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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Straight Talk

Some years ago, Dr. Gordon Marino, the ethicist, wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Before Teaching Ethics, Stop Kidding Yourself”.

In this article, Marino complained of the cottage industry of posers and pseudo-experts we have today who dispense advice to us about how we ought to conduct our moral lives. Ethics, he argued, were not so much a matter of specialized knowledge as of ordinary people doing what they already knew to do.

He wrote:
“[S]heer ignorance is seldom the moral problem. More knowledge is not what is needed. Take it from Kierkegaard: The moral challenge is simply to abide by the knowledge that we already have.”
Just one year before that, in 2003, University of Texas moral philosopher Jay Budziszewski wrote a whole book on ethics, titled What We Can’t Not Know. According to Budziszewski, people do really have a moral compass, even when they pretend they do not, and offer all sorts of elaborate explanations for why they don’t. He writes, “There are no real moral skeptics; supposed skeptics are playing make-believe, and doing it badly”.

What We Do Know

Agree or disagree, it’s certainly true that people have a lot more knowledge about what God expects of them than you will routinely hear them admit. You can tell because they so quickly become inflamed with anger when you press them on some point. The executive who shouts, “Who do you think you are to judge me?” when accused of sleeping with his secretary knows full well that what he is doing is abusing his power and breaking his marriage vows. And really, he’s not much different from the angry child who shouts, “You’re not the boss of me” and storms out when called to account for his truancy or bad behaviour. Both know they are doing wrong, but are cultivating the delusion that so long as moral authority to convict them is not actually present, they can — and should have the right to — do as they please.

It’s not what they don’t know that troubles them: it’s what they do know.

Now, part of our job as Christians is to be a bit of a problem to this strategy of theirs. It’s a funny way to put it, but one of our duties is to be a bit of a burr in the saddle of those who are carrying on with sin and justifying it by claiming there are no moral absolutes and no judgment impending. For we know that there are such absolutes, and yes, judgment is most certainly coming; and so long as we maintain those standards, both by our personal conduct and by our words as well, we are going to find that Christians are personae non gratae in this world.

But so what? Didn’t the Lord himself tell us this would be so?

The “Difficulty” of Morality

Nevertheless, the public delusion persists. The general consensus is that morality is just such a difficult matter that we ordinary folks can’t be expected to realize what God may or may not have told us to do or not do. After all, there are so many views, so many different moral values, so many different religions, cultures, codes and laws that an ordinary person really cannot be held responsible for being more than a little morally confused — and the best that God or anyone else can possibly expect of us is that we choose some sort of moral standards on our own, commit to them in some way (well, just as long as it suits us to do so — we don’t want to become closed-minded, after all), and follow them through to our own satisfaction.

Then, after all is said and done, nobody will be in any position to judge us; and God — if he exists — will surely say to us each, “Well, close enough; even I pick up my golf ball three inches from the hole”.

And lots of people have a stake in keeping this nonsense going. If there are no moral standards, you see, and if there are no universal moral laws, then every person is maximally free to do what he or she wishes to do. It’s that simple. So it’s funny that atheists, parroting Freud, have sometimes accused Christians of wanting to believe in a God out of a childish wish for a father figure to tell them what to do; for it is just as easy to reverse the charge, and to say that atheists are guilty of having a childish wish-fulfillment desire to eliminate their father figure! For surely the incentive to deny the existence of a God, of righteousness and of judgment is at least as great as — and possibly far greater than — any natural incentive to wish for such a thing.

Moral Muddiness

The issues just aren’t clear, you see? People aren’t able to make a choice when they don’t see what there is to choose between. And the world seeks continually to make the straight things bent, and to throw up obstacles to moral clarity or to the knowledge of God.

Sure, you may say God has spoken — but really, who knows what’s true and what’s not? Are you really saying that all those other people are bad? That doesn’t sound very (omni-)tolerant, open-minded and multicultural, and aren’t we all agreed those are they ways things should be? Are you really so closed-minded, backward, sexist, ethnocentric, heteronormative, anti-intellectual, judgmental, miserable and generally fascistic that you would insist on a singular view of what’s right and wrong for people? You must be kidding!

And so the waters get muddier and muddier. And sometimes even we Christians get confused. After all, isn’t it in the spirit of general niceness to accept everybody and judge nobody? Isn’t it a kind thing to let people have their own ways? And really, when we look at ourselves, are we so free from faults that we feel comfortable passing judgment on others? Didn’t Christ himself lambaste Pharisees? We certainly don’t want to be one of those. Maybe there are many lifestyles to choose, many ways to go, and many roads to heaven …

Gospel Clarity

But when we think again, we realize that cannot be true. No matter how cunningly the world around us tries to reshape the moral landscape, there is just such a straightness and plainness to the gospel that we really cannot mistake it. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father but through me”. That’s pretty clear. “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved”. That’s clear too. But so are “You shall have no other gods besides me”, “You shall not murder” and a host of other such precepts very clearly spelled out in the 66 books of the Bible — 613 in the Old Testament, by rabbinical count, and more in the New Testament, plus associated precedents produced by each of those laws …

Really, there’s an awful lot of moral direction available from scripture. So how much genuine moral unclearness remains?

Not much, I’m thinking.

Something else is really clear too: judgment is coming. And when the Great Judge returns, the Messiah who will reign in righteousness forever, how adequate an excuse will it be that we “just weren’t sure”?

Do even we believe that?

Maybe Marino and Budziszewski had a point. The King is coming. And if so, it’s time to get our house in order.

Road Works

Even today, if the Queen of England decides to visit one of the countries of the British Commonwealth, preparations begin immediately. Every care is taken to provide security, comfort and welcome, and no expense is spared. But she’s just a symbolic monarch.

In the ancient world, the visit of a monarch to one of the cities of his (or her) realm was an even bigger deal, for conditions were harsher and travel was more difficult. Roads would be rough and bumpy. Floods, shifting soil and track wear would reduce them to a succession of bumps and potholes. Large rocks or fallen trees might impair traffic, banks could collapse and berms of loose soil would form. Ruts from carts would get deeper. And animals, the chief motors of the day, would continually defile the path.

If you have been to the Developing World, you have seen how this plays out. Lacking a public works department, the citizens travelling in and out of the city would simply work around the obstacles as they appeared. Sometimes someone might have the industry to fix things up a bit, but given continuous wear, this would be a job with no end, so maintenance would be spotty at best. Eventually, instead of a straight path into the city there would be a circuitous and uneven route around various obstacles and defilements.

Now, nowhere would these effects be more pronounced than on the main highways that led to the city gates; for every traveler and merchant would have to pass through that way, and damage would be proportionally increased.

In short, the way into a city could get pretty mucky and unpleasant, declining from a straight path to a wavering track full of pits, rocks, dust, obstacles, filth and sludge.

But when the king was coming, this had to change, and change fast. The way into the city must be transformed from a rutted mess into a flat and even surface with no obstacles of any kind. And it would have to be redirected from a meandering mess to an arrow-straight track leading to the city gates.

To fail to prepare in this way would be a signal insult to the monarch, implying, “We, in this city, do not concern ourselves that you to come here easily. We do not care when or how you arrive,” and thus, “We have no particular affection for you, nor any enthusiasm for your reign. You are not welcome”.

The Messenger

In order that no such insult should happen, a messenger would be sent ahead of the visiting ruler to inform the citizens, in a timely fashion, that they must prepare to receive their most distinguished visitor. Among the most important and labour-intensive task they would have to undertake would be the preparation of the king’s highway, especially as it approached the gates of the city. And this they would undertake with vigor, lest they should insult the king and thus call down on themselves his wrath.

When they really, really wanted to receive the king, people might even cover the dusty roadway with clean cover of some kind — palm branches would be a popular option, and readily available too.

It is of this situation that the gospels speak in reference to John the Baptist. Who was he? He was the forerunner of the Messiah, sent to proclaim to Israel that the King was indeed due to arrive shortly, and that they must prepare themselves. In particular, it would be necessary for them to make his way straight and clear, so that He might arrive well-received. So, quoting Isaiah, Mark writes:
“Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,
Who will prepare Your way;
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight.’ ”
This is the reason that John “appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. It was necessary that before Messiah came, his way should be clear — but not some dirt road passing through some actual city gates, like some mere temporal monarch: for his way would be into the very hearts of his people. Thus, it was that path must be made clear and straight.

The way that path is prepared is through repentance. People must clear up their thinking, and begin to make morally straight decisions again. They must stop accepting obstacles to truth, and make the issues of sin, righteousness and judgment clear again. Then they must bow to the rightful authority, and prepare themselves to receive the King. The great cry of “Hosanna” must not just come from their lips but from enthusiastic hearts receptive to his reign.

What were the particulars of this preparation? Luke writes:
“Make His paths straight.
‘Every ravine will be filled,
And every mountain and hill will be brought low;
The crooked will become straight,
And the rough roads smooth’ ”
And then the outcome would be that “… all flesh will see the salvation of God”. The Kingdom of God was on offer to them, if his own, the nation of Israel, would receive him …

Playing Hardball

In view of this prospect, John went out and preached his message. And boy, did he ever play hardball. If the King is coming, you don’t muck around; and John was not one to pull his punches. Take the bumps, he said, and put them in the potholes, and take the potholes and slide them under the bumps; then move the right turns left and the left turns right, until the whole thing is flat and straight. No mess, no obstacles and nothing but firm, clean footing. The way into the city must be perfectly clear. That’s what the King expects.

Well, not everyone thought so much fuss was necessary. So crowds of people began coming out to him, but just to go through the motions of cleaning themselves up. A little ritual, a quick baptism, a nod to the idea of repentance, and bingo, they'd be good, they thought. But John pinned them to the wall with these words:
“You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance …”
If your repentance isn’t from the heart, and with active evidence in your life, John told them, forget it. The King’s not fooled. Don’t you snake your way out here out of some shallow sense of religious duty: change your ways, or face the wrath of God. End of story.

And to the many who thought their birthright as Jews or their citizenship as Israelites would give them some cover, he added:
“… do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And when the crowds responded, “Then what shall we do?” he told them, “Do what you always knew all along that you should have been doing. Share with your neighbours. Don’t take what’s not yours. No lies. Be content with what your King has provided for you …” — and very likely a good many more such instructions that don’t happen to be recorded for us. Essentially, John told them to walk in the light of the Law they had already been given, repenting of their failures, admitting their sins and changing their ways, so that Messiah would find them in a heart-condition congenial to receiving him.

He was being a good messenger of the King.

The Message

Are you?

Do we tolerate the false appearance of moral uncertainty that is so cherished by the society in which we live? Do we allow the anti-moral propaganda of the day to infect our own thinking? Do we lose track of the clarity of the Law of God because we’re not really reading it anymore, or have forgotten to meditate on the character and will of God?

And are we sending our colleagues, friends and loved ones down the road to hell because we just cannot tolerate the thought that they might accuse us of being intolerant if we speak up for truth? Are we more men and women of this City of Destruction than we are messengers of the Reign of Righteousness?

No Permanent Dwelling

The Psalmist wrote, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked”. And that’s because “one day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere”.

Tents, you see, are temporary dwellings that get plucked up or blown away. Travelers have them, but permanent dwellers don’t. Better to have a low role in a high and secure house than to make yourself comfortable in something that’s only a tent.

John lived in the wilderness, an outsider to his society. Physically, we may live in the city; but in our hearts, we are no less to be wilderness dwellers and outsiders.

Don’t get comfortable here.

The Coming King

The old rock group Trooper wrote, “We’re here for a good time, not a long time”.

Nope.

We’re here for a short time, then a good time. In fact, it’s so “good” that no evil survives it. It’s called “The Reign of Righteousness”, and it lasts forever. Before it comes, the King arrives, judges sin, answers the question of the existence of evil by means of his justice, and then reconciles all creation into perfect harmony to God the Father.

But right now, we’re here temporarily. Like John, we’re here in a prophetic role, to call back the hearts of the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, and to prepare the way of the Lord. We’re not here to excuse the world for putting bumps and potholes in the moral landscape and losing its moral track.

The King is coming.

And in a world that has lost its moral compass, we’re here to point straight.

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