), helping the needy (Luke 14:1-6).  The Pharisaical approach to the law ignored mercy (Matthew 12:7; 23:23).  They forbid what the law allowed.  Mark 2:27 record, “And He said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’”  The Sabbath was a day of rest given for man’s benefit, and a day in which to remember the blessings of God (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).  The Pharisees perverted this intent.

The Lord of the Sabbath

Jesus as deity knew what the law of Moses allowed and disallowed.  As the Son of God, He was superior to the levitical priests, and His work was more important than theirs.  The suggestion that as Lord of the Sabbath Jesus could set aside its requirements is not taught here.  Jesus had already stated that He was superior to the temple (Matthew 12:6).  In referring to Himself as “Lord of the Sabbath,” He was again asserting His equality with the Father.  Consider the words of John 5:17-18, “But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.’  Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.