I’ve been thinking about the means and the ends a lot lately. The means are how things are done, the process. The ends are the results, the fulfillment of an action. There is an age-old belief that the ends justify the means. If that is so, then it doesn’t matter what you do, or how you act, or how you treat others so long as you get what you want. If the ends justify the means, then it is perfectly acceptable to manipulate people, to dehumanize and degrade people, to abuse people, and even to use violence. It’s the ends that matter after all. This is the theology of this world, of politics and certain politicians (both current and from throughout history).
But what did Jesus think about the means and the ends? If we are to call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we probably should not only pay attention to what Jesus said, but also follow it. Or we should just be honest and stop claiming to be a follower of Jesus.
‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
The tree is the thing that bears fruit. It is the means to the end. The end is the fruit. And Jesus is saying that bad trees produce bad fruit while good trees produce good fruit. Going back to the main question and applying Jesus’ logic, it might sound like this. Good means produce good ends. Bad means produce bad ends.
Here’s another passage that makes the case even clearer:
‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’
If you were to build a house, would you only care about the end product – a house that is built? Or would care about what was going into that house and how it was built, what products were used, and who the laborers were? If the house is built well, it will be a good house. If it’s done shoddy, the house will be shoddy. The ends are far less important than the means of how the house came to be.
Yet, why does this idea of the ends justify the means persist when we know that it is wrong? Why, especially does this idea carry any weight within the church, the institution that supposedly claims to follow Jesus? I have heard self-proclaimed Christians, and even pastors speak of this belief system. I have watched them carry it out. And I have wondered, how is this following Jesus and his way?
It’s not. There’s no other way around it.
Jesus concerned himself with the means. Discipleship is about the means – a way of living. Ministry is about the means. Mission is about the means. If the end was all that mattered, then God would make us as robots and get the result God wanted from all of us. But God is love. And love isn’t about being controlling, but rather invitation to deep relationship and community. Love is the means. The ends will take care of themselves. Jesus calls us to be good trees, to build the house on a solid foundation, to follow his way of living and discipleship. The means are important. The means are what following Jesus is all about.