How do we know what is right?
Ecclesiasticus 15.15-end; Matthew 5.21-37
One of the most popular and famous television programmes of the last 20 years was Who wants to be a Millionaire. Each contestant had to answer just 12 questions correctly to win a million pounds. During its run – which I managed to avoid completely – it made five people into millionaires.
At its height over 19 million people watched it. And one of the factors that made it famous was its use of what were called ‘lifelines’ which contestants could use if they were stuck on a particular question. I’m sure you remember the format – each question had four possible answers and if you got stuck you could use a lifeline. You had a choice of three.
One of these was Phone a friend, a phrase which has now entered the language. The second was 50/50 where the computer would remove two answers leaving you with one right and one wrong answer. The third lifeline was … ?
That’s correct. It was Ask the audience which I’ve just done.
Today, in our gospel reading, we hear from the teachings of Jesus from the section of Matthew’s Gospel known as The Sermon on the Mount. And he talks a lot about the importance of keeping the commandments and the results of not doing so. In fact, he says, it’s not enough simply to keep the commandments – you have to go beyond the letter of the Law.
As followers of Jesus it is important that we listen to his instructions. Whether we do so or not is our choice, but there are consequences if you don’t, he says. Our first reading this morning, from Ecclesiasticus, reminds us that ultimately it’s down to us: If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
The problem is, of course, that Christians don’t always agree on what is the right thing to do. And the question we are faced with this morning is: how do we know what is right?
Which brings me back to Who wants to be a Millionaire? and the three lifelines. Because when we try to answer that question “How do we know what is right?” Christians often use those three lifelines in one way or another. And in a way they show us three possible approaches to dealing with that call to do what is right!
Let’s start with Ask the audience.
Think of the audience as being not just others in the Church but everyone in our country outside the Church. Sometimes we need to be more open minded, more willing to listen to what people outside the Church are saying to us.
Take the issue of women bishops. A few years ago it was a major issue for the Church. Thrown out by General Synod the failure to appoint women bishops made many people outside the Church angry. They couldn’t understand why the Church could fail to do something that was so obviously right to most people. Some Members of Parliament even went as far as saying that the Church should be forced to have women bishops whether it wanted to or not. But should the Church be listening and doing what we might call the audience is saying we should do?
The Church got there in the end, of course – we now have ten bishops who are women. And we got there because ordaining women as bishops is what God wanted us to do and because we believed it was right. But perhaps we should have listened to the audience a little better. Sometimes when we don’t know the answer to a question we need to recognise that the audience may well know better and be able to give us the right answer or at least take their views into account. They’re not always right, of course, and we need to judge what they say against Scripture and Tradition and Reason – the three pillars of Anglicanism. But we do need to listen more than we do before we act or speak about right and wrong.
Which brings us on to the second Who wants to be a Millionaire? lifeline and a second approach to doing what is right. This is the 50/50 approach. Jesus, in today’s gospel reading, is uncompromising when it comes to keeping the commandments. And yet so many Christians seem to have not grasped the message here. And this is what I call the 50/50 method – we know the commandments but we think it’s okay to keep them some of the time. 50 per cent perhaps. It might be more or less and it is almost certainly subconsciously done, but we do it all the same.
The kind of approach that reasons like this: I didn’t get angry with anyone last week so the fact I did this week doesn’t really matter and anyway I can make up for it next week by being nice again. The kind of approach that says it will be alright as long as you keep the commandments some of the time and because you generally mean well it will all be ok. No need to try for 100 per cent.
All of us make mistakes, of course – if we didn’t there would have been no need for Jesus. But when we get things wrong it’s no good taking the 50/50 approach – the idea that as long as we only get things wrong some of the time it doesn’t really matter. That you can be wrong one week and right the next and it kind of balances out so isn’t a problem. You only have to see what Jesus has to say today to realise that he is looking for 100 per cent and that when we fail we have to take steps to sort things out. The 50/50 approach is not an option.
And so to the last Who wants to be a Millionaire? lifeline and the approach that should be something that Christians use all the time. Phone a friend. And we can apply this lifeline in two ways.
As a church community part of our role is to care for one another, yet we are often not very good at asking for help when we need it, perhaps for fear of being rejected or being thought silly. So we all need to learn to be ready to be that friend just waiting to be asked, to be the kind of person that someone who is in need knows they can just phone at any time.
But one of the wonderful things about being a follower of Jesus is that we all have a friend who is there at any time. We don’t even have to bother to pick up a phone to get hold of him. Jesus is already there caring for us, loving us, and just waiting to hear from us. We can spend time with him in prayer and seek his guidance. As the old hymn puts it What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.
In Who wants to be a Millionaire even using the lifelines wasn’t going to help much if you didn’t have enough general knowledge to answer the questions and win the big prize. You have to get the answers all right.
Today we come face to face with the question posed by the writer of Ecclesiasticus and picked up on by Jesus: Are you going to keep the commandments? Are you going to do what is right? Which inevitably brings us back to the question I began with: How do we know what is right?
In the end we know what is right because Jesus tells us – and so we can do what is right he keeps it simple. Love God. Love each other. And do it unconditionally. And if you do that you’ll get the answers right!