For a long, long time people have been debating whether or not we really have to obey the teachings of Jesus, not the least of which are those found in the Sermon on the Mount — did that “not the least of which” sound like Tom Wright?, and Tom weighs in on this one.
What role do the teachings of Jesus play in the formulation of virtue ethics? How do you explain to people who ask how it is possible to follow the Sermon on the Mount?
First, he pokes at those who have done their dead-level, serious best to all but say “well, not really.” Second, Tom says, “Well, yes, really.” But he means Jesus is teaching the kingdom life and we are to be transformed into the kind of character that anticipates in the here and now what Jesus teaches. So, what Tom is arguing in his virtue ethics is a kind of “inaugurated eschatology.” (Funny that he is so like many Europeans who don’t ever quote George Ladd, but Tom might well say, “George Caird is the one from whom I learned it.”)
Tom’s sees the Beatitudes themselves as virtues. I don’t. I see them as people groups who are blessed by Jesus in contrast to other people groups who aren’t, and the virtue component is less an abstract virtue than a character trait of a specific group of people. In other words, if we take the Luke 6 version, I don’t think we are called to practice poverty so much as see that the poor are blessed by God and not the rich. More could be said, but that’s not the point here. Tom’s on the side of those who see a connection of the Beatitudes with the fruit of the Spirit.
He sketches “perfect” from Matthew 5:48 (emphasizing this as the “telos” or “goal” since the Greek word is formed from “telos” or “goal”), then examines the death of Jesus, where he manages to say almost nothing about the specifics of what Jesus actually says about his atoning death, but by the time he’s done he’s made the cross up front and central to the telos and virtue ethics of Jesus. Which is exactly right.
He also examines the need for humans to have cleansed and softened and forgiven hearts.
On Jesus as example, much to be said but he finds the one element of Jesus’ life that is seen as exemplary is his sacrificial, cross-shaped love and generosity, turning “example” on its head.