The United States Supreme Court has legalized abortion. It has legalized same-sex marriage. Both decisions have placed religious organizations in an awkward position. What should the churches do? Conform to the changing mores of society? Or risk marginalization by clinging to the older standards of morality?
The question is not a new one, and Jesus made it clear that the conflict existed in the First Century. The underlying question is this: what exactly determines morality? The consensus of contemporary society? Or some eternal, transcendent standard or moral law? Are there such things as moral absolutes? Jesus answered in the latter.
The Gospel of Luke records an incident in which Jesus confronted the religious leaders of His day. At one point Jesus made the statement, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Luke 16:13; NKJV). “Mammon” is an Aramaic word that means wealth or profit. Here it is personified into a kind of pagan god. The Pharisees, Luke tells us, “were lovers of money” (v. 14), not unlike certain religious leaders today, and when the Pharisees heard Jesus’ statement “they derided Him.”
Jesus’ response was sharp and to the point. He pointed out that “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (v. 15). They has a high opinion of themselves based on their standing in society. People looked up to them; they were honored and esteemed. By all outward appearances they were successful. But God knew better. He looks on the heart, and knew what they were really like inside. And the inward reality did not match the outward appearance.
Jesus then went on to make a telling statement: “For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (v. 15). What He is saying here, in effect, is that there is a difference between a morality based on the standards of human society and one that is based on the will of God.
Every civilized human society has standards of human behavior that it expects the members of that society to meet. But these standards are usually based on a pragmatic consideration: this is what we need to do to be able to work together to achieve a common goal. It is a morality based on enlightened self-interest rather than any regard for the will of the Creator. Aristotle could actually go so far as to say that ethics or morality is a branch of political science. “Whosoever therefore would achieve anything in social or political life must be of good moral character; which indicates that the discussion of character not only belongs to social science, but is its very foundation or starting-point” (Magna Moralia, I.i). It was only later that men began to ask the question, what ultimately makes a given human action right or wrong? Is there any universal or transcendent standard of morality? And even then philosophers could not admit that there was only one, infinite, eternal Creator-God to whom we as human beings are accountable; they had recourse instead to the concept of natural law.
But the Bible begins with the obvious question, how did we get here in the first place? And the answer is that we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being who made us in His image and gave us rational and moral faculties. Everything, then, is supposed to conform to His creative purpose; and that, in turn, determines the nature of morality.
So great, however, is the disparity between God’s standards and man’s that Jesus could say that “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” Human society admires success. We look up to people who have education, wealth, good looks, athletic prowess, political standing. We encourage ambition and gratify pride. But Jesus uses an exceptionally strong word to describe all of this: it is an “abomination” in the sight of God – literally something that is disgusting or detestable. What God requires of us is that we love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves; not push and shove our way to the top and then pat ourselves on the back for our good success.
That, of course, places the individual human being in an awkward position. When God’s law and man’s law conflict, what should he do? Jesus went on to tell His listeners that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (v. 17). A “tittle” was the tiny little overhang or projection that would distinguish one letter of the Hebrew alphabet from another. Legislatures, courts and monarchs may all have their ideas about what they might like to see happen in the world; they might seek to impose their will at the point of the bayonet; but in the end it will all come to naught. In the end every human government passes from the stage of history. But God’s throne is eternal; His rule over the universe is never-ending, and in the end He will be the final Judge. His word is the only one that counts. As human beings we dare not disobey Him, no matter what men may say.
In modern Western society Judaeo-Christian morality may seem old-fashioned. We are accused of living in the past. But we are really living in eternity, while the surrounding world is self-destructing. The path of wisdom is obvious.