Pentecost 18, Proper 22A – October 8, 2017
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46.
Pilate asked Jesus, “What is Truth?”. We swear in people about to testify in court, asking them: “Do you promise to tell the truth; the whole truth; nothing but the truth?” Jesus said: “The Truth will set you free”, and “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life;…” Coming to the truth in any situation is a big deal. Our founders believed strongly in a free press who were committed to discovering the truth and being able to print it. They believed only a free, truth-seeking press could keep government accountable on particular issues and the citizenry informed so their votes would be more meaningful. When our leaders tell us lies it weakens our trust in government. When the press report fake news we lose trust in their commitment to be our watch dogs. Is there such a thing as ‘absolute truth’, or is all truth only ‘relative to the situation and the agenda of the one speaking it?
Our lesson from Exodus 20 contains one of the most important stories in the Bible, the giving of the Ten Commandments. God gave these commandments to the world, through Moses, during the exodus from Egypt. These commandments used to be considered transformational in humankind’s relationship with our Creator and each other. In a few words God sharpened the focus on how we should live in relationship to God and each other. Over time they took on weight as absolute truth; definers of the standards by which we should live toward God and each other. When large numbers of people were committed to living within those ‘truths’, they defined the vales of a society. For example, business deals used to be sealed with a handshake because it was expected and accepted that the people involved were not going to lie. People used to leave their doors unlocked and their keys in the car because ‘no one would steal from their neighbor.’
Then something began to change. People were not as tied to the commandments, and the God they point us to, as former generations had been. We began to justify actions that occurred on the edge of these commandments. For example, “little, white lies” were justified as not really lying. If someone was hungry they could justify stealing food. And who were we to say that “our” God had the final word on how life is to be lived.
So, over time, the Issue of
Absolute Truth vs. Relative Truth
began to shift towards a more relative position. Slowly but surely our relationship to the Ten Commandments, the lifestyle they stand for, and our conduct with our neighbor began to shift. Even Jesus’ summation of the moral law into “loving God with our entire being, and our neighbor as ourselves” took on less absolute value.
You cannot be a Godly person who is seeking to practice one of the many forms of religion and not have to deal with the issue of Truth, and the morals and ethics derived from it. The question for today is, “Is there Truth, and God-given standards of morality and ethics that come from that truth?” If so, then there is absolutism in what is right and wrong, both in theory and in practice. Was Stephen Craig Paddox absolutely wrong by murdering 59 people and wounding more than 500 others, or was it a relative thing? I hope the answer is Yes! Was Omar Mateen just as wrong by killing 49 people in the Pulse nightclub, or were his actions mitigated because he was doing it for Allah? Do we have absolute answers to those questions, or does it depend on who we ask?
When a society, in general, subscribes to the notion that there is a God who has given us truth, and moral and ethical standards then there is a unifying sense of what is right and wrong. For instance, in today’s lesson from Exodus we have a written record of God (“I am the Lord your God, … who brought you out of slavery…”) , giving people absolute Truth: (morals and ethics) by which to live their lives. The question I’m asking this morning is,
Are These Commandments From God Meant to Be Understood As Absolute or Relative Truth?
Many have argued over the centuries that these God-given commandments became the backbone upon which Western Civilization’s evolving sense of morality, ethics, and jurisprudence were attached. Belief in these commandments has been a strong link in what is commonly described as the Judeo-Christian heritage. Though Jews and Christians have major differences in the practice of our religions and certainly in the belief about Jesus being the promised Messiah, yet we share a common sense of the morality and ethics expected of us by God. It may be justified to kill someone who is trying to kill you, but intentionally murdering someone is always wrong.
In today’s Psalm David is affirming his belief in God’s rules for living: “The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (:7-10).
This is our heritage. This is the kind of thinking and acceptance that was fundamental during the forming of this country. There is right. There is wrong. With God’s help we agreed seriously to endeavor always to do right and turn from the temptation of doing wrong. That moral stance did not mean that life was easier in the 18th century than it is now. There certainly were different issues, such as slavery. The majority of the founding fathers knew it was morally repugnant and wanted it abolished, but it became a pawn in the politics of getting thirteen independent colonies to agree to join a new nation. We’ve paid the price for that moral lapse ever since.
Many of our moral and ethical dilemmas are different. Medical technology has created an entire moral and ethical field of study and dialogue. Here is just one example: We used to think it was true that human life began at conception. That is not an accepted Truth any more, so we are now a divided people over the value of a single human life. For example, If we learn how to clone a deathly ill person and then kill the embryo in order to extract a person’s own stem cells, is that murder, or not?
Are there absolutes beyond which we are not free to go? Is it open to us to determine ultimate right from wrong, or is that God’s domain, if we even believe in God? As complicated and far-reaching as the discussions being created by medical research and technological advances are, I’m more concerned about how we live as individuals with a conscience, as families with integrity, and as neighbors who love each other as Christ loved us. The question is
Are God’s Laws Absolute or Relative?
The more our society walks away from both a belief in God the Creator, who has the right to establish boundaries and absolute values which limit the range of our responses, the more relative morality takes over our culture.
As we know, our founding fathers built incredible personal freedoms into the framework of this new experiment in government. However, they were not intended to be unlimited freedoms. They understood there are limits imposed upon us by a moral Creator. For instance, in granting Americans ‘freedom of speech’ our founders intentionally established that principal in order to protect people’s right to speak against an oppressive government. Balancing unlimited freedom of speech was a generally accepted moral responsibility known as Jesus’ “Golden Rule”. It was seen as part of the underlying moral fabric of how our society would self-govern its actions. Because we were expected to treat each other as we also wanted to be treated, it was understood, and expected, that “my freedom of speech ends when I begin to deprive you of your freedom of speech”.
Against the moral relativism of our post-modern world is a God of absoluteness about standards, rules, laws, statutes, commandments, and judgments; while at the same time exhibiting incredible mercy by having grace for the repentant sinner. In the Collect of the Day, these words were prayed: “Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; …”.
In a life conflicted by absolutism and relativism, we can please God either by perfectly keeping His laws, or by giving ourselves to his love, grace, and mercy. In his letter for us today, St. Paul – the former Pharisee, and then Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ – described the dilemma this way: “…, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” (8-10).
Jesus summed up all the Old Testament law in the principal of the Golden Rule and in His command to “Love the Lord your God with your entire heart, mind, strength, and soul; and your neighbor as yourself.”
If God’s love is shed abroad in our own hearts by the action of the Holy Spirit, and if we are endeavoring to love God in return, then we need to love each other as Christ loves us. We will make mistakes and have to repent of them and seek God’s forgiveness – that is for sure. We receive a weekly feeding through communion that strengths us and helps us in our journey of growth in love and grace. Our journey of growth in grace is relative to our love for God, and others, and our self. Yet, the Command of God to love is absolute. Jesus proved it, and now challenges us to walk in his steps.
Have you given yourself God’s care by inviting the living Christ into your life to forgive you of your disobediences and to walk with you on the path he has pioneered from here to Heaven?