The Basis of a Progressive Ethic

October 2, 2011

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 16     Exodus 20:1-20     Matthew 21:33-46

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Robert Capon once said, “We should play with Scripture and let Scripture play with us”. Well the parable today of the owner, the vineyard, and the dead son [i] is one of those that requires playing with. And there’s lots of precedence – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the Gospel of Thomas all tell it and interpret it differently.


Rather than spend the next while describing those differences and trying to distil its ‘true’ meaning [if it has one], I ask you to consider the following piece of wisdom: God is a pretty dumb landlord. 


Before the days of electronic banking the landlord would send a minion to collect the rent. God sent a bunch of them. They were beaten, killed, and stoned [maybe not in that order]. So landlord God, instead of seeking vengeance or even police assistance, sends another bunch of minions who, surprise surprise, get treated the same. Finally landlord God, sends not the ugliest, meanest dude he could find to kick their ass but his own son, Mr Pacifist Love-Your-Enemies Jesus. And, guess what, he too gets killed. As I said, God’s a pretty dumb landlord.


Now the story-tellers play around with the ending, but usually it has landlord God instigating an ass-kicking. Both listeners and gospel writers alike have this need for a revenge comeuppance ending, whereas I think the God revealed in Jesus does not share this need. Although many in the Church, as well as the rest of society, love a good dollop of judgement, the Way of Jesus was love, acceptance and healing.


So, back to the story: I think it’s about a dumb landlord who chooses to be in the ‘ways of the world’ deliberately dumb, or rather deliberately vulnerable, offering and continuing to offer reconciliation, cost what it may. In non-theistic language God is the energy of reconciliation and costly giving, not the energy of judgement and punishment.


This reflection is a prelude to the central question the Ten Commandments raises for me. For a long time the basis for Christian ethics was a supreme-being-God [an SBG] who issued laws and edicts, then rewarded or punished us depending on our compliance. If we no longer believe in such a God, and hold a critical light to any so-called divine laws, are we then ethically rudderless in the great ocean of modern life? Or put another way, what is the basis for Progressive ethics?


Our first reading, the Ten Commandments [ii], were allegedly written down by God and given, with much thunder and shakes, to Moses on Mt Sinai. A close look at those commandments reveals though, far from timeless ethical directives, they are a collection of tribal prejudices and stereotypes, reflecting the limited knowledge of the people who created them.


The first clue in the Bible that these were human rules rather than of divine origin is seen in the fact they were regularly violated when dealing with non-Jews. Commandment no.9, for example, forbids “bearing false witness”. Yet Moses did just that when he lied to Pharaoh saying the Israelites only wanted a three day holiday in the wilderness, when in actual fact they had no intention of coming back. Indeed according to Exodus 3:18 this lie was God’s idea!


Commandment no.6 says, “You shall do no murder”. But Joshua was said to have murdered five Canaanite kings (Josh 10:22-27). Samuel “hewed into pieces with the sword” a king called Agag, who was kept in a cave to await his executioner (1 Sam 1:32-33). God too was a murderer – ordering Israel in two wars to kill “every man, woman, and child” (1 Sam 15:1-13; Judges 21:8-13).


The one commonality in these morally repugnant episodes was that the recipients of these unethical behaviours were not Jewish. It seems the commandments were only to govern Hebrew intra-tribal relations and were not a universal code of conduct.


The second clue that these are commandments of human rather than divine origin is reflected in the patriarchal mentality that assumed a woman was the property of a man. This is overt in the last commandment: You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, wife, manservant, ox, ass, iPad… 


There is no prohibition on coveting your neighbour’s husband! The reason is that a husband was not property, but a wife was. The neighbour was a male. His assets were listed in descending order, with his wife being second to his house, and hopefully more valued than his iPad.


Sexism is also implied in the command not to commit adultery. Remember this was a culture that practiced polygamy not monogamy. A man could own as many women as he could afford. What this commandment meant was that a man was prohibited from having sex with a woman who belonged to another man. 

If a man had sex with an unmarried woman it was a crime against the property of her father that could be rectified with a fine. For the father had had his net worth devalued by this act since he could not get the proper ‘bride price’ for a daughter who was now ‘damaged goods’.


A code of ethics that treats some human beings as the property of others needs to be pronounced immoral and discarded.


The last clue that what we are dealing with in the Ten Commandments is a human rather than divine construction is that the code has been abandoned whenever it has become inconvenient. There are, for example, plenty of graven images around in church [think crucifixes, crosses, stained glass windows] and in society [think public sculpture, billboards, & art galleries]. Commandment no.2 is historically redundant.


Then there’s commandment no.3 “the Lord’s name in vain”. A civil contract is no longer required to be sworn “in the name of the Lord”, so that if broken the offending party would be guilty of “taking the Lord’s name in vain”. Today contracts are signed into legal documents and enforced by the courts. Without that defining context most people today think commandment 3 is about the words that escape when one’s toe collides with a rock or when the rich once again blame the poor. Those words might be blasphemous but they have nothing to do with “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”


For 1900 years Christians, other than the small group called 7th Day Adventists, have ignored commandment no.4 regarding the Sabbath, which is Saturday.


Then there are the complexities of interpreting those commandments that do seem to make some sense in our modern world. How does “murder”, for example, relate to abortion, euthanasia, and warfare? However desirable simplicity is the answers to this are not simple.


Given such limitations on the Ten Commandments or any other moral code allegedly delivered by a SBG, what then is the basis for our ethics?


I would posit two thoughts for your consideration:


Firstly, the data of human experience suggests that happiness, a coveted goal that most wish for, is found only when we seek the happiness and well-being of others as well as our own. Our individual well-being and the well-being of others, both known and unknown to us, is inextricably linked. From this interconnectivity follows notions of the dignity and rights of each and every human being, and the notion of respect and care for our environment.


Secondly, what enhances us as human beings is not just the well-being of others and our environment but responding to that which calls us beyond our limits. This is about affirming people in the quest to reach up to and beyond their potential. It is about broadening vision, welcoming new knowledge and understandings, and seeking to create a better, healthier home for all. The opposite of this is diminishing people, restricting knowledge, keeping everything the same, often because we are fearful of how their potential and power might lessen our own.


The spirit of reconciliation that is at the heart of the Gospel parable today, is about the cost of remaining in relationship, about the powerful using their power to be vulnerable. The health and hope of us all is interwoven. 


None of us are truly alive, unless all of us are truly alive. None of us are free, unless all of us are free. None of us are saved, unless all of us are saved. These are highly offensive notions to the fearful. To keep the world under control they want to see sinners punished, they create a hell to put them in, and invent a God to do it. 


I choose instead to stand with the author of 2 Timothy who once, brilliantly, wrote, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind” (1:7). So let’s use it.


[i] Matthew 21:33-46.


[ii] This part of the sermon on the Ten Commandments is dependent on Jack Spong’s work in Why Christianity Must Change or Die, chapter 10.

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