What are Ethics? Or maybe it’s What is Ethics, not sure on the grammar on that one.
But anyways, what is it?
Perhaps the easiest definition is “the systematized study of right and wrong.”
My favorite definition is, “identifying and attempting reduce the gap between what we do, and what we ought to do.”
“Identifying and attempting reduce the gap between what we do, and what we ought to do.”
There’s a lot we can go into about ethics but this isn’t philosophy 101, this is an 8 to 10 minute sermon at the Miami Shores Community Church. Although our Bible readings don’t answer these questions directly; we ought to keep this framework in mind as we explore our scripture readings. Both answer some important follow up questions that are still quite relevant today; What do we do when others are rewarded for unethical behavior? What is the reward for ethical behavior? That is, what should we expect to get in return when we have closed the gap between what we do, and what we ought to do?
Let us begin with our psalm; Psalm 39. One of the most integral questions of any religion is the question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This psalm tackles the opposite; “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Or, if we don’t believe in bad people, people who tend to make decisions we call wicked or wrong.
We’ve all seen it; folks making large piles of money off of unethical behavior. Heck, there’s a good argument to be made that much of Miami’s wealth, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, was built off of drugs, money laundering, and other illegal activity.
And if we have a God who loves the good and hates evil, what are we to make of these situations?
I believe there are two takeaways from our psalm; First: Evil often contains the seeds of their own destruction. Greed and ego are often contributors not only to great wealth, especially in our day of social media, but also to our downfalls, ensnaring us in moral and legal trouble.
Our psalmist contrasts these things with the virtues of one who trusts in God. Better to be patient than brash; to trust in God and do good work for its own sake than to fade as the grass and wither in the sun. Our psalmist calls us to live in harmony with our neighbors and the land, trusting that God will work through God’s paths.
This does not mean we ignore injustice; but rather that we do not become so consumed by anger and wrath and anxiety that we lose ourselves and forget who we are and who we belong to.
The second is implied, but not directly stated here, that material wealth is not a sign of divine favor. As Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew, the Sun rises on the evil and sets on the good, rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
This teaching leads us directly to our gospel reading today. Jesus’ parable is an answer to the demand of the 12 to increase their faith through Jesus’ teachings. Although the analogy and imagery of the mustard seed is an important one, I believe it serves merely as a set up to the ethical question and answer that Jesus gives.
Jesus’ question is more implied than explicit: What are the rewards for doing good things, for making good choices?
Jesus’ answer is: nothing. Do you want a cookie for not murdering people? Do you want a special star for not robbing the corner store?
We should note that this directly counteracts the narrative of the prosperity Gospel. If you’re not aware, the prosperity gospel says that material wealth is the reward for faith. And one way to show faithfulness is of course, to give to the pastor’s watch and private plane fund.
The more serious problem, I believe isn’t that a few pastors have become fabulously wealthy, although that is a problem, as massive wealth leads inevitably to massive corruption. Instead, that it implies that people are poor not because they don’t have enough money, but because they don’t have enough faith.
This transforms poverty from a material issue to a moral problem, and allows the wealthy to judge the poor as morally unfit and unfaithful categorically, which has all sorts of societal implications, many of them disastrous.
Indeed, Christian ethics under that system is transformed into a transaction; Do the morally good things not because we ought to, but because it will benefit you personally. Our highest Christian duties and ideals; justice, kindness, equality, hope, faith, love, are transformed into coins for the divine slot machine, God’s primary purpose to reward us with shiny baubles.
Jesus ends our story quoting the slaves, “we have done only what we ought to have done.”
Jesus calls on us to close the “is-ought” gap; why? Because, it is part of whom we are called to be when we choose to follow Christ, not just in the big ways but in the small ways as well. Our God is a god of justice and mercy, compassion and kindness, who shepherds us toward bearing good fruit for their own sake, not because God will reward us for it. Indeed, God calls us to do not just the easy moral decisions, the ones anyone can make, but the ones that most would not.
Which leads us to the question I will leave us with; a glaring omission in our time together today considering our focus on ethics: What exactly are our duties and obligations as Christians? What are we called to do, and even more so, who are we called to become?
Let us consider these things in our moment of silent prayer and meditation. Amen.