Although there are a lot of differences from culture to culture regarding what a moral life looks like, there are some basic universal principles. For instance, every culture has some version of the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” An awareness of these moral principles shows up at a very early age in children. I recently heard about a study regarding the moral understanding of children in pre-school programs. The researchers asked, Who makes the rules?
“The teachers,” answered the children. Can the teachers change the rules? asked the researchers.
In response the children showed a remarkable capacity for nuance:
“Well… it depends,” said the children. “If a teacher wants to change the rule about how we have to sit in the circle during story time, they can do that. But the ‘no hitting rule,’ that one can’t be changed.” Why not?
“Because we have skin, and skin hurts when you hit it.”
Some rules teachers can change. Others they can’t. Whether or not kids have a concept of God, they realize that some rules come from a deeper place than the “sit in the circle at story time” rule.
At Mt. Sinai that deeper place was identified as God, the creator of the universe.
As we grow up, moral decision making becomes all the more confusing. I remember that when my kids all had their graduation ceremonies from elementary school, the drug prevention program “DARE” was incorporated into the program. With the police officer looking on, certain kids were invited to give little speeches in which they spoke for all their classmates regarding how convinced they were of the rules the officer and their teachers had taught them concerning how using drugs, including cigarettes and alcohol, were bad choices, and they assured us that we would never catch them using such terrible things.
And yet I knew even then that in just a couple of years, many of these same kids would come to question the rules they had been taught, in large part because in their growing sophistication they would become aware that there are lots of adults who use cigarettes, alcohol and even drugs, and lightning hasn’t struck them dead, in fact, they seem to be enjoying these things.
It gets pretty confusing out there, to say the least.
If we are brave enough to broach the subject, we teach our kids that sex is a good and beautiful gift given to us from God, a gift given to express a deep and committed love between two people. Perhaps we warn them just how powerful sex is and how outside the proper bounds it can cause great damage to human spirits — all of which is implied in the commandment, “Thou shall not commit adultery.”
But soon enough the kids are watching t.v. shows and movies and seeing advertisements and reading articles in magazines at the check out lines, all of which seem to offer quite a different image of sex, and, well, the moral waters regarding sex begin to appear rather murky.
As Christians, we look to Jesus to be our moral guide, but in certain ways Jesus seems to cloud the waters even further. He was constantly in conflict with the public moralists of his day, the Pharisees, who saw things pretty black and white in terms of following the rules. He seemed to see “self-righteousness” as a more dangerous sin than the more publicly acknowledged sins.
Jesus had relatively little to say about sex and drugs — perhaps because there already was plenty being said about these things — but he had a lot to say about the moral decisions involved in our use of money, which often have been harder for Christians to listen to.
The primary reason that we are in the present economic crisis is our failure to recognize the moral choices that were involved in our daily economic life. People in positions of power and authority broke the commandments about stealing and bearing false witness. The rest of us were routinely seduced into breaking the 10th commandment, which, since it gets so little attention, I suspect most of us would be hard pressed to name. Anybody want to try?
Too often we have bought into the world’s measure of a person, which has to do with whether we find ourselves among the envied or the envious? When we counsel our young people in regard to what they will do with their lives, the primary question we tend to ask in considering a particular kind of work has been, will it make you good money? Only secondarily do we ask, a) will this work enable you to make a contribution to the world? or b) will this work utilize your God-given passion and gifts?
On our money it says, “In God we trust.” But our money lies; more often than not it is money in which we trust. The idol of money has been letting a lot of people down lately.
In the end, the real question is this: what is the ultimate reference point when it comes to deciding what’s right and wrong? More often than not, the ultimate reference point is seen to be me, myself. When we seek to determine whether I should do something or not, the answer is generally found in: will I benefit in taking this action?
It does get confusing. Generally speaking, God does have what we commonly think of as “our best interests” at heart. What is in our best interests, and what is God’s will, may often be the same thing.
The problem arises when our self interest and the will of God come in conflict. If I am the ultimate reference point, then all kinds of things can be justified – lying, stealing, adultery — it’s all okay as long as I don’t get caught. If I cover my tracks, and nobody ever finds out what I did, well, what harm is done?
Even killing can be justified when me and mine are the ultimate reference point. If we decide certain people have no value whatsoever; that indeed, their presence on this earth has become a problem for the rest of us, what’s to keep us from taking the prerogative of God and removing them from the land of the living?
One thing that really set Jesus off was when people gave lip service to God while making themselves the ultimate reference point of their actions, turning God into nothing more than a servant boy for what I want.
This past week I was listening to the radio when they interviewed a woman who had just bought a new house at bargain basement prices at a public auction. Although she made a perfunctory nod towards the person whose suffering — a home foreclosure — had brought about her good fortune, it was clear that she didn’t want to tarry there. Basically, she was gleeful, and I was struck by her precise words: “I just believe God wanted me to have this house.”
Now I’m not necessarily taking a position here on whether it is right or wrong to buy a home from a public auction — the moral waters are often murky. But for God’s sake, let’s not use God to justify our actions! Remember the 3rd commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”
All four Gospels agree that the first thing Jesus did when he arrived in Jerusalem was go to the Temple where he drove out the money changers and those who were selling the animals, ripping off the poor, all in the name of God. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In doing this, Jesus wasn’t acting in his own self interest. It was the action that, more than any other, got him nailed to the cross. But some things are more important than mere self-interest.
Jesus was outraged by the pollution he witnessed in the holy temple. The purpose of a temple — a sanctuary — is to remind people that, in this often confusing, chaotic world, there really is an absolute reference point: the holy one, the living God, the one who gave us life and called us on this journey, the one who ultimately judges our actions.
God is God and we are not.
Christianity proclaims the good news that in Jesus we know the Holy One is also the merciful one. Jesus is the friend of sinners. Even as God is righteous, God is also the good shepherd who leaves behind the 99 sheep safely in the fold to go at great risk to himself to search for the lost sheep; not if, but until he finds the lost sheep out there in the wilderness. And the fact is that the wilderness is where God finds all of us. We have all fallen short of the glory of God, whether by some easily recognizable public sin, or by the more God-resistant sin of a hardened, self-righteous heart.