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Sunday, June 02, 2024

Jesus, the Ethicist

Sermon preached at the Historic Old Christ Episcopal Church
Pentecost II - Proper IV B - June 2, 2024
the Rev Dr Elizabeth Kaeton

I am, by birth, a New England girl, born in the gritty mill city of Fall River, MA., but I’ve lived in many cities: Bar Harbor, ME, Boston, MA. Baltimore, MD. Newark, NJ, and now, Long Neck, DE. I’ve worked in many other cities, including Washington, DC, and New York City which I love.

Even so, if you woke me up at 3 AM out of a dead sleep and asked, “What’s your favorite baseball team, I’d say, “The Boston Red Sox. And, anyone who beats the NY Yankees.” And, if you check my computer, you’ll see that I subscribe to and read daily two newspapers: The Washington Post. And, The New York Times.

The Times has a column that appears weekly and I wait for it expectantly. It’s called, “The Ethicist.” This week’s column was from a woman who has a friend who is a high school teacher in a low-income area. The friend always shares tearful stories of her student’s need for food, school supplies, professional clothes for job interviews, etc. And, over the years, her friend has been generous and kind and helped her out.

A few months ago, there was a job fair at the high school and the kids needed proper clothes for the interviews. The woman went through her closet and gathered professional blazers, skirts, pants and blouses and gave them to her friend. Well, a few months later, she visited a webpage which sells gently used clothing, thinking she might sell some of her own stuff, and - OOPSIE! - she found all 20 items that she had donated to her friend for her students.

What to do? Should she confront her friend? Here’s her question: When making a donation, what is the ethical expectation?

As I read this morning’s scripture from Mark, I wondered how Jesus might answer her question. The Pharisees are asking Jesus ethical questions about expected behavior, given what they know about what Scripture says concerning the Sabbath. But, these are not innocent questions. No, these questions about plucking the heads of grain on the Sabbath or healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath were being asked to test Jesus, “so that they might accuse him”.

No matter the motive for the question. Both Jesus and the Ethicist have found themselves in the age-old question of “What is the difference between the good and the right?” Doing a good thing does not make it, necessarily, the right thing. And, doing the right thing does not, necessarily, make it a good thing.

In this very sanctuary, slaves worshiped here along with their masters. I’m told that, the loft up there in the back of the church is not a choir loft. That is where the slaves were required to sit. And, if you wander around the church grounds, you will see a graveyard for the White folks and way off to the side, you’ll see the place where slaves were buried. Because, God knows, if there is segregation on earth, well, it just stands to reason that there’s segregation in heaven. Right?

The slave owners - good Christian folk - were following the law. They were doing what was right. However,they were not doing what was good for those they held in bondage or their own souls.

Jesus was presented with a similar question about the difference between behavior that is right or behavior that is good on the Sabbath. Now, it is important to know that in Jewish law, the Sabbath is given and commanded as a day of rest, being modeled after the idea that God rested after all the work that God had done to create the world (Ex. 20:8-11). In Deuteronomy, sabbath is also described as a sign of liberation. Taking a sabbath rest is proof that we are no longer enslaved and forced to work without rest (Deut. 5:12-15).

It is also important to know that it is a principle in Jewish law that saving a life takes precedence over most other Jewish laws, including observance of the sabbath. Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

If one were to enter into a conversations with Jesus, one might ask probing questions about the situation. Is the man with a withered hand at risk of dying? Could his healing wait until the next day? Is the hunger of the disciples so great that they might die if they do not gather grain on the sabbath? But Jesus is not concerned about particulars. Jesus is more interested in expanding categories of doing good and doing harm - of the right vs the good.

I was fascinated to see the NY Times Ethicist do much the same thing. He wondered if that high school teacher found that she couldn’t use the clothing - perhaps they were the wrong size or style for the kids in the class - and that maybe, just maybe, she was selling the clothing in order to make money so that the kids could purchase their own clothes?

The point he made is that while the high school teacher was doing good, what she was doing in not telling her friend was not right. He writes this: You should tell her what you’ve found. If there’s a compelling explanation — an explanation not only for her actions but for misrepresenting them to you — you might be able to resume your relationship. Seething in silence, though, just means you’ll have your peace of mind stolen too.

Jesus teaches that sharing food with companions and friends is an act of doing good, equivalent or at least parallel to King David feeding his companions with consecrated food. Similarly, the compassion Jesus extends to the man with a withered hand is an act of doing good that may even save his life, especially if the man’s livelihood depends on the use of his hands.

Unfortunately, Jesus was not able to admonish the Pharisees not to “seeth in silence.” Scripture tells us that they “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against (Jesus), how to destroy him.”

St. Paul tells us that, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” We have within us the ability to do tremendous good and enormous bad. In my experience, most of us fall short and miss the mark precisely when we stumble over that which is good and that which is right.

Sometimes, it’s a hard choice. Sometimes, doing that which is good means that we have to stand up for what is right, and that may mean standing up to change the law, which was once thought to be right.

Standing up for what is good and right may mean sitting in jail until the will of ‘we the people’ is strong enough to change the law.

Jesus teaches that the “rest of Sabbath that is possible with freedom” is not the same as passivity. Sometimes, we have to actively resist what the law tells is right in order to do what we know in our hearts to be good. Jesus acts for liberation and wholeness.

Jesus is also very clear that liberation and wholeness are not just for some but for all.

No matter where you were born or how you were brought up, no matter where you’ve lived or worked or gone to school, no matter the color of your skin or texture of your hair or the shape or size of your body, or who you love, we have this treasure in clay pots - in earthen vessels. 

I believe that treasure is the Light of Christ that shines in me and it shines in you. And, if we follow THAT light, we’ll always be able to tell the difference between the good and the right.


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