Sermons That Work

Ethics Are Something…, Epiphany 7 (C) – 2001

February 18, 2001


Ethics are something most people don’t know much about today. The subject is reserved for religious academics or for people studying, for instance, philosophy or medicine. But there is a Christian ethic that Jesus spells out for us in the Gospel, and it is at least as old as Genesis, where we heard about Joseph’s behavior toward his wicked brothers.

The ethic is often referred to as the Golden Rule, quoted by Luke from Jesus as “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31 NRSV). Most cultures have a similar rule, but it is usually stated in the negative, something like, “Don’t do anything to another you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” In other words, the rule is a restraint. The version Jesus gives us demands action, not inaction. Jesus tells us to initiate good, even (especially?) where is it undeserved.

Jesus continues by saying that God behaves this way, therefore so must we. In our actions, we are not being compared to our neighbor, we are being compared to God!

The background for this is a standard of loving that desires the best possible outcome for God’s people. There are countless stories about this standard that describe the best in human nature. One story is about a woman who grew up in difficult circumstances and as an adult became wayward and involved in prostitution. Her grandmother always believed this woman had great potential, and in her will she left money in a trust so that her granddaughter could receive an education. The grandmother’s church administered the trust and saw to it that the woman was educated. Later she became a great student, an excellent attorney, and eventually a judge. As a judge she often had to deal with cases similar to her own, and she practiced justice that contained mercy, resulting in many people who appeared before her being redeemed from a life of crime.

An elderly man spent much of the money he had earned in his lifetime enabling troubled youth to learn to fly. He felt if they could master that skill, their self-esteem would increase and they would take more responsibility for their lives. He also sent several young men to trade school and college, all anonymously, believing that an education and skills for living could turn their lives around. In many cases it did.

But what do we do about people who deeply offend us personally? Jesus starts this section of his sermon by saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…”(Luke 6:27 NRSV). This is where it gets difficult. Here we have to rely on a power other than our own. God, who lets the rain fall equally on the just and unjust, is continually showing us how much we are loved, even though we constantly do things that hurt that relationship.

How do you make an act of love to someone who is “out to get you?” The first action is prayer, a prayer to seek the appropriate way to show love to someone without attempting to make them feel guilty. We cannot control what their response will be, but we certainly can’t stack the deck against them either!

Following the prayer, a deliberate action is called for, and probably not anonymously. Often the person who wounds us is seeking a way to redress the behavior. We need to understand who is acting against us, and see that, ironically, a new possibility for communication is opened between us and our adversary as a result.

But sometimes there is nothing we can do. Any action seems inappropriate, especially when there is a legal matter of a crime committed in which we are the victim and may not be permitted contact with the perpetrator. That is where the Sacrament of Reconciliation can be of great help. Desiring to forgive another as we have been forgiven for our own hatred and malice, helps restore our relationship with God and opens the door for other restorations in time.

Recently the man responsible for the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma in which many people died asked that his death sentence be carried out as soon as possible. In interviews with the friends and families of victims many rejoiced and said they would like to be present when he is put to death. But one man, whose daughter died in the explosion, asked what good it would do. “It won’t bring her back,” he said. He also said he wished the whole event could be erased and everyone could start over. Perhaps he cannot do much for the condemned criminal, but his attitude puts him in the right place for God’s healing to work.

Whether it is family (as in Joseph’s case) or anonymous criminal malice, as in Oklahoma, God’s standard is the same. Our spiritual health and relationship with God depend on our being willing to treat others as we would be treated. You might say our salvation depends on it.

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