Today’s reading is Luke 2:22-52:
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
The Boy Jesus at the Temple
41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.
While writing a paper for a class on Immanuel Kant earlier this week, I found a point of connection between Kant’s work and Luke’s passage about Jesus at the temple. This led to further rushed reflections on Kant, the nature of virtue, and the Christian view of humanity.
Kant grew up in a religious home, which influenced his moral thought: even as he takes God out of the picture in some of his writings, he tries to bring Him back in (in some form) in Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason. The story of Jesus at the temple shows one way where, perhaps, Christianity influenced Kant’s conception of morality.
Kant’s ethical system, as opposed to consequentialism (moral systems in which morality stems solely from the consequences of one’s actions), rests entirely on whether or not the will of the moral agent is in line with duty. Kant sees the greatest duty as the categorical imperative: that is, to act only when you could will that your action become a universal law. It’s the Golden Rule, but discerned from reason alone.
Even in relative isolation, the story of Jesus at the temple (Luke 2:41-52) shows that Christianity is not consequentialist. Jesus’s actions had both positive (he spent more time in God’s house) and negative (he caused his parents anxiety) consequences. From a consequentialist perspective, Jesus’s action had both moral and immoral components, and was only moral because the good outweighed the bad. Under consequentialism, “Jesus did not sin” would mean: “In each of Jesus’ actions, the good outweighed the bad.” Though there’s fair room for disagreement, I could not reconcile this with what Christians believe about the character of Jesus.
Given the Christian belief that Jesus did not/does not sin (and so all his actions are/were moral), and the fact that Jesus caused his parents anxiety, in Christian morality neither sin nor virtue can be defined by their consequences. In somewhat Kantian terms, Jesus was performing his greatest duty—that to God—and so even though it induced anxiety to his parents, he was acting virtuously. He did not set out to distress or dishonor his parents, but rather to honor his Father in heaven.
But even though Jesus and Kant might have similar disagreements with consequentialism, there are two major issues with Kant’s moral vision from a Christian perspective. First, Kant gets to his categorical imperative by using reason, without the concept of a god. While Christian morality might look similar in practice, Christians believe that God is the source of what is good, and so the source of any moral duties we have. Second, Kant’s system relies heavily on humans being rational agents potentially able to will themselves into good. Christians believe that human will is insufficient; the grace of God is necessary in order to follow God.
The center of the Christian faith is not reason—this is not to say reason has no place in the Christian faith!—but Jesus. The existence of the story of Jesus—and the centrality of that narrative to the Christian faith—is the Christian response to Kant’s proposed system for human flourishing based on reason alone. Simeon and Anna, in Luke 2, are whole people with life stories and faiths and hopes: not just minds; not just moral actors in a play (Judith Huang’s piece from a few months ago shows this wonderfully). Jesus in Luke 2 is a whole person; his body grows along with his mind as he lives the human life to its fullest perfection. And Jesus does not simply act for himself: he is central to the story of consolation for Israel; the light of the world.
Christians don’t want to look at everything from a Kantian perspective; the Christian moral system is not Kant’s. But the anti-consequentialist connection—perhaps based on Kant’s pietist background—made me think more deeply about Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Luke 2:22-52, and the nature of the Christian story in general.
Siobhan McDonough ’17 lives in Kirkland House and concentrates in Social Studies. She is editor-in-chief of the Ichthus.