LIFE’S MORAL CORE
January 20, 2008
When I was a kid, my eye was injured while I was playing stick ball with my brothers. They took me to our family doctor in Mountain Home, and he took one look at my eye and said, “Well, you have lost your eye.” They put me in the back of an old station wagon and gave me the long ride up old Hwy. 5 to the doctor here in Springfield. I remember still that he took a little light and put his hand over my other eye and shined that light into my injured eye and said, “Can you see anything?” I could see just a speck of gold light. I remember him clicking off that light and saying, “You are going to be ok.”
Sometimes just a speck of light is a huge amount of good news. That is exactly the case when we begin to read the gospel of Matthew with regard to the ministry of Jesus. Matthew tells us that the Lord met crowds of people, and when he looked at them he was so moved with compassion because they were, as he describes it, “helpless and harassed,” or some versions will put it “distressed and downcast,” “like sheep with no shepherd.” The Lord began to preach the gospel of the kingdom to those crowds of people, and Matthew says in Matthew 4:16 what it meant. He says, “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
We get our first glimpse of that light dawning actually in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7, and it should be instructive to us that the content of these chapters is moral in nature. The light which Jesus brought into the experience of people was first moral guidance. In his teaching, the Lord showed that reconciliation is better than resentment; that purity is better than sexual immorality; that faithfulness in marriage is better than the divorce that unfaithfulness may cause. The Lord taught that honesty is better than dishonesty; that mercy is better than revenge; that sincerity is better than hypocrisy; that contentment is better than worry; that mercy is better than harsh criticism; that active good will is better than indifference and that good fruit and character should be the outcome of citizenship in the Lord’s kingdom.
Today, of all the things our world needs, it needs the same light shined in the moral realm. So many people have either passively or on purpose decided that there is no right or wrong, that there is only fun and boring. Many others have concluded that all moral questions are purely relative depending upon the desires and opinions and thoughts of the individual human being. Many masses and multitudes of people are experiencing the lostness of confusion or indifference in moral matters.
It may well be that the most urgent thing that has to be done in opening our eyes to the peace of the gospel is to get a good look in the moral mirror of Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7 again. I would like to ask you for these next few moments to consider with me what these passages may tell us about life’s moral core.
Perhaps it would be well to begin by being clear about what we mean by the phrase ‘moral standards.’ That is what Jesus sets down in these passages. Moral standards: those qualities that should be the model and the measure of all citizens of the Lord’s kingdom at all times. In these passages, Jesus is telling us how to love. If the first and great commandment is for us to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and for us to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we need some guidance in how to love. Moral standards tell us what we ought to do and what we ought not to do in our lives each day.
Moral standards then are first principles which are beyond individual preferences or choices. Moral standards are more than our subjective feelings or desires or thoughts as individuals. They are objective standards brought into life by the Lord. We are too good, you see, at rationalizing. If it is left up to us, we can find a way to justify nearly anything that may ever enter into our minds as a possible behavior. I can figure a way to make it only appropriate that I win, that I get my way, that I do what I want to do right now. If we are left to the maxim of what’s right in our own eyes, we will soon reduce all our actions to total selfishness.
Moral standards are principles which are beyond what may be currently acceptable in a society. They are more lasting than the changing tastes, and they are more abiding than popular opinions will ever be. The kind of standards that Jesus lays down here can cause people of the world to look at the citizens of his kingdom and to think it strange that these folks don’t run with us in the same excess of riot, 1 Peter 4:4 says. The Lord’s people are not to be fashioned according to this world, Romans 12:2 insists. Therefore, they live by principles that are not merely the fashion of the world at the time.
Moral standards are principles also which are beyond the convenience of the situation at the moment. They are what a person brings to a situation to direct him through it, and not merely thoughts that may be compromised should the situation require it. They are not adjustable to what is easiest or most fun in a given situation. They are what cause someone to stand firmly and heroically for the right, for what means more to him than even his life.
The problem in our time, I’m afraid, is not that we are having trouble figuring out what standards should be respected, but that we are leaning toward the idea that there are never any standards. Sometimes in our haste to try to justify this lifestyle or that way of behavior, we have insisted that there are no absolutes in life, and it is causing us, if we are not careful, to come to the conclusion that honesty is not necessarily better than dishonesty, that purity is not necessarily better than immorality, etc. We need to be reminded of why life has to have a moral core to it. Let me just briefly describe some reasons why. I hope all of us, especially those of us who may be younger, will give some thought to this. Morality in life is not an elective. You cannot decide as human beings that you will just not worry yourself with these things.
Life has to have a moral core because human beings inevitably long to have a sense of meaning and some significance to their lives. And here is the point. We can’t have it unless it matters how we live. You can’t insist that your life amounts to something but that you can live however you want to and it won’t make any difference. We need to see the noble and the heroic and the honorable. We need to know that are sacrifices are worthwhile when they have to be made and that we have something to live for.
Somewhere in working on this I ran across an adaptation of the model prayer that someone had offered to show the fate of the humanist. Here is how the prayer might be worded if life has no moral core: “Our brethren who art on earth, hallowed be our name. Our kingdom come, our will be done on earth, for there is no heaven. We must get this day our daily bread. We neither forgive nor or forgiven. We fear not temptation for we deliver ourselves from evil, for ours is the kingdom and the power, and there is no glory and no forever.” Most of us, I think, will long for more significance than that. Life has to have a moral core.
Life has to have a moral core because we must have something firm to guide us through the choices and the decisions that we make. You see, we have been blessed with the ability to think and to decide. We are rational beings and it is precisely because of this that we are moral beings, responsible for our choices. Our choices are too important for us not to have the benefit of the timeless principles that make life work.
A few years ago I, who am not a golfer, had an opportunity to ride around one of the beautiful golf courses in Scottsdale, AZ with my son, Rob. What a nice golf cart! It was equipped with a GPS tracker. I noticed in watching that thing while he was whacking at his golf ball that it would tell you how far away from the hole you were; it would tell you whether you were on schedule, ahead of schedule, behind schedule. It would tell you how much longer it was going to take you to play through the whole course and all of that. I thought to myself, “How can any of us think that a golf cart needs that kind of specific guidance when a human being doesn’t?” It makes no sense to me. Is your life like a golf cart with no GPS? It would be tragic if our lives had no more guidance than I’m afraid a lot of us are accepting.
Thirdly, life has a moral core because we have to live together in a healthy social order. We can insist all we want to that our lives are our own and that they are nobody else’s business, but the fact of the matter is that all of our lives touch other lives in some way or another. Paul taught in Romans 14:7 that no man lives to himself, and no man dies to himself. Therefore, we have to think beyond merely what would gratify ourselves at the moment. Morality allows us to live in a way that is best overall – best for us but also best for those around us.
And then, we need to recognize life’s moral core because life works a certain way. There are laws which are engrained in the universe which will also be true in our own experience. David H.C. Reed made this point: “We ought to behave like this (like Jesus is describing in the Sermon on the Mount) for ultimately this is how the universe is governed.” Morality is not just arbitrary rules laid on us by someone who would like to keep us from having fun. It is how life works.
C.S. Lewis years ago in his book, Mere Christianity, made the point that “moral rules are directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown or a strain or a friction in the running of that machine.” The apostle Paul uses the phrase in Galatians 6 that “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” That is how life works in the natural order. But it also works that way typically in the social world. Most people treat you the way you treat them. And it works that way in the spiritual world. We sow to the flesh, we reap corruption; we sow to the spirit, we reap life. That is not because someone just haphazardly decided it. That’s the kind of world in which we live.
The fifth reason why life has a moral core is because there is a God. This is not the least important of these five. It is the most important, but unfortunately this is the one that so many never get around to facing up to. There is a God. We are made in that God’s image, meaning that whatever betrays that image is immoral. Because our lives are significant, we are accountable to that God. He ultimately judges us based on what we have done in our bodies, whether they be good or evil.
You can take those thoughts and reflect on them yourself and wrestle with what the implications may be, but my basic idea here is just simply the fact that life does have a moral core.
Let’s take it one step farther. If that is the case, is it right to insist that what Jesus taught in passages like Matthew 5-7 provides a bases for the development of the moral core of life? How is the teaching of Christ uniquely the answer to our moral need in our journeys through this world? Here are some of the ways, some of the reasons why Christ is the one who provides the moral footing for us and why his ministry brought light into people’s lives.
Jesus, first of all, taught that the character of God is the measure, the model for the moral conduct of man, that morality starts with the heart of our heavenly father, in who he is and what he is like. All the way through the Bible it is taught that the Lord’s people are to be holy like he is holy. Lev. 11:44 is the first instance of that statement. It just means that we are meant to be like God. We are made in his image; we are meant to live like he is.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses this very fact to try to teach about how we love our enemies and how we treat them. If we have a Father who makes his sun shine on the just and the unjust, then to be like him would mean that we can bless people who don’t deserve to be blessed and that becomes a moral issue in our lives. The character of our Father is to be found in our lives, too, according to Ephesians 5:1-2.
Secondly, what Jesus taught fits us because Jesus addressed what a person is inwardly rather than merely setting forth an outward code of rules to follow. There is no place where it is more clear than in the Sermon on the Mount that the Lord intends to get down to what we really are in our hearts and the core of our being. To him it is not good for us to worship while we hate; it is not good for us to look at another human being as an object of sexual gratification but to insist that we haven’t actually been involved with that person. To him it is not enough for us to say, “Well, I promised but I didn’t swear.” He wants hearts that are honest. We could go on with those illustrations, but you see the idea. The Lord is interested in what we really are. Morality becomes not merely an outward rule but an inward motivation.
Third, these teachings uniquely qualify us to live morally because Jesus provided a moral approach for the whole of life. Have you ever noticed how prone we are to think that morality only involves sexual ethics? Sometimes we’ve used the word moral or immoral for only that part of life. Here’s Jesus using the concept to talk about how we feel about our brother, what goes through our minds when we look at someone else; whether we intend to do what we said we would or not; whether we engage in religious activities just to be seen of men, etc. He wants for all of our lives to be ruled by the God of heaven and for the kingdom to come first in all of our activities.
Fourth, the Lord’s standards answer our need because they are set within the context of mercy and kindness. Here is an approach to morality which is not meant to belittle or to find fault with or to accuse. It is not to become a means of exercising a hypocritical superiority over other human beings. Before this sermon, Jesus is helping people and caring for people. During the sermon he praises the merciful as being those who obtain mercy. He recommends that we be merciful in our treatment of our enemies, that we exercise active good will toward our neighbors by means of the Golden Rule. This is about mercy all through it.
And then the Lord’s approach to this needs our attention because his authority to set forth these moral claims on our lives was demonstrated in his own life and work. This is really why Jesus met the tempter in Matthew 4 and overcame temptation before he spoke about morality. He was qualified because he had been there. And at the end of Matthew 7, what so amazed the people was the authority with which he had spoken. And then in Matthew 8 and 9 that authority is demonstrated in ten episodes of healing where his power, his authority over life is put beyond question. There are moral standards to fit life’s moral core because Jesus has been here.
Someone wrote, “Within my earthly temple there’s a crowd: There’s one of us who is humble, one who is proud; There’s one who is broken hearted for his sins, And one who, unrepentant, sits and grins; there’s one who loves his neighbor as himself, And one who cares for naught but fame and pelf. From much corroding care I should be free, if once I could determine which is me.” Morally speaking, we would all be so much better off if we could determine which of those faces in the crowd is us. Then we would benefit from the life which Jesus brought by walking in it on a daily basis and through moral uprightness.
Make a beginning at that early in this new year. Remember that where you and I recognize that we have fallen short, God has provided a rescue through his Son. He has made it possible for any of us to confess that we depend on what he has done for us and in turning away from our moral failure, to be baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. The Lord has made it possible for one who has made that kind of beginning to confess when he has fallen short and to pray and have his brothers pray with him and to be forgiven, cleansed and set on his way. Maybe today you need to make a beginning in one of those two ways. If we can help you, won’t you let it be known while we stand and sing together?