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Moral Values

Moral Values

    Everyone else has had their say on the subject, so why not me?

    The division in this land of ours isn't really between red and blue, Rush and Al, and Mel and Michael.  The division goes deeper.  I read it as the regrettable separation of the first and greatest commandment from the second.  Readers on this website will know what I mean, but humor me, please, to explain for reasons of clarity.

    I refer, of course, to Matthew 22:37-39, red letter words all.  The first and greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love God with everything we have and are.  But the second commandment, by the Lord's reasoning as a very good Jew, follows inevitably from the first, to love our neighbors as ourselves.

    Not for nothing did Schleiermacher describe the Judaic-Christian tradition as an "ethical monotheism" (forgive me for trying to impress you with my erudition).  What dear old Friedrich was insisting on is that religion without ethics or ethics without religion has no claim for Biblical authority. 

    Remember the lawyer who wanted to know from the Galilean rabbi just how to get into heaven... and got an answer that made him choke?  That fellow was righteous indeed, went to synagogue regularly, said his prayers, knew his commandments, and did his best to follow them.  He was religious.  He was faithful, at least half the way.  Until he was forced by heaven-sent logic to see that what the love of God requires is "to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humble with your God."  Micah 6:8, you can look it up.

    A case can be made (and I have often made it during my fifty years in the pulpit), that Jesus in his moment on earth saw his immediate mission to his people as restoring the humanity in religion.  His parables, for instance, are replete with characters who, swollen with spiritual pride and indifference, forget their Godly responsibility to others: Dives, the elder brother, the rich farmer, the unjust steward, and, of course, the lawyer cited above.  The parable of the last judgment supremely illustrates Jesus' insistence on coupling the second commandment with the first, as in its punchline, "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."  (NRSV Matthew 25:40)

    Like the cross, the vertical and the horizontal beams, the one stretching toward heaven, the other outreaching to the corners of the earth, the love of God and the love of neighbor belong intrinsically together.  Stressing the one over the other is... well... heresy. 

   Barbara (I'm her husband) was swimming in the town pool recently when a fellow struck up a conversation with her. Out of the blue he offered her the opinion that doctors who practice abortion should get the death penalty.  He wanted the right to life for the unborn while insisting on the right to death for the abortionist.  The pope, be it quickly observed, would not bless such inconsistency.  But the fellow in the pool believes he is on God's side (as well as the fetus'), and to the other place with those who violate the right to life.

    On the other hand are those well-meaning missions to the poor and downtrodden, with which the church was fascinated in the last half of the last century.  Relieving misery is surely a Godly vocation.  Let Mother Theresa say, "Praise the Lord!"  But unless such compassion is undergirded with a solidly religious impulse (the conviction that mercy is God's will, whether or not it elicits a favorable response from those helped), the mission fades after the first blush of enthusiasm of doing good.  Or it can become, in disillusionment with its own ineffectiveness in getting that favorable response, wildly inhuman in the extreme, as in movements on behalf of revolution for the oppressed.  Think Weathermen or al Qa'ida.  Born in compassion for suffering brothers the compassionate impulse metamorphoses into a most uncompassionate revenge.

    The greatest commandment and its second belong together.  Righteousness on behalf of the one or the other usually lapses into self-righteousness.  The Christian right and the Christian left lob spiritual grenades in each other's direction, explosive charges of selling out to secularism from the one and pandering to patriotism from the other.  In the name of Christ and in the shadow of the crossed beams of wood on Calvary the better strategy would be to listen to the other seriously and learn from each other. 

    In this supercharged political season, it may be too much to ask.  But, then, asking the impossible never stopped Jesus.




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