WHAT MUST I DO?
"What must I do ...? Go and do likewise!"
Last week, in my meditation on "True Patriotism," I mentioned several good things for which we can be thankful about our country, but also of the need to use our critical judgment in making decisions as responsible citizens. There were several positive e-mail responses, but one, from a retired professor and good friend, was more critical. He decided to grade my meditation, and gave me 33%. As 30% is now the minimum for passing matric this meant that I just managed to scrape through. He said, with some justification, that I had not really dealt with the issues facing us as a country, nor given specific guidance about how to decide what to do. So my question is: how do we decide what to do, not just in voting in elections, but more generally in life when we have to make choices and decisions? The same question came up in a conversation recently with the abbot, which confirms the need to say something about it. But it is also one often put to Jesus: "What must I do" a lawyer asked him, "to inherit eternal life?" How must I live life now, he was asking, so that I might have life in all its fullness?
Jesus first of all points him to the commandment to love God and his neighbour which the lawyer would have known very well. For Jesus the Commandments were the first stop on the journey into knowing what is good, how we should live, and the choices we make. Whatever you do, don't commit idolatry, don't kill, don't covet, keep the sabbath, honour your parents, and above all, love God and your neighbour.. Such commandments provide basic guidelines for discerning between good and evil. The only problem is that tomes have been written about what precisely these laws and commandments mean in specific situations. So the man asks Jesus: "But who is my neighbour?" Or we might also ask as many have: we are commanded not to kill, but does that mean we are not allowed to slaughter animals for food, or to shoot someone in self-defence? Each commandment raises further questions.
The Old Testament is full of answers to such questions, but as Jesus taught, there is a danger that such legalism begins to subvert the intention of the law, even preventing healing the sick on the Sabbath. Something more is needed than simply knowledge of and literally keeping the Commandments. So Jesus tells a story to help this man find an answer to his question.
The story is not about literally keeping the law, but acting in the spirit of the law, discerning its intention. To do so well depends on the formation of a good conscience that enables us to interpret moral precepts spontaneously when faced with decisions as we journey along the road and meet a fellow traveller lying wounded on the side. How does the law, especially the law of love become part of our way of being in the world? We can set rules for our children which tell them what to do and what not to do, but there comes a time when they need to make up their own minds about what is right and good in terms of their own lives. The real test then is whether or not we have so nurtured them that they make good and wise decisions on their own when they have to. Have we helped them to developed characters that can cope well with life's choices, whether these have to do with sex or money, relationships or politics, vocations or nurturing their own children? Commandments and laws need to be internalized, made our own, and processed responsibly in order to guide our actions when the moment of decision confronts us as it did confront the travellers who passed down the Jericho road. The formation of a good conscience means becoming open to and led by the Spirit and not simply the law. But, of course, our consciences can sometimes let us down because they have been inadequately formed, and we can also be deluded into thinking we are led by the Spirit when we are not. We also need to use our God-given reason and think critically when faced with decisions and choices along the journey to life in its fullness..
So, we might tell our children what is good and give them rules to live by, and we might back that up with nurturing them in ways that make them responsible human beings with a good conscience, but they also have to think critically for themselves about the consequences of what they decide and do. Sometimes the choices might be murky as when we have to decide between two things that are both not very good, and sometimes they are more clear because we can discern the consequences more easily. If we steal we might go to jail; if we speed we might get a traffic fine; if we don't obey safety rules in the workshop we might cut our fingers badly. If we have unprotected sex outside marriage, the consequences might be unwanted pregnancies and becoming infected by AIDS. If we cut down a rain forest in order to prospect for oil or develop farms, we will not only destroy the forest but also the life that sustains it, and that could be disastrous for the future of the planet and our own lives. We can go to war and invade other countries in order to bring about regime change, but not take into account the terrible consequences that will surely follow. We can vote for and implement political policies to safeguard our own interests, but not take into account their consequences for the common good. The policies of apartheid were based on choices made by the white electorate, and some even claimed that this is what God intended quoting the Bible to prove the point, but now we are having to deal with the dire consequences of Bantu education and migratory labour on our door step. So critical thinking about consequences is crucial in making decisions..
Those who passed by the victim on the Jericho road knew the commandments by heart, but found excuses for not doing anything. Knowing the commandments even the commandment to love does not necessarily lead to the right decision and action. You can even silence your conscience! But the good Samaritan not only knew the commandment, he also knew that if he did not act the consequences could be fatal for the man lying along the road bleeding to death.
So we return to being responsible Christian citizens who not only know the commandments, not only have a good conscience, but also think seriously about the consequences of our decisions and actions. What are the consequences of doing nothing about the living conditions of so many poor people in our society? What are the consequences of not saving energy and caring for the earth? What are the consequences of hating others, or not forgiving those who act against us? What are the consequences of making utopian promises in manifestoes without being able to keep them? What are the consequences for our health when we drink too much, smoke, take no exercise? What are the consequences of not opposing corruption and blowing the whistle? What are the consequences of the church remaining silent when it should be speaking out loudly and clearly about injustice? All of these have to do with loving God and loving our neighbour. So Jesus turns to us as he did to his questioner. You want to know what to do? "Go and do likewise!" Or as the prophet says: "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God."
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 16th January 2014