But a conservative can also quote the New Testament to his purpose. Christ made a friend of Matthew, who continued to be an agent of the Roman power; he uttered no criticism of the civil government, took no known part in the Jewish movement for national liberation, and counseled a submissive gentleness hardly smacking of political revolution. He advised the Pharisees to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” His story of the man who, before going on a journey, “called on his slaves, and put his property in their hands,” contains no complaint against interest or slavery, but takes these institutions for granted. Christ apparently approves of the slave who invested the ten minas ($600) that the master had entrusted to him, and made ten more; he disapproves of the slave who, left with one mina, held it in unproductive safekeeping against the master’s return; and he puts into the master’s mouth the hard saying that “to him who has, more will be given, and from him who has nothing, even that which he has will be taken away”- an excellent summary of market operations, if not of world history. In another parable workers “grumbled at their employer,” who paid as much to one who had labored an hour as to those who had toiled all day; Christ makes the employer answer: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own?” Jesus does not seem to have thought of ending poverty; “the poor ye have always with you.” He takes for granted, like all ancients, that a slave’s duty is to serve his master well; “blessed is the slave whom his master, returning, finds performing his charge.” He is not concerned to attack existing economic or political institutions; on the contrary, he condemns those ardent souls who would “take the Kingdom of Heaven by storm.” The revolution he sought was a far deeper one, without which reforms could only be superficial and transitory. If he could cleanse the human heart of selfish desire, cruelty, and lust, utopia would come of itself, and all those institutions that rise out of human greed and violence, and the consequent need for law, would disappear. Since this would be the profoundest of all revolutions, beside which all others would be mere coups d’etat of class ousting class and exploiting in its turn, Christ was in this spiritual sense the greatest revolutionist in history.
His achievement lay not in ushering in a new state, but in outlining an ideal morality. His ethical code was predicated on the early coming of the Kingdom, and was designed to make men worthy of entering it. Hence the Beatitudes, with their unprecedented exaltation of humility, poverty, gentleness, and peace; the counsel to turn the other cheek, and be as little children (no paragons of virtue!); the indifference to economic provision, property, government; the preference of celibacy to marriage; the command to abandon all family ties: these were not rules for ordinary life, they were a semimonastic regimen fitting men and women for election by God into an imminent Kingdom in which there would be no law, no marriage, no sexual relations, no property, and no war. Jesus praised those who “leave house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children,” even those “who make themselves eunuchs, for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake”; obviously this was intended for a devoted religious minority, not for a continuing society. It was an ethic limited in purpose but universal in its scope, for it applied the conception of brotherhood and the Golden Rule to foreigners and enemies as well as to neighbors and friends. It visioned a time when men would worship God not in temples but “in spirit and truth,” in every deed rather than in passing words.
Were these moral ideas new? Nothing is new except arrangement. The central theme of Christ’s preaching- the coming Judgment and Kingdom- was already a century old among the Jews. The Law had long since inculcated brotherhood: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” said Leviticus; even “the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself.” Exodus had commanded the Jews to do good to their enemies: a good Jew will restore the straying ox or ass even of the “enemy that hateth thee.” The prophets, too, had ranked a good life above all ritual; and Isaiah and Hosea had begun to change Yahveh from a Lord of Hosts into a God of Love. Hillel, like Confucius, had phrased the Golden Rule. We must not hold it against Jesus that he inherited and used the rich moral lore of his people.