Good and Evil, the Pharisees and Jesus

A remarkable passage in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics.  The chapter is in a sense a reading of Genesis 1, with a focus on the knowledge of good and evil. The disobedience in the garden was about humans wanting to replace themselves with God.  Prior to the fall, humans knew only God, but with the knowledge of good and evil which came as a result of their disobedience they became “like God”.  Except humans are not God and knowing good and evil is not our business.  It is our business to simply know God. And so we live in disunion with God and with ourselves and our lives are lived out in a series of choices between good and evil.

This may sound confusing. That’s fine.  It is still confusing to me.  Bonhoeffer’s Ethics is infuriating in that I know he’s onto something big in his overall vision, but I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

Bonhoeffer argues that the Pharisees are the

epitome of the human being in the state of disunion…. For Pharisees, every moment of life turns into a situation of conflict in which they have to choose between good and evil…These men with their incorruptibly objective and distrustful attitude cannot encounter anyone without examining them about their decisions in the conflicts of life. Even in their encounter with Jesus, they have no choice but to try to drive him into conflict and disunity, to see how he stands up to the test. That is their temptation of Jesus (Ethics, 310-1).

And then Bonhoeffer examines Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and much of the inquiry made of him throughout his ministry. I’m aware that most people don’t bother reading long quotes on blogs, but bear with me…and Bonhoeffer:

Now what is crucial in all these disputes is the fact that Jesus refuses to participate in adjudicating even a single one of these conflicts. With each of his answers he simply rises above the conflict in question. Insofar as there is intentional malice on the part of the Pharisees, Jesus answers with a sovereign evasion of a cleverly prepared trap that may have made the listeners smile. However, the evasion is not the essential point. Just as the Pharisees have no choice but to confront, so Jesus has no choice but to refuse to accept such a situation. Just as the question and the temptation of the Pharisees arise out of the disunion of the knowledge of good and evil, so Jesus’ answer springs from unity with God, with the origin, from a place where the disunion of human beings from God has been overcome. The Pharisees and Jesus speak on completely different planes. That is why they speak so curiously past each other, and why Jesus’ answers do not appear to be answers at all, but his own attacks against the Pharisees, which in fact they are.

What takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees is merely a repetition of that first temptation of Jesus, in which the devil tried to present him with a conflict in God’s Word, and which Jesus overcame by his essential unity with God’s Word. This temptation of Jesus in turn has its prelude in that question with which the serpent in paradise causes Adam and Eve to fall: “did God really say…?” It is the question that conceals all the disunion against which human beings are powerless because it constitutes their very nature. It is only from beyond the disunion that this question can be–not answered–but overcome. Finally, however, all these temptations repeat themselves in the questions with which we too always confront Jesus; questions with which we call on him for a decision in cases of conflict; questions, in other words, with which we draw Jesus into our questions, conflicts, and disunity, and demand that he provide a resolution. Indeed, in the New Testament there is not a single question people ask Jesus that he would answer by addressing the human either-or that is implied in every such question. Each answer Jesus gives to the questions of either his enemies or his friends ignores this either-or in a way that confuses them and puts them to shame. Jesus declines to be called on as an arbitrator in vital life decisions, he refuses to be bound by human alternatives: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14).

In many cases Jesus seems not even to understand what people ask him. He seems to answer a completely different question from the one he was asked. He seems to speak past the question, but in this very act he completely addresses the questioner. Jesus speaks out of a total freedom that is not even bound by the law of logical alternatives. This freedom with which Jesus rises above all laws must appear to the Pharisee as the destruction of all order, all piety, and all faith. Jesus throws out all the distinctions that the Pharisee strives to work out so conscientiously; he allows his disciples to eat from the grain in the field on the Sabbath, even though they would certainly not have starved to death; also on the Sabbath he heals a sick woman who had been ill for eighteen years, and who could certainly have waited one more day (because for genuine emergencies there was naturally room in the Pharisee’s system as well); Jesus evades all clear questions that seek to tie him down. That is why the Pharisee considers Jesus a nihilist, a man who knows and respects nothing but his own law, one who keeps saying “I am,” a blasphemer of God. On the other hand, no one can detect in Jesus the uncertainty and anxiety of someone who acts arbitrarily. Instead, his freedom gives him and those who belong to him something peculiarly certain, unquestioning, radiant, something beyond strife, something irresistible in their actions. The freedom of Jesus is not the arbitrary choice of one among countless possibilities. Instead, it consists precisely in the complete simplicity of his action, for which there are never several possibilities, conflicts, or alternatives, but always only one. Jesus calls this one option the will of God…. This will of God is his life. He lives and acts not out of knowledge of good and evil, but out of the will of God. There is only one will of God. In it, the origin has been regained (Ethics, 311-313).

Bonhoeffer then goes on to look at several of Jesus’ sayings, beginning with “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matt 7:1):

This is not the admonition to caution and leniency in judging other human beings, as was also known among the Pharisees. Rather, it is a stab in the heart of those who know good and evil. It is the word of the one who speaks out of a unity with God, and who came not to judge but to save (John 3:17). For human beings in the state of disunion, the good consists in a judging whose final criterion is human beings themselves. Knowing about good and evil, human beings are essentially judges. As judges they are like God, but with the difference that each judgment they pass falls on themselves. By attacking people as judges, Jesus demands a turnaround of their entire nature; precisely in the fullest realization of their good, he exposes them as godless, as sinners.

Jesus demands that knowledge of good and evil be overcome; he demands unity with God. Every judgment passed on another human being already presupposes disunion with that person; it becomes an impediment to action. However, the good that Jesus speaks of consists entirely in doing, not in judging. Judging always entails an impediment to my own activity. Those who are judging never arrive at doing, or rather, whatever they can point to as their action–and there can be plenty of it–is always nothing but verdict, judgment, reproach, and accusation against others….. The doing of the Pharisees is merely a particular expression of their knowledge of good and evil, and thus of their disunity with other human beings and with themselves (Ethics, 313-14)

You made it this far, but it still doesn’t make sense, right?  I realized it likely wouldn’t about halfway through typing this out, but after all that work didn’t want to discard it.  It’s an interesting passage and makes sense in the context of what Bonhoeffer is saying in Ethics, even though I can’t spell that out for you precisely.

One thought on “Good and Evil, the Pharisees and Jesus

  1. Toni

    It seems to me, in a nutshell, that he’s saying humans were designed to know good only. A knowledge of evil in addition is too much and we can’t cope with the choice required.

    It begs a question. Does unity with God equate to no longer knowing both good and evil, or are we able to recognise evil for what it is and reject it’s control in our lives? WDJD?

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