Lectionary: Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
Last week I read an item from Reuters about recent research into morality and the old question of whether it is universal or relative. After an extensive study covering sixty different societies involving a hundred sources from each of them, the research showed that there are seven universal rules of morality that are found everywhere (though in varying order):
- Help your family
- Help your group
- Return favours
- Be brave
- Defer to superiors
- Divide resources
- Respect other’s property
The commonality that stood out to me was the ethic of fair and reasonable cooperation. We are all in this together and how I treat others will naturally benefit us all in return. Kind of a Golden Rule way of being.
So how do we think about extremists on the right or left who are unashamed about ignoring most of these normal behaviours? What do we do with politicians and leaders who are so brazen that their actions form a new reality? What about those who spew lies with so much conviction that we are tempted to believe them because, who could possibly say something that crazy if it wasn’t true?
Well, first we look at their fruit. Do they have health, goodness, peace, beauty in their lives and do they reproduce those attributes in the world around them?
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” – NIV
This passage reminds us that we can’t look at present circumstances and immediately determine right or wrong. Success, wealth, power or safety are not determiners of truth or rightness or morality: the most determined athlete doesn’t necessarily win the championship, the hardest working employee doesn’t necessarily get promoted, the most godly leader doesn’t necessarily get chosen, the most successful person isn’t necessarily happy.
Christians don’t find truth in the shifting, unknowable truth of the world but our Truth is rooted somewhere else that is deep and fruitful.
However, on any given Sunday there are millions of fannies sitting in thousands of churches and the ugly truth is that a frightening number are not healthy or fruitful emotionally or spiritually. They are told what to believe and how to believe it; they are told what is real and how to feel it and so they keep on, functioning but pointless, like the fig tree.
There are way too many unfruitful people in the world. Like the fig tree, it matters how we are nourished: what we read, listen to, think about, can be narrow and dangerous or broad and generous. But all through history true Jesus people have chosen to think and act differently than the crowds around them. We have to know what sort of person we want to be.
Let me offer you this ‘beautiful’ conversation from a 2010 posting from Richard Beck at Experimental Theology:
Two years ago I sat down for coffee with an ACU student who had immersed himself in the books of the New Atheists: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens. He was, unsurprisingly, strongly affected by their arguments and wanted to visit with me about my take on all this. Why, he wanted to know, did I believe in Christianity?
For the good part of an hour we talked about the criticisms of the New Atheists. But it soon became apparent to the student that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens are not really attacking Christianity. They are, rather, attacking a particular brand of Christianity, fundamentalism. So if you aren’t a fundamentalist you don’t feel particularly critiqued by the New Atheists. True, the New Atheists do criticize “liberal” Christians for creating a culture, by broadly legitimizing religious belief, that allows fundamentalism to flourish. My counterargument is that, as a “liberal” Christian and an insider, I’m much more effective in pushing against the worst strains within the Christian faith than the New Atheists (who are largely just preaching to the choir to sell books).
When we got to this point in the conversation the student still seem frustrated with my epistemology. He wanted black and white answers, true or false. I refused those categories and tried one more time to communicate my point. This is the exchange we had:
Me: “Do you want to live a beautiful life?”
Me: “Do you want to live a beautiful life?”
Student: “I think so. Yes, I’d like to live a beautiful life.”
Me: “Okay. So what kind of life do you think is beautiful? What is your aesthetic?”
Student: “What do you mean ‘my aesthetic’?”
Me: “Judgments of beauty require an aesthetic, some criterion which separates the ugly from the beautiful. So if you want to live a beautiful life you need some way of defining beauty. Here’s a way to find your aesthetic, ask yourself these questions. Who, living or dead, do you admire the most? What moves you to tears? What shakes your soul? When you get answers to these questions you’ll start to see the shape of your aesthetic, what you consider to be a beautiful life.”
Student: “Okay, but what does this have to do with Christianity?”
Me: “I’m a Christian because Jesus of Nazareth is my aesthetic. He’s how I define a beautiful life. I’ve noticed in my heart that every time a human action moved my soul or brought tears to my eyes that action reminded me of Jesus. And so, because I want to live a beautiful life, I follow Jesus.”
Yeah, that’s it. I don’t want to be like those fig trees that are technically alive but making no difference to others or myself.
I want to live a beautiful life.
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63: 1-8, NRSV)