TSC Daily | Jerry Bowyer | September 7, 2007
Renaissance era Vienna was a moral cesspool. Brothels were everywhere, marriage was disappearing and the resultant army of unfathered children created a crime wave. The Duke of Vienna decided to go on a ‘listening tour’ of the city. He donned a monk’s habit and wandered the streets incognito with his face covered and his eyes and ears open. He needed to leave the government in strong hands and he chose Angelo, a strict and puritanical conservative to rule in his stead. Angelo looked upon the moral chaos of the city and decided to reinstitute an ancient tradition – hanging for fornicators.
It wasn’t long before a case came before him, a young man was living with his fiancé. He couldn’t afford to marry her outright, so she agreed to live with him on the understanding that they would eventually be married. There was no dispute, it was clear that the two of them were having sex. Angelo pronounced the sentence and the young man was sent to the dungeon to await his execution. His sister, a beautiful woman in training to be a nun, went to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. The instant she entered the room, Angelo fell in love with her. He demanded that she submit to his sexual advances. When she refused, he told her that this was the only way her brother could be spared. The family values candidate for ruler of Vienna demanded a sexual bribe in exchange for a pardon.
This story is told to us by William Shakespeare and the Bard being the Bard, the plot takes several turns, each one showing new depths of lust and deceit for Angelo. In the end, the true ruler reappears, reveals all, acquits the innocent, punishes (more mildly than they deserve) the guilty and sets it all to rights. The play is almost, well theological, and why not? It’s title Measure for Measure is taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
The point is simple: you will be judged by the standards you apply to others. This verse is as frequently misunderstood by liberal as by conservative commentators. For the liberals, it forbids moral distinctions. Jesus, they say, is outlawing the making of moral evaluation. Of course, this is impossible. If judgments are forbidden than this prohibition includes the judgment that we shouldn’t make prohibitions. Judgmental people are therefore ‘bad’, non-judgmental people are good.
The conservative answer view states that Jesus makes moral judgments all the time and that we should too. After all, without moral standards, chaos would ensue. They tend to ignore the actual language of ‘judge not’ and take the passage as meaning either nothing or meaning that only people who live up to their standards are allowed to judge and if you want to go around condemining people, that’s fine, just so long as you get pure enough yourself that you’re not covered by this warning.
Both seem to miss the point. The context is political. Although we call it the “Sermon” on the mount, it’s much more speech than sermon. This remarkable document is Jesus of Nazareth’s State of the Union Address. The state of the union, he finds, is not strong. The political elites are greedy collaborators and the grassroots pressure groups secretly undermine what they loudly proclaim. They cast out tax collectors for collaborating with Rome, but they carry Roman coins. They talk about the commandment to honor your father and mother, but make ostentatious gifts of their support. They sleep with women, but then try them (but not the men) for adultery.
Jesus is not ordering infinite tolerance, nor laying down the bars that must be passed before the privilege of intolerance is granted. He is describing the way the world works. Rulers of activists will be evaluated by the standards which they use to evaluate others. When someone uses the Torah to get power, eventually his conduct will be evaluated by that same Torah. If one uses the holiness of the temple as an excuse to shake people down for contributions, exchange fees, etc. eventually people will begin to wonder whether he is in his own conduct guarding the holiness of the temple.
Shakespeare got what so many commentators missed: Jesus as pundit, wisely (and it turns out accurately) predicting the implosion of the two great political parties of His day. The same holds true for us. The Democrats can’t fly around the world in gas guzzling charter jets to give pious sermons about exceeding our carbon footprints. Republicans can’t go on and on about Idaho family values and then cruise men’s rooms for anonymous hook-ups. It’s not just a matter of ‘hypocrisy’. Hypocrisy is inevitable, any standard worth having is a standard that we will sometimes miss. It’s more a matter of reality. You can’t build a political coalition of lasting viability on leaders who trash by their actions the standards the profess with their mouths. The Prophet and the playwright tells us that it just won’t work.