This is the text of a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it is based on is Psalm 1.
“Happy are they who refuse the way of evil…” The psalm this morning wrapped some lovely imagery – of fruitful green trees by clear flowing waters, with unfading leaves, and so forth – around what seems like quite a stark division of the world’s possibilities into just and righteous on one hand, and evil on the other.
If that seems troubling to you – that we might be encouraged to see the world in terms of black and white, right and wrong, and to overlook the complexity of human reality – then today I want to encourage you to get beneath the surface of that a little bit and examine the implications of this kind of thinking.
This psalm is one example among many – both within and outside the Bible – of what is called the “two ways” approach to ethics or morality. Think of Jesus telling his followers, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the gathered people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” and so on.
There are many other examples, and this way of thinking, which – with some variation – was important in ancient Jewish, Christian and Pagan ethical thinking, was prominent in the writings of the early church, and continues to be expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. In his spiritual exercises St. Ignatius included a “meditation on two standards,” in which the person undertaking the exercise is invited to imagine the army of Christ and the army of Satan, drawn up to do battle, and to choose to seek a place under the standard of Christ.
So what’s the appeal? Is it just that we all like a bit of certainty? That there’s some comfort in the idea that there are right answers to life’s puzzles, and that I can know what they are? Superficially, perhaps, that’s part of why this sort of approach has persisted for so long. But I think there’s something deeper to it as well.
You see, if someone tells you that there are two paths in front of you, and tells you about the blessings of one and the dangers of the other, even if that person doesn’t say so explicitly, he or she is setting before you a choice. And in doing so, that person – the author of the Psalm, in this case – is affirming your ability to make a choice. This is an approach to ethics which has at its roots a conviction that a human person is, in a meaningful sense, a moral agent, and that the will and choices of people actually matter.
This view of human beings skirts around the pessimism of the Calvinists, who will tell you that the only choice many humans can make is which sin to commit, without going to the other extreme and saying that since we are justified by grace, all options are open to us and equally good.
No. A “two ways” approach to ethics says to us first, that we are able to choose, and second, that our choices matter. It affirms our dignity as moral agents, neither puppets of greater forces nor completely bound in oppressions that we cannot transcend, and impresses on us our responsibility to choose well; because our own individual happiness, the flourishing of our community, and the healthy functioning of wider society, all are shaped by the choices which we make.
There is, however, a twist to this, particularly in the context of Christian thinking. All too often, people have made the easy identification of the right way – the way of the just and righteous – as simply being part of the church. So the dualism of right and wrong gets carried over into thinking in terms of insiders and outsiders; we the green trees drinking deep from the waters of the Spirit, and outside, the sinners, the mockers, the evil doers. Us and them. And God on our side, of course.
But I don’t think it’s that simple. Christians can make bad choices. We do it all the time. And those outside the church – even if they don’t recognize God in terms we can easily affirm – can and do bear fruit in due season. So if we have meaningful choices in front of us, they have to be more than just the choice to express some sort of party loyalty. The church is a good thing – don’t misunderstand me, if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have committed my life to it! – but in ethical terms, at least, it’s not an end in itself.
So what is the end? Although the psalm says that the righteous prosper, this is not an encouragement to a kind of prosperity ethics, one which says that if we make the right choices God will bless us by giving us all that our hearts desire. The image of green trees growing by flowing waters is not, ultimately, just about how lovely it is for the trees. Instead, throughout Scripture large, shady and fruitful trees are a symbol of God’s blessing for others.
Think about the parable of the mustard seed; so often what we focus on in that parable is the growth of a great shrub with large branches from the smallest of all seeds, and of the glory of God in bringing about that growth. But remember how that parable ends: “…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The smallest of all seeds becomes a source of shelter and security, a place of blessing, a place through which God works to provide good things for his creatures.
I wonder what it might be like to consider your own ethical questions – your own moments in which you are confronted with real choices – and to make your choice in trust that if your heart follows the heart of God well enough, even your very small choices might become opportunities for God to bless others, providing for their real needs through your integrity?
It’s a very high view of human potential. But not, I think – looking out at all of you – too high. We are capable of real and meaningful choices. We are capable of taking delight in the knowledge of God’s way. We are capable of being like green trees, made fruitful by God for the blessing of the world. And in this, if we choose it, may our joy be made complete.
The Lord be with you.