Knowing Right from Wrong


A sermon preached on March 16, 2008 (Palm Sunday), based upon Philippians 2:5 – 11 and Matthew 21:1 – 11, entitled, “Knowing Right from Wrong.”

There was a collective groan that went out this past Monday when it was revealed that Elliot Spitzer, the ambitious, and from my perspective, young governor of New York, had done that which he should not have done, becoming yet another in a long line of “public servants” who have taken advantage of the power entrusted to them for selfish and illegal gain.

It is easy to feel disillusioned in the face of such news, particularly as Spitzer, a former District Attorney had presented himself as a reformer intent on rooting out corruption — committing crimes similar to those for which he had once prosecuted others.

A certain cynicism easily sets in.

And yet, through the long, long history of human beings behaving badly, there is something remarkable about the simple persistence of a moral code; an underlying sense of right and wrong. We human beings may perpetually fail to live up to this moral code–we may routinely try and twist it to justify our actions and to disguise our actions so that they appear noble when they are not; nonetheless, a deep sense of “right and wrong” continues to haunt us.

Listen in on much of our routine conversations and you will hear evidence of the weight it continues to carry. In describing some dispute we have with another person — a family member, a co-worker, a cashier — what you will often hear are anxious attempts to argue the case that our actions, and not those of our adversary, came closer to some universal sense of what good and bad behavior is all about.

Elliot Spitzer himself referred to this moral code in both of his brief, public appearances this past week. Said he: “I have acted in a way that violates my, or any sense of right or wrong.” “I failed to live up to the standard to which I hold myself.” “I am deeply sorry I did not live up to what was expected of me.” Even the young woman involved in the scandal seemed anxious about this same moral code when she expressed the concern that people would think of her as some kind of “monster.”

In one of his books, C.S. Lewis points out that if you study cultures throughout the world and throughout history, you will find “the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty.” If you are looking for some sign of the existence of a good God in what often appears like a very “God-forsaken” world, perhaps the best sign is to be found in this universal distinction between right and wrong. Deep down, we know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, because God put that knowledge within us.

Knowing right and wrong, however, doesn’t mean we will necessarily do the good. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he expresses what is very often the human experience when he says, “I can know the good, but I cannot do it.” There is something within us that fights against our consistently doing that which is right. This power was first expressed in Adam and Eve wanting to be like God — the drive to take the place of God, to be at the center where only God belongs.

There is something about attaining power that leads directly to the temptation to turn a deaf ear to what deep down inside we know to be right, indeed, to silence the voices that would remind us that we have strayed from that which is right and good. And so in the Old Testament, King David steals the wife of Uriah, and then murders him. And in the New Testament, King Herod tries to murder the baby who, he thinks, will grow up to take his throne. As the saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and so we have so many sordid tales of mayors, governors, and presidents, not to mention preachers and CEOs undergoing such spectacular public falls from the heights they achieved through their ambition.

In the context of this, there is something eerily familiar, indeed, quite contemporary, about the forces at work in the Palm Sunday story we read today. The issue of power and its corruption is at work behind the scenes. Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the political and religious power center, where he is greeted as the reformer who will clean up the corruption of the city. He is greeted as the new king whose rule will consistently be in line with right over against wrong.

As is so often the case, those who hold the power have been oppressing those without power. The political and religious establishment have been profiting off the poor. The center of this corruption is located in the Temple itself, where the peoples’ desire to be made right with God has become an opportunity for the powerful to get rich. Not surprisingly, the very first thing that Jesus will do in Jerusalem following his triumphal entry will be to enter the temple and drive out the money changers abusing the poor.

In the temple Jesus exercises an impressive display of worldly power. It is the closest that Jesus ever gets to physical violence, though no one is described as actually injured by Jesus‘ actions. It is a strange, and somewhat misleading event, in so far as it seems to suggest to those who have welcomed Jesus that he intends to use force to clean up the mess — that this is only the beginning, that there will be more overturning of tables and snapping of whips, and even assassinations if necessary to drive out the bad guys. It looks like kick-butt time, and those who are accustomed to having their butts kicked by the oppressors are excited about the comeuppance that seems to be about to happen.

But the cleansing of the temple turns out to be a symbolic act, not the start of a violent uprising. Much to the disappointment of those who welcomed him on Palm Sunday, there will be no further actions by Jesus that suggest violence for the sake of political change. By driving out the money changers from the Temple, however, Jesus has made it clear to the people in power that he is indeed a threat; that he has come to shine light into the darkness of the ways in which they have manipulated the moral law in ways that allow them to gain personally at the expense of others — to do that which is evil rather than that which is good.

And so this act seals Jesus’ fate; he will shortly die. The powers-that-be must have him killed if they are to keep their corruption covered up.

This week we will hear again the story of his execution. The strange thing is that his death should have put an end to him. But here we are, 2000 years later, hearing the story once more of how he spoke truth to power, and paid the ultimate price for doing so.

We often ask the difficult question of why it is that God allows so much suffering to take place in this world. We cannot help but ask the question, and we probably won’t find a satisfying answer. But here we have an extraordinary thing: Jesus, who our faith declares in some mysterious sense to be God incarnate in flesh, takes his stand with all those who suffer — all those who are oppressed. He will suffer as well, to the point of a very painful death. God is with us, even as we cry with Jesus, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

But here is another question, another mystery. Why did God create us human beings with such freedom? Each of us is born with the potential, in our own unique way, to become a Hitler, or to become a St. Francis, a Mother Teresa. To abuse the power given unto us, or to use it for the sake of love.

Day by day this great mystery is being lived out. Sometimes the choices before us are tediously mundane.
The choice to do the right thing, or not — for our families, our co-workers, our neighbors.
To chose to offer simple kindness, or to withhold it.
To gossip and back bite or to build bridges of understanding.
To forgive, or to hold on to grudges.
To tell the truth in love, or to cast webs of deceit.

Sometimes the mystery is lived out in the midst of horrible human agony. How, we ask,
could God allow the Holocaust? But then again, how was it that Oskar Schindler could chose to place his own life in great danger by sheltering more than a thousand Jews from Nazi extermination during World War II, and ultimately end up penniless?

We hear such stories of courage, of faithfulness, of kindness, and we realize again that there is indeed goodness and there is evil, and we are placed here to somehow muddle our way through, learning how chose the right rather than the wrong; to love rather than to hate.

We stumble. Repeatedly. This week we will hear how the Apostle Peter stumbled, thrice denying Jesus, only to be lifted out of his self-condemnation by his beloved, risen savior.
The one who placed us in this mystery does not give up on us. Elliot Spitzer’s political life may be over, but his life isn’t over, and there is grace in his tumble, as there is grace in all our tumbles. God isn’t done with him, or with any of us. Try again.

Here once more the words of the Apostle Paul: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.”

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