“Making the Difficult Choice”Dr. David Rutledge Jer. 18.1-11; Deut. 30.15-20; Ps. 1; Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14.25-33. Year C: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
“For this commandment which I command you this day
is not too hard for you,neither is it far off …
But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth
and in your heart, so that you can do it.”
Growing up in the South, in a middle-class, Baptist home, I was taught early and often to be nice — “niceness” being perhaps the most important religious virtue. Children were told to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No ma’am,” to comb their hair and brush their teeth, keep their clothes clean, speak respectfully to adults, and not to chew with your mouth full, among many other similar rules. Considering how unkempt and rowdy children can be, this effort to keep the barbarians at bay seemed relatively harmless, if hopeless. But spending years trying to “be nice” did run one very serious danger: it could, and often did, undermine the very heart of morality — the ability to make hard choices, regardless of the consequences.
To be “nice” was to behave according to what other people wanted, what others thought was appropriate or right. And these “others” were not carefully selected models of good judgment; they were just the adults who happened to be around, especially those for whom “keeping up appearances” was vitally important. As I think back on my childhood — and it could have been anywhere, not just the South — I find that I do not have the skill or the words to tell you what it was like living in this constant climate of “niceness,” always enveloped by reminders to act “properly,” no matter the circumstances.
In retrospect, I sense there was a deep tension in life between the nice surface, and the subterranean currents always threatening to break out. There was the strong barrier of social class, which insured that we did not play with or ‘hang out’ with the kids who lived on poorer streets, or in less neat neighborhoods. Or the tension could have appeared when the powerful forces of sexuality first surfaced in adolescence. It’s hard to be “nice” when the hormones are raging, and there was seldom much help balancing the two — perhaps because talking about sex wasn’t “nice.” (I recall my grandmother, born in the 1890s, who just could not bring herself to say the word “pregnant” in public!)
Or perhaps we felt the tension when “niceness” was confronted with black people. My mother occasionally would take us on the three-hour bus ride to see grandparents, and the bus station completely undid the veneer of niceness that society struggled so hard to preserve.
How does one sing “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, / Jesus loves the little children of the world,” and explain white and colored water fountains, separate rest rooms, and black people sitting in the back of the bus?
And everyone around in the 1960s remembers the tensions around the Vietnam war, when the calls to be patriotic, protect our country, and oppose communism met the cries against the brutalities and senselessness of war.
Is it too much to suggest that the eruptions of the 1960s, in which young people objected to the status quo on race, sex, and war, were due in part to society’s insistence on preserving order, calm, and “niceness” rather than talking honestly about its ethical failings? As is so often the case, scripture helps clarify and confirm our intuitions about that time.
In the readings for today, we find the ancient Israelites and early Christians hearing a divine command — choose God, no matter what; choose life, and not death; choose to follow Christ to the cross rather than resting in the nice comfort of family and friends.
Deuteronomy 30.11ff. makes this matter of choice clear:
“See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey
the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day,
by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways,
and by keeping his commandments…
then you shall live and multiply,
and the Lord your God will bless you….
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day,
that I have set before you life and death,
blessing and curse; therefore, choose life….”
From the divine perspective, the choices are real, and they matter. To choose evil is to cut oneself off from the blessings of life. And lest we complain about the starkness of the choice God offers, Jeremiah affirms that God’s mercy is always available. God will “repent” of visiting the disastrous consequences of human actions IF they turn their lives around, and choose life over death.
“If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom,
that I will…destroy it,
and if that nation…turns from its evil,
I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it.” (18.7-8)
And yet human nature being sinful, that is, self-centered, some people will complain that such divine commands — “Choose life,” or else — reveal God’s oppressive, authoritarian nature, which deprives us of the complete freedom we require to do whatever we wish. (It is interesting to note that the Christian belief in innate humanSinfulness is echoed in the claim by modern secular science that the highest value for human beings — products of evolution as they are — is survival, that is, looking out for themselves above all else. The biblical sage would simply nod agreement.) But scripture makes clear that we are simply trying to dodge responsibility for our actions:
“Have you not brought this upon yourself
by forsaking the Lord your God…?
Your wickedness will chasten you,
and your apostasy will reprove you.” (Jer. 2.17, 19)
It is not God’s authoritarianism that is the problem, but rather the human insistence that our freedom be total, without obligations or responsibilities. This brings to mind thesaying of G.K. Chesterton, that ‘the reason people reject Christianity is not that they have tried it and found it wanting, but that they have tried it and found it difficult.’
But what of the New Testament? Doesn’t a God of love supersede the wrathful, angry God of the Old Testament? Isn’t Jesus proof that God “walks with me and talks with me, and tells me I am his own”? Surely Jesus refutes the old-fashioned idea that we must ‘choose God’s way, or die.’
In today’s reading from Luke 14 we get Jesus’ own words on the topic:
“If any one comes to me and does not hate
his own father and motherand wife and children
and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not bear his own crossand come after me,
cannot be my disciple….
So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce
all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
It seems Jesus was closer to the spirit of ancient Israel than to that of modern America. His words deny the easy morality of the crowd, which basically says that my pleasure and happiness, and society’s approval of me, are the purpose of the universe, so that we can just rest in the warm acceptance of being “nice” as a sufficient guide to right behavior.
In this view, there is no cost to discipleship, for being Christian is simply agreeing to be what everyone wants me to be: one of the crowd, a member of the group, a nice, obedient ‘soldier’ who will guard the way things are.
Being nice brings short-term rewards but long-term emptiness. Choosing to follow Christ brings short-term suffering, but long-term flourishing, “like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its lead does not wither.” (Psalm. 1.3)
About the Writer:
Dr. David Rutledge retired from teaching at Furman University as the Reuben B. Pitts Professor of Religion. He is an elder in Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC (PCUSA), and a former board member of the Phillis Wheatley Association, and the Interfaith Forum of Greenville. Rutledge received his A.B. in philosophy from the College of William and Mary, his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, and his Ph.D. from Rice University.
He is the author of Humans and the Earth: Toward a Personal Ecology (Peter Lang), numerous journal articles, and chapters in books. He is past President of The Polanyi Society, an international scholarly organization. His religious interests are in religion and science, religion and ecology, classics of spiritual devotion, and the work of Michael Polanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wendell Berry, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dante.
Scripture and Music:
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
Help Us Accept Each Other
Where He Leads Me
This Is A Day of New Beginnings
Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone
Take Up Thy Cross
Have Thine Own Way, Lord
Psalm 139 (Allen Pote)
You Must Be Ready (John Horman)
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (Anna Laura Page)
Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven (Andrews)
I Surrender All
Have Thine Own Way, Lord
Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said (Freeman Lewis)