Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
One of the challenges in ethics is the ethical or moral quandary. Simply put, this is when two right or good things are put into opposition with one another, and you are forced to choose. Part of the challenge is that in choosing one right action you are negating the other right action. By negating that other “right” action you might find that the implications of your choice make the choosing a little less clear or certain. It seems that either choice comes with unintended consequences—you must give up something good even though you are gaining something good but maybe the other good would be better or more helpful or less selfish or the good you choose doesn’t turn out the way you expected. When it comes to making ethical decisions, at times, there is not a clear right or wrong answer, nor may there be a greater good answer. Instead, you do the best you can attaching experience, wisdom, and discernment to your decision-making process to make good choices.
Remember the old, “Your stranded on a desert island” icebreaker question? You can have three things and are given a list of ten to choose from. Things like a family photo album, a tent, a stove, a Bible, a cell phone, a matchbook, etc. As the group begins to talk about the various things they would or would not want to have on the desert island, you begin to hear some trends. There are those who are survivor focused. They want the matchbook, tent, and a fishing pole. There are the MacGyvers among you who take a minimalist approach identifying the most basic of tools that can then be manipulated in a variety of ways to perform various functions that might be required for island living. There are those who don’t take the question seriously and want a bikini, suntan lotion and all the rum they can drink. There are the sentimental ones who are taking the photo album and the Bible and probably a fishing pole because “a person’s got to eat.” There are the escape-minded who take a raft, an oar, and a cell phone. And, of course, there are those who just really can’t decide. They talk through each choice analyzing the pros and cons but never seem to be able to decide.
There is no right answer to the desert island question. All the things are right and unique to the person who chooses them. Sure some may have more practical implications for survival, escape, and psychological well-being. You may vehemently disagree with what someone else has chosen but that doesn’t mean they have chosen wrong or that their choices are contributing to their survival any more or less than your choices are contributing to your survival. The purpose of the game is to discover one’s unique perspective when it comes to your ethical approach to survival. The telling aspect of the game is not simply your ethical decision making, but your values—what is most important to you and how does that influence the choices that you make.
In all three readings today we hear about ethical choices and decision making. But unlike the “stranded on a desert island” question, these choices are not grounded in a personal ethic. They are grounded in a Godly one.
The most obvious of the choices we read about this morning is the Martha/Mary shakedown in Luke. Now before you take sides as to who is going to line up on Team Martha and who is on Team Mary—and I realize you already have your jersey—let’s examine this conversation a little more closely.
First, these two women do not represent two opposing archetypes in scripture—we are not either hearers or doers. When we are living our best Jesus follower life, we are both hearers and doers. In Luke whenever you hear Jesus tell a parable, pay attention to what happens after the parable is told—typically you hear a story that offers a deepening to the message of the parable. In this case, the parable we heard last week—the one that immediately precedes this story in Luke—is the story of the Good Samaritan which is a story all about being a doer of the word. For the Mary and Martha story to follow immediately on the heels of the Good Samaritan should tell us something about what it means to be a Jesus follower, about hospitality, and about caring for those on the margins. We want to make this a black and white story about being a doer or a hearer, but Jesus is telling us that discipleship requires living in the shades of grey in which we must always discern the better part.
Second, and this is the challenging aspect of a life of discernment, we must become aware of our distractions. Some distractions are easy to identify—too much screen time, efforts at procrastination, hanging out with friends or family instead of fulfilling responsibilities or obligations, playing hooky, greed, hedonism, I feel sure you can name several more. The distractions that are not quite so obvious are the ones we read about today, though they lie just under the surface of our awareness and so may not be as easy to identify. These distractions are usually good things—offering hospitality, observing religious festivals, seeking mountain top experiences. They are distractions because they shift our focus away from God and the priority of Jesus.
Martha believes she is doing a good work. She is offering hospitality and kindness to the stranger. Her actions, if done truly in servitude of the Lord, might not have been met with this gentle correction from Jesus. However, her complaints betray her true intentions. She is concerned with the actions of hospitality not a relationship with God. Had she not wanted to control the circumstances and people around her and instead, through her serving, deepen her relationship with Jesus and the others present that day; she would never have been rebuked. In essence, it is not what she was doing but why she was doing it that got her into trouble.
The same can be said for the Church at Colossae as well as the ancient Israelites of the prophet Amos’ day. In both cases, they are paying lip service to God but in reality want to define their own religious experience instead of allowing God to form them. In the ancient Israelites’ case, their greed and a distorted view of their economic, political, social, and religious systems have led them down a path that will cause them to wander further and further from God. They have not tended to those on the margins—instead of caring for the poor and those who are the least of these, they have practiced deceit and allowed their greed to overwhelm their trust in God. They attend the festivals and religious services as a way of making the time pass faster so that they might resume their corrupt economic and political gain. The prophet Amos reminds them that the time is coming when God will judge their actions and their greed will not suffice to save them.
The Church at Colossae had been reconciled to Christ but wanted more. They were seeking the mountain top experience as the source of their religious nourishment. Paul reminds them that it is not in ecstatic experience or a religious high that will deepen their faith, but Jesus. Staying focused on the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus Christ who died and rose again brings maturity in religious faith. That might be happy-clappy at times, but it is not the predominant experience of the faithful.
When our priorities are not centered on God—in everything that we do—then we discover that we have become distracted. Martha is not rebuked because she chooses hospitality over quiet listening. She is rebuked because her choice had nothing to do with deepening her relationship with Jesus. The ancient Israelites are not rebuked because they celebrated religious services or worshipped in less than intentional ways. They are rebuked because the way they treated people did not reflect the way God would have us treat one another. The Colossians are not rebuked because they desire an even greater experience of God. They are rebuked because their desire for the ecstatic experience has begun to replace their desire for God. In all three instances, the choice made was a “good” choice, but it was not the “God” choice. And that is where a simple understanding of ethics can fail us.
Stanley Hauerwas, a contemporary theologian, says that Christian ethics can be summed up like this: Go to church, get baptized, take communion, be Christian. It is not about systematic theology or the Bible as a moral code book. It’s not even about saying your prayers or social justice or even outreach. All of those things are important and, hopefully, a natural offshoot of one’s discipleship. It’s really not about our actions at all unless they are drawing us into one another and God. Instead of being focused on what you are doing, focus on why you are doing it—that will make all the difference.
I’m sure it would make perfect sense for me to tell you that if I got stranded on a desert island, the three things I would want with me are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I’m not that pious. I would probably just take a bible, matches, and a volleyball named Wilson.