Posts Tagged ‘morality’

PSALM 125

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people,
    from this time on and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
    on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not stretch out
    their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
    and to those who are upright in their hearts.
But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways
    the Lord will lead away with evildoers.
    Peace be upon Israel!

As a monotheistic religion of high moral standards, the way of life prescribed in the Bible centers around an image of God as Creator, Lord, and Judge of the universe. Whereas today we might take a  more naturalistic approach to morality and say that where you end up is a function of where you started and the decisions you made along the way, the Bible sees this matter of where you end up as more a matter of divine retribution than natural consequence.

The difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” may not be obvious now, with our difficulty in seeing into the hearts of persons, but in the future the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer – that’s when we’ll know. And it’s all because God is just and fair and will give out due recompense for every good or evil life.

Even before the ink was dried on the scrolls, however, the Bible itself began to record a gathering voice of dissent to this straightforward retributional morality. Sometimes good people are the ones who suffer, and with no recompense – at least in this life. And sometimes mean people prosper. Who can make heads or tails of it? In the end, the Bible’s view was deepened to say that godliness is inherently rewarding for the human.

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 PROVERBS 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
    for they share their bread with the poor.

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Deep in the spirituality of the Bible is a moral insight, that one’s choices and way of life are productive in bringing forth a future harvest of consequences. It’s not simply the fact that every action produces a consequence of some sort, but that one’s quality of life tomorrow, along with one’s moral destiny in the longer term, are determined by the faith and responsibility by which one lives today.

The religion of the Bible is not alone in this belief. Indeed, all of the religions teach that personal destiny is in large part a function of moral character and whether one’s choices and commitments are inherently self-interested or rather performed with a higher good in mind.

The Bible went still further, however, in its unique and revolutionary concern for “the poor of the land.” Beyond just being a “good person,” it was imperative that a believer in God actually share in the divine compassion for those who suffer and who are outside the social circles of power and privilege. With a beginning recognition of equality before God between the rich and the poor, the bible’s compassion-driven morality went on to predict that neglect of the poor would result in one’s own calamity.

This wasn’t a you’d-better-or-else motivational stick, but instead reflected a deep understanding of the plain fact – and you really have to work hard not to see it – that we are all, the rich and the poor, connected in an interdependent web of relationships. In other words, we’re all in this together and it does no good to drill a hole in your neighbor’s side of the boat!

2 SAMUEL 11:26-12:13a

26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11 Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

With God’s curse on David’s house, the morality of Yahweh sounds more like a child’s than that of a mature adult. Because you took Uriah’s wife, other scoundrels just like yourself are going to take your wives and do with them what they wish. Fair is fair. 

A closer consideration, however, reveals something of a deeper truth. What really happens when we commit an act of betrayal, violence, infidelity or deception? We may think, as David apparently did, that the fall-out from such deeds can be contained and managed. When it’s done, we have to allow time for the dust to settle, but after a while we will be able to carry on as if the travesty never happened. Or so we may think.

In reality, every word and deed we release into the world initiates a cascade of consequences. The fundamental rule is that your words and deeds are seeds that sow an inevitable harvest, either for good or evil. Like force fields of moral energy, our human values, choices, and actions produce an accelerating momentum of consequences. When we lie, for instance, we intensify the force of dishonesty in the world. When we break a promise or a vow, we amplify the destructive power of suspicion throughout the human realm.

David’s acts of adultery and murder set in motion an avalanche of consequences that would eventually overwhelm him as well.

PSALM 24

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
    and established it on the rivers.

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
    and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
    and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
    who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

Lift up your heads, O gates!
    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
    The Lord, strong and mighty,
    the Lord, mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
    that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
    The Lord of hosts,
    he is the King of glory.

David’s personal experience of God as the expansive mystery beneath and behind everything also had a deeply moral dimension, which must be true of all genuine religion as well. Since God is our name for that which energizes and supports existence itself, there is a recognition in all true religion that our human approach to that mystery requires a sufficient combination of mindfulness, reverence, and moral rectitude.

This is not to say that only perfect people qualify for an experience of God, for that would make the experience a reward for what is sometimes called a “works righteousness.” David is not suggesting that living right earns us a place in God’s favor and accumulates merit for ourselves. Those “who have clean hands and pure hearts” are the ones whose actions (hands) and intentions (hearts) are united in love for God and others.

The reason such persons “receive blessing from the Lord” has to do with the fact that they are the ones whose existence is grounded in a grateful awareness that opens them more fully to the overflowing generosity of reality. In truth, blessings are continuously pouring forth, and God/Love is that in which “we live and move and have our being,” as Paul says. But to see them we need an attention sufficiently liberated from foreground distractions and scattered urgencies. By the path of reverent awareness and wholesome lives we “ascend the hill of the Lord.”

PSALM 1

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

If the destiny of Judas had been predetermined, which would argue that ours must be as well, then what has become of that unique power we once thought the special mark of God’s image in the human – our freedom to choose, to love, resist, to rebel? Is it all a delusion, this capacity for liberty and self-direction that we fight for, defend, and protect with a swelling litany of Rights? Again, was Judas merely a pawn in God’s game of salvation (for some) and damnation (for the rest)?

As we wrestle with this question, it is important to remember that such things as individual dignity, human rights, and personal freedom were then only beginning to break upon the world of the Bible. In the dominant view, the individual in our sense today didn’t yet exist. In a real sense, then, Judas wasn’t free and his pre-programmed damnation is no problem. The essential thing was that Jesus got betrayed and died for our salvation; Judas was just a “mechanism” for getting it done.

But we struggle with the justice of it all, and we can do so precisely because we are free.

PSALM 66:8-20

Bless our God, O peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living,
    and has not let our feet slip.
10 For you, O God, have tested us;
    you have tried us as silver is tried.
11 You brought us into the net;
    you laid burdens on our backs;
12 you let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

13 I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
    I will pay you my vows,
14 those that my lips uttered
    and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
    with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah

16 Come and hear, all you who fear God,
    and I will tell what he has done for me.
17 I cried aloud to him,
    and he was extolled with my tongue.
18 If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened.
19 But truly God has listened;
    he has given heed to the words of my prayer.

20 Blessed be God,
    because he has not rejected my prayer
    or removed his steadfast love from me.

There is a moral impulse in all of us, a need to believe that life is fair and people get what they deserve. The mere suggestion that it might not be so can provoke some to throw up their hands and threaten to quit the whole business. What’s the point then? they will protest. If the universe isn’t set up to favor the righteous and crush the wicked, then why work so hard to be good?

Many psalms hold this perspective, with the poet lamenting how the faithful suffer as sinners prosper. His resolution of the problem represents one of four ways that individuals have worked through this apparent moral contradiction in reality. His way is to re-frame hardship and loss as a means by which God tests, purifies, and strengthens our faith.

This might be something God does directly or else leaves to the member of his heavenly council named Satan (literally the adversary) whose job is to “prove” the character of believers by pushing them to the wall or tripping them into the fire. God blesses and the devil burns; together they work out the balance.

If the gap of retribution – that is, the elapse of time between a good or bad deed and the appropriate payback – is too long, one might begin wondering what God is up to. One compensatory adjustment looks for the reward or punishment to be paid out on an individual’s descendants. A corollary of this is to see your present suffering (or prosperity) as a consequence of your ancestor’s moral character.

Eventually the gap can become so great that your only comfort is in knowing that we will all get what we deserve in the next life. Heaven and hell, then, help resolve the problem of moral inequity by ensuring that no one escapes the long arm of God’s law. Look at those slugs and scoundrels driving their fancy cars. Their day of reckoning is coming, and it won’t be long before they’re writhing in torment with the rest of God’s enemies. Just knowing this makes us smile.

Of course, it can also happen that a believer stops believing at this point. If God’s purpose is to get everything started, supervise the process and occasionally intervene, allocating rewards to the good people and penalties to the bad people, then he’s not doing his job very well. How deserving of worship is a God who can’t even manage his responsibilities on the job? He might as well not exist. Life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. It sucks, but that’s how it is.

This might seem to exhaust our options, but there is one more response to the moral inequity of life. We don’t dismiss it as only apparent or make God into a cosmic quality control officer.  Nor do we need to push out the time frame across generations or into the next life. We can agree that life isn’t fair and people don’t get what they deserve. But it doesn’t suck. Instead of retribution or karma at the heart of reality, it’s all grace.

Grace is the principle that transcends morality. It declares that the grounding mystery of existence is creative, generous, provident and forgiving. It’s not about making things even and setting the balance right. You can’t earn it, steal it, bank it, or lose it. It doesn’t come to you because you’re good enough or better than the next guy. It falls as spring rain on the fields of the just and unjust alike.

Hardship and fortune don’t need to be moralized; ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are value judgments we impose to make things meaningful (or bearable). Life is a mixture of pain and pleasure, love and loss, joy and sorrow. Happy is the person who moves through it all with faith, releasing all expectation and just resting in the grace of each moment.

Don’t worry, there is enough for everyone!

1 CORINTHIANS 5:6b-8

Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The Christian congregation in the Greek city of Corinth was a church-start that Paul struggled to keep together. This was the group that fell into tribal factions, with some claiming the authority of Paul, others Apollos, others Cephas (Peter), and still others Christ.

Each faction defined Christian identity in elitist terms. As Paul was the missionary, the subgroup that identified with him could be called in today’s terms “evangelicals.” Apollos was a respected Bible scholar and teacher, and so his faction were the “intellectuals.” The reputation around Peter had to do with institutional leadership, which made his supporters the “traditionalists.” Finally, the Christ party were most likely those who identified themselves – and by extension the true believer – with various ecstatic expressions of spirituality, making them the “charismatics.”

As church planter and manager of the Corinthian experiment, Paul put a good deal of energy into the effort of maintaining unity in this bunch.

If that wasn’t enough, they also tended to let their sacred meals (Communion) degenerate into drinking parties, which only made the conditions more favorable for the loosening of their already liberal sexual ethics as sophisticated Greeks. One guy, for instance, was in a relationship with his step-mother while everyone else simply looked on.

This matter of sexuality was a bugaboo for Paul, and some scholars speculate that he may have had hang-ups of his own, perhaps as a closet homosexual or a less restrained misogynist. The fact of the matter was that Greek were more liberal than the folks back in the holy land – much more liberal when it came to matters of sexual orientation, gender roles, familial obligations, and marital fidelity.

                                                                                            

Hopefully this is sufficient information to put some context around the above passage. The specific concern of Paul’s has to do with the lackadaisical attitude among the Corinthian Christians over a case of reported “sexual immorality” – that this man was “living with” his father’s wife. He regarded this as a pinch of bad yeast that could spoil the entire recipe.

Without getting involved in a discussion of the divergences between Hellenic (Greek) and Hebraic (Jewish) morality, the point can be made that every society requires a set of moral guidelines to define the roles and rules of acceptable behavior. We can’t ignore the fact that Christianity began as a moral revolution in Judaism, inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus (a Jew).

Despite his radical message of unconditional forgiveness and loving one’s enemy, most of the moral regulations in family management and daily life remained unchallenged and unchanged. Jewish family relations were much more conservative and patriarchal, carefully defining the lines of submission and respect between husbands and wives, parents and children, and across the birth order among male and female siblings.

Whether or not a man living with his father’s wife was considered wrong in the larger (Greek) society of Corinth, the fact that the Christian movement was still Jewish in its basic moral values put this man’s behavior under judgment.

Was it wrong in some universal sense? Maybe not, but that wasn’t really the point. The ethical vision of Judaism, centered on the providence of God, his covenant with the Jewish people, and his redemptive purpose through them for the rest of the world – in which Paul understood his calling as “apostle to the Gentiles” – rested (or fell apart) on the day-to-day integrity of the family.

We may not agree with Paul’s tactic for dealing with this problem, which was to have the “wicked person” (verse 13) thrown out of the community. Nevertheless his deep concern over the issue is understandable given the context, along with the fact that Christianity was still a messianic sect within Judaism and not a separate “religion” at the time of his writing.

Paul was worried that compromises in the basic unit of family relations would cause everything else around and higher up to lose its moral tether. Condoning this individual case was de facto weakening the moral foundations of the community and larger culture.

If we’re going to change things, then let’s proceed in a way that honors life, protects human dignity, safeguards the family, and supports the greater welfare of all.

This might have been some of what was going on in Paul’s mind.

ROMANS 4:1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

If we take Abraham as an archetype (a controlling pattern) for understanding the dynamics and progress of faith, then his relationship to God in the period prior to the Law under Moses represents a connection more “primitive” and therefore also more universal than the kind that is defined and validated in the system of religion.

The obvious analogy is the individual development each of us undergoes in our growth from infancy to adolescence. Erik Erikson named this the progression from “basic trust” to “social identity,” with the first being pre-verbal and intuitive while the later stage is more rule-bound and rational. Abraham, then, is the exemplar in Paul’s mythology of heroes of faith in its deepest dimension, coming before reward motivation and obedience to law. God called him, and he trusted. That’s faith.

It was with this deep primal faith in mind that Jesus called his disciples to “become as little children” and warned us that without such simple faith a person “cannot enter the kingdom of God.” It wasn’t a license to act childish (Lord knows we’ve got enough of that going on in our churches!) but an invitation to release ourselves in complete trust to the present grace and providence of God.

This was a point of critical importance for Paul, for he was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the grace revealed through Jesus was more foundational than religion itself. For that reason, it is universal and available to all.

                                                                                             

If the favor of God, according to the Christian revelation, is not our compensation or reward for obeying the law, then its “motivation” must come from elsewhere. That is to say, if it’s not my obedience to the law that wins God’s blessing on my life, then that blessing must be sheer gift, coming out of the essential generosity (grace) of God’s heart.

By seeing this transaction of grace and faith deeper down and prior to the authority of the law, and further, by acknowledging it as fully sufficient for salvation, Paul was putting religion (law) in its proper place. In this order, with grace coming before religion (and not as its benefit), he confirmed what had been fundamental to Jesus’ teachings as well.

When you see that love, grace, and forgiveness come first, then your religion takes on a whole new orientation and purpose, serving as the vehicle of your gratitude and service rather than the way of salvation you had once mistakenly thought it to be. In the spirit of Jesus’ gospel, we can say that repentance is not making ourselves worthy of God’s grace and forgiveness, but is rather the turn-around that accepts it in joy and thanksgiving.

All along and from the very beginning, the creative and redemptive current of blessing and grace has been “the one thing” that the religions have quantified and tried to manage, under the many names of God.