Do Scripture or Philosophy Provide Basis for Right and Wrong?

Published by Michelle Meeker on Mon, Aug 12, 2019 12:00 PM

Listen to the audio here.

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Dr. Roy McLuen, Associate Rector
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14C), August 11, 2019
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

(Transcribed/paraphrased by Michelle Meeker)

A sermon introduced with a parody of a Christmas song is going to be memorable…

What is right?

Why should we do what is right?

What does that say about the essence of human nature?

Isaiah says sacrifices may not be right but seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending widows and speaking up for orphans is right.

In our second reading from Hebrews – faith is right and in our Gospel selling our possessions and giving alms is right, being dressed for action for the coming of Jesus is right.

Scripture also tells us not to commit adultery, you shall not kill, steal, covet.  Unfortunately, the scripture also condones slavery, gender inequity and a strong patriarchal society which has not been overly successful, the scripture says very little about racism.  What is does say, implies that racism is ok.  S says nothing about health care, climate change or a foreign entity interfering with our election. These are big issues for us right now.

Although the scripture is a good tool, it is not a complete tool for deciding what is right.  So perhaps philosophy is a good tool.  We can look at asceticism, phenomenology, utilitarianism and over 100 different philosophies if we wanted to remain here another 20 hours explaining them all.  I prefer utilitarianism.  It was developed by John Stewart Mill in the last half of the 19th century and it is fairly easy to understand on a basic level.  Utilitarianism says that what is right is that which gives the most good, happiness, or pleasure to the greatest number of people.  The problem with that is that then you have to define what is good, happiness or pleasure and we would be here another 20 hours in addition to the first 20 if I tried to define those things, so I’m not going to.

There are many situations in which scripture or philosophy simply do not make it clear what is right or wrong.  There is no source but God’s voice in our heads saying “do this” or “don’t do that.”

In the Gospel one of the primary reasons we do what is right is FEAR.  Fear that Jesus is going to come to town knowing who is naughty or nice, has done good or bad – he has a list in the black book, or now he has a computer so he can do it more efficiently – to know what we’ve done.  Fr. Roy destroyed his computer on a date in August… it didn’t happen, but I was tempted.  To think and do right is what our collect said.

The scripture is relatively clear about why we do right.  If fear is necessary, that will do. If fear of God’s retribution is sufficient, God will use that.  But I don’t think that is God’s preference, His preference is summed up in the Law “Love the Lord your God with your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”  So that the reason we do what is right is love of God, neighbor and self.  Unfortunately, sometimes we get those things out of balance, so it’s almost easier to do evil than good because love of self will often wipe out love of others and love of God.  So scripture isn’t completely helpful as to why we do the right thing and philosophy certainly isn’t, I can tell you that.  It just is inadequate. 

So that brings us to the 3rd question – what do these questions say about human nature?  To go back 40-60 years anthropologists will tell us that what separates human beings from all other creatures is that human beings use tools.  That was fine until we see these videos of primates utilizing sticks as tools to reach food and complete their daily tasks without training to do this – or birds using sticks as tools or chimps using bones.  All of a sudden, it wasn’t our use of tools.

I want to propose that there are three things that separate human beings that are the essence of humanity that separates us from the animals. 

First of all, we have choice.  Most animals act merely on instinct.  They don’t reason out why they should do something – just follow instinct.  They don’t have choice, we have choice.  Humanity is created in God’s image and perhaps the greatest characteristic of God that stand s out most clearly is that God has choice.  God can choose to reward or punish Israel.  God can choose to do just anything, and we have free will.  We can choose to do right; we can choose to do wrong.  Nipsey Russell’s (I think it’s Flip Wilson…) “The devil made me do it” doesn’t cut it.

The second creation story of Adam and Eve is really quite clear.  Eve gave the fruit to her husband and was standing next to her – he didn’t correct her behavior and reprimand her, she was tempted by the serpent, she was not forced to eat the fruit by the serpent.  She chose to do it.  That shows that we have choice to do what God wants or to not do what God wants.  We have choice – there are no other creatures (that we are aware of) that have choice.

Secondly, we are highly intelligent.  We are more intelligent than animals and can reason out our actions rather than follow instinct.  Intelligence sets us apart from the animals and we have intense emotions.  Now animals do too, but not as intense as ours.  Our collect says, ‘grant us the spirit to do think and do those things that are right.’  The spirit – is there a spirit of right thinking, of right doing in one of our collects.  The evening prayer says ‘send forth upon us the spirit of love’.  Is there a separate entity called the spirit of love besides the Holy Spirit?  I don’t think so.  We hear Christian pastors preachers speak of the spirit of anger, lust, envy, love, kindness – I do believe there are evil spirits but hey intensify our desires to do evil.

When I know that there is a can of mixed nuts in my house, I get an intense desire to consume the whole can in one sitting and it feels really seriously like a separate entity within me pushing me to eat those nuts.  And I’ll bet every one of you has experienced that intense desire that feels like an entity or spirit.  Perhaps the collect should say – ‘give us the intense desire to do what is right.’

It is difficult for us to do what is right all the time, and we do need God’s help in it.  The problem is that almost every minute of our lives, every day of our lives, for the rest of our lives we are going to be faced with the challenge of answering two questions:  What is right? And Why should I do what is right?  In answering those questions we will find out what our nature is like.  Amen

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