Jesus' Teachings on Value

Christian 'Values'

Previous Chapter: Value

The Value of the Creation

  Let us start at the bottom of Jesus’ hierarchy of value, the non-human creation, and work up to his summum bonum.

the birds of the air, the lilies of the field

Jesus taught that the non-human creation is valuable. He did this in his Sermon on the Mount by bringing to the attention of his listeners that God is not only conscious of, but cares and provides for even its least significant elements. "‘Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. ... See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.’" (Matthew 6:26, 28, 29).

 the creation as a whole

This observation, like all of Jesus’ teachings was clearly grounded in the Old Testament where, in reflecting on the newly-created universe, "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. ..." (Genesis. 1:31). We can infer from this passage that Jesus was an objectivist. That God saw that His creation "was very good" (italics added) means, I believe, that value is objective, that it is inherent in the created objects and not merely in our minds. Furthermore, I believe that Jesus was an absolutist. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a passage that suggests anything but universal validity for his teachings on value, or anything else, for that matter. He intended for his standards to apply to all people, for all time.

moral obligation to the creation
(the cultural mandate)

Jesus clearly saw the non-human creation as good and though he did not specifically speak on it, we can state with some certainty that a moral obligation follows from it. "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." (Genesis 2:15) This is part of what is known as the cultural mandate. We are expected to be good stewards of the creation. That certainly bears upon judgments of technology, as we will see below.

The Value of People

 the relative value of human beings

In Jesus’ hierarchy of value, people held a higher place than the rest of the creation. Consider the full text of the first part of the passage from the Sermon on the Mount, partially quoted above: "‘Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?’" (Matthew 6:26, emphasis added).

human life, health, food, clothing, shelter, family

So Jesus held people to have a higher value than the non-human creation. More specifically, we can discern from his ministry certain goods related to human well-being. For example, he valued human life, because he raised people from the dead, and because he dreaded his own death and prayed for his life to be spared (Matthew 26:39). He valued health, for most of his recorded miracles involved healing (e.g., Luke 17:11-19). He considered food and clothing to be good, for he taught that even though they are not the highest good, God knows that we need them (Matthew 6:31-32). That he considered shelter to be a good is clear, otherwise the parable of the wise and the foolish builders would have been pointless (Matthew 7:24-27). Jesus valued family, for as a boy he was obedient to His parents (Luke 2:51), as a man dying on the cross he entrusted his mother's care to his disciple John (John 19:26-27), and in his ministry he used fatherly love for children as a metaphor for God's love for us (Luke 11:11-13).

friendship, community, knowledge, happiness

Friendship and community were valuable to Jesus, for he had a deep friendship with Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus (John 11:5) and throughout most of his ministry he surrounded himself with a small community of friends, his disciples (John 15:15). He valued knowledge and understanding for he prominently displayed them in his first recorded "public appearance" (Luke 2:46-47). Though no hedonist, he did consider happiness a good, for he described it as a reward of the good and faithful servants in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-23).
moral obligation to people:
to love others as you love yourself
The non-moral value of people is the basis for Jesus’ teachings on our moral obligation to them. First, Jesus taught from an Old Testament commandment that we are to "... ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’" (Matthew 22:39)

This not only assumes a certain degree of self-interest, but by extending his teachings about our dealings with others back onto ourselves, we also see a moral obligation to ourselves.

to do to others as you would have them do to you This becomes a little clearer in another teaching: "‘So in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’" (Matthew 7:12). The trick, of course, is to achieve the proper balance between self-interest and altruism implied by these commandments. But that is beyond the scope of this essay.

 The Value of the Kingdom of God

the summum bonum: God … 

To Jesus, God was the summum bonum. "As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’. ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good -- except God alone ...’" (Mark 10:17-18).

There are two points to be made here. First, Jesus is not referring to God in moral terms only. He is drawing on the Old Testament tradition of God as the greatest good: "Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; His greatness no one can fathom. (Psalm. 145:3; see also Psalm 25: 9-10, Psalm 86:5, 100:5, 106:1, 119:68). Second, given Christ’s other teachings about the value of things, he is exaggerating for effect. It is not that only God has positive value, it is that His goodness is so much greater than that of any created thing that other goods pale by comparison.

 the kingdom of God

Of course, we cannot realize God per se, but we can realize a certain relationship with God. Jesus began his ministry with an admonition that was prominent throughout it: "‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’" (Mark 1:15). In Matthew’s account, slightly different words are used: "‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’" (Matthew 4:17)

The significance of the kingdom of God (which is equivalent to the kingdom of heaven) is revealed in a commandment he gave in the Sermon on the Mount. "‘But seek first his [i.e., God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [i.e., related to material well-being] will be given to you as well.’" (Matthew 6:33).

the kingdom of Heaven, eternal life

So then, according to Jesus, the highest good we can realize is to enter the kingdom of God. We find that this relationship to God (to be in His kingdom) is also equivalent to some other concepts central to Jesus’ ministry. Consider the rest of the story about the man who came up and fell at his feet, seeking eternal life. When told that it required him to sell all he had and give to the poor, he went away sad, because he had great wealth, and Jesus remarked "‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. ...’" (Mark 10:23) From this passage we see the equivalence of the kingdom of God (or, in Matthew’s words, the kingdom of heaven), with eternal life. Of course, the most important point to get from it is that by placing such a high value on material possessions, the man missed the highest good.

knowledge of God 

The concept is also equivalent to knowing God, as we see Jesus’ prayer before his crucifixion: "‘Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’" (John 17:3) Later in John 17, this knowledge is explained as a mutual indwelling with God, mediated by Jesus Christ.

So, according to Jesus, the highest good is God and the highest good that we can realize is to participate in the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of heaven), which is to enter into eternal life, which is to know God. And how can we realize this good? There is but one means. When Jesus’ disciples questioned him about the way to God’s kingdom, "Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’" (John 14:6) As we shall see, this places some limits on the good to be realized through technology.

moral obligation to God:
to love Him and seek His kingdom

From the non-moral good of God and His kingdom follows our moral obligation to God. Besides seeking first His kingdom and being obedient to His commandments, we are to "... `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38)


Let me summarize Jesus’ standards of value by reviewing his hierarchy of value. At the bottom is the non-human creation. Then, people are more valuable than the creation. The highest good we can actually realize is the kingdom of God (eternal life, or knowing God). The highest good, the summum bonum, is God Himself. From this non-moral hierarchy of value comes Jesus’ moral standards. We are to be good stewards of God’s creation. We are to love others as we love ourselves. We are to seek God’s kingdom and, above all, we are to love God with all our being.

The Validity of Jesus’ Standards

  As I said above, I have chosen to apply Jesus’ standards of value to the judgment of technology because they are familiar to me and they will be somewhat familiar to most readers. But the main reason for using them is that they are the right standards value to use. That seems an outrageous statement to make in the present cultural climate of axiological relativism, so I must offer some justification.

uniqueness of Jesus’ standards

First of all, Jesus’ standards of value are unique, distinct from all other systems of value. While it is true that the lower parts of Jesus’ hierarchy of value are similar to the value beliefs of, say, humanism, there are some important differences. For example, the standards he set forth in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) are, humanly speaking, simply unattainable -- it is only through God’s grace that we can be justified. But the greatest distinguishing feature of Jesus’ hierarchy of value is the highest realizable good: knowing God in an intimate, indwelling relationship mediated through Jesus.

Jesus’ authority

And that leads to my second justification for my belief in the sole validity of Jesus’ standards of value. Jesus made some remarkable claims about his identity as the Son of God and of being of one essence with God, about his authority to make value judgments, and about his unique role as sole mediator between God and man. Either he was a lunatic or he was who he said he was. I believe that the latter is validated historically by the persistence of the Christian church through two millennia (often in the face of strong persecution), the expansion of the church over the entire globe, and the positive influence of the church on society when its members have held to Jesus’ teachings. My conclusion is that Jesus was who he said he was and that his identity gives special authority to his standards of value.

personal experience

Finally, my appeal to Jesus’ value standards is validated personally for me through the workings of Christ in my own life and in the lives of those around me.

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