Copyright c 2004 by Harvey Cox. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

When it comes to a moral dilemma, any moral dilemma, we always face three steps. The first is the most important: We must recognize it as moral issue, not just an investment decision, or a clinical issue, or a political choice. The second step is to find an answer to the question: What should I do? Then comes the third, and probably the hardest step: to summon the courage to do it. A well-cultivated imagination can inform all these steps. It helps us recognize the moral issues wrapped in all kinds of choices. It helps clarify what the right choice is, and it motivates us to take the action that choice calls for. But how do we acquire and nurture such an imagination?

This is where stories and the imagination come in. The Jewish philosopher Edith Wyschogrod has observed that, for all their importance, neither ethical principles nor moral theories actually motivate anyone. What motivates people are stories, narratives, accounts of situations in which choices must be made and stands taken. In a perceptive discussion of the significance of literature for ethics, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes that narratives tell us "to notice this and not this, to be active in these and not those ways." They lead us into "certain postures of the mind and not others." Narratives speak to the inner spirit. They link the moral reasoning we do in our heads to the courage and empathy that must come from the heart. In short, they help us to become the people we want to be.

This clarifies the connection between Jesus the rabbi and the moral imagination. He spent his brief lifetime telling stories and enacting them. Even his provocative entry into Jerusalem and his death by torture became part of the narrative of his life. Meeting him always seemed to shake people up. He constantly pushed them to think beyond. their own immediate interests, to picture themselves in a variety of situations in which choice and action were required - in short, to use their imaginations. What do you do when you find a stranger lying bleeding by the roadside; when no guests show up for your big banquet; when a sassy and rebellious son you thought had left for good shows up on your doorstep broke? Jesus also put people in uncomfortable situations by the way he lived. He violated the social and religious taboos of his day. He ate with people a respectable rabbi was not supposed to eat with. He kept company with shady characters and social deviants. He lived in such a way that anyone who encountered him had to reexamine the meaning of life and look at the world from a new point of view. His words were deeds and his deeds were words.

But this is still just the beginning. To understand the relevance of Jesus for the issues of our day, we do have to grasp how he responded to the issue of his own time. This is where the historical Jesus researchers have often been quite helpful, because we also have to know, to use a favorite phrase of my students, "where he was coming from." Jesus was indeed a first-century Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation. But it was as a rabbi that he had to cope both with the Roman tyrants and with the destructive divisions among his own people. He was no stranger to moral chaos, political rancor, and religious strife. That is who Jesus was and where he was. But where was Jesus "corning from"?

Jesus was coming from the ancient religious tradition of his own people. Each year at Passover he undoubtedly celebrated the exodus from Egypt at a seder dinner with leis family. The Gospels report that he went to synagogue on the Sabbath "'as was his custom," but not just to pray. He also went to teach. He was so familiar with the prophets tike Jeremiah and Amos and Isaiah that he linked his own calling with theirs. Like many of us, as a child he may have had to memorize the Ten Commandments, which Biblical scholars see as the distillation of the entire Jewish moral and religious tradition. When he taught his followers to pray, he taught them a familiar Jewish prayer. To understand him we have to read more than the Gospels. We have to become familiar with both Jewish life in the first century and what Christians now call the old Testament, the only "Bible" Jesus ever knew.

When we become familiar with Jesus' Bible, we can see why the Gospels do not provide all the concrete ethical guidelines people often expect to find in them: Both Jesus and most of his hearers were already aware of these guidelines. Rabbi that he was, Jesus had no interest in introducing a new law. In fact, he insisted that "not even one jot or tittle" of the old one was to be abrogated. But as a rabbi, Jesus took another step. He spun out parables and told stories to demonstrate the present reality of something close to the heart of the Jewish tradition called the "reign of God," which most Jews at the time believed would begin only with the coming of the Messiah. The concept of the reign of God is central to his life arid teaching, but he did not invent the idea. He obviously assumed that most of his hearers already knew what he was referring to. What Jesus added was that this long-expected time of God's presence in daily life was now dawning. It was no longer to be postponed. Rather it was here and now, "in the midst of you," demanding an urgent and immediate response, though it was still partial and still hidden. It was no longer something you could only wait and pray for. It was something you looked for in the world around you, even in the most unlikely places.

Jesus does provide an excellent example of moral reasoning, but not in the way most people expect. He forced people to think for themselves by using stories and what we might now call case studies. Like the generations of rabbis who came after him, he did not offer answers that would apply to everyone and for all time. Nor was he interested in general moral theory. He dealt with issues on a case-by-case basis. In this respect Jesus was much like the rabbis who composed the Talmud. They also were not interested in theoretical questions, and their arguments often ended not with a single answer but with the opinions of two or even more rabbis. Usually when anyone asked Jesus a hypothetical question, he responded in typical rabbinical style with an anecdote or - just as rabbinical - with another question. He used his stories to make people grapple with moral issues, but nut in a vacuum. He expected them to think about these questions in the light of bath the mural tradition and the life trajectory that had brought them to this decision. Both Jesus and the rabbis assumed that anyone who is drawn into such a process learns something invaluable and is in a better position to make informed choices in the future. Also, since no two human situations are identical, every answer is by its nature a provisional one. The next situation one meets might be somewhat similar; but sufficiently different to warrant a quite different response. The answer to any moral dilemma is important, but it is not as important as the wuy one learns to respond. There will be another moral quandary tomorrour, and another the next day.

Once the importance of imagination is brought back into moral reasoning, it is possible to look at the simplistic formula, "what would Jesus do?" in a new light. If it means trying to mimic Jesus' behavior in some mechanical way (he did this, so I should do that), this formula clearly does not work very well as a moral guideline. There are just too many decisions it does not encompass. But if it means combining the rabbinical insight that no two cases are exactly the same with the exercise of moral imagination, then the question, "what would Jesus do?" does make some sense. It pushes us, as Jesus pushed his listeners, to put ourselves in unfamiliar, even threatening, situations. It requires us to look again and again at not just what Jesus himself did, but at what those who have been touched by his life and message have done over the years.

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