Goodness, not Self-Interest, Is Our Truth

Sermon based on I Peter 1:17-22, written by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D. on April 18, 1999

Let me begin this morning by telling you several different scenarios.  I want you to think about each one and answer to yourself what you think you would do in these different circumstances.  Here’s the first scenario:

You are buying a sandwich at a fast-food place, and the clerk shorts your change.  You were supposed to get $4.32 back, but instead the clerk only gives you $2.32.  What would you say to the clerk, and perhaps just importantly, how would you say it?

The next scenario is similar:

You just bought a pair of shoes and they cost $88.78.  You give the clerk four $20 bills.  That means you should receive $11.21 in change.  However, you notice that instead of giving you a $10 bill, the clerk gives you a $20 bill resulting in change that is $10 too much.  What do you do now?  If you spoke up in the previous scenario, do you speak up now?

The next scenario doesn’t involve money.  It goes like this:

You overslept and now you risk being late to work.  You have 10 minutes to make the journey but know that normally, it takes at least 40 minutes to get there.  Your boss is not the most pleasant person and you do not want to face the consequences of being late, so you quickly calculate how fast you need to drive to get there on time.  Instead of 30 mph, which is the posted speed, limit you do 50 – 60 mph, which means you’ll probably make it on time.  What do you do?  Do you speed, or do you drive the speed limit and face the consequences of being late?

Yet, I fear all too often that even if people have heard of Kant, his words fall on deaf ears.  It is too difficult and often inconvenient to put the needs of others before our own needs.  Because of this, people rationalize ethics and define decency by what one wants rather than doing what one ought to do. 

All these scenarios raise ethical issues.  What should we do when given an ethical dilemma?  How do we determine what is right, what is the ethical thing to do?  Or do we ignore ethical obligation based upon self-interest?  In the first scenario, the answer might be easy.  We have been wronged and the ethical thing is to make the wrong right by speaking up and getting the proper change from the clerk.  However, in the next scenario, what we should do is not so easy.  “What could I do with the additional $10?” I might ask myself.  And I may reply with this rationalizing response, “I need it more than the store does”.  The temptation is to remain silent and keep the money.  It is in in my best interest, I tell myself, to do so.

One wonders, what does a society look like when “the ought” is guided simply by self-interest?

The last scenario is a little different in that it doesn’t involve money, but self-interest still threatens to get in the way of acting ethically.  Fundamental to an ethical decision-making process is the ability to accept responsibility for our actions and admit when we have done something wrong.  Without responsibility and accountability, ethics becomes a matter of desire and emotive forms of rationalization.  I will be late to work, and I do not want to be accountable for my tardy behavior because I fear the consequences, so I develop a way to compensate by breaking the law.  I speed and in doing so, I not only place my life at risk, but perhaps most importantly, I place others at risk as well.

Emmanuel Kant had some thoughts on this subject.  One of the greatest philosophical thinkers of modern times argues that a society guided by self-interest is soon a society that erodes trust, undermines justice, and favors those who are in positions of power.  What is needed, Kant argues, is a society that transcends self-interest by first considering the needs and well-being of others.  If I were a clerk that made a mistake, would I want to be belittled?  Probably not.  Consider the person standing before you before determining how to respond.  The second scenario happened to me.  I was buying some sandals and when the clerk, who was the store owner, gave me change, he gave me $10 too much.  As I left the store, I knew that keeping the money was wrong.  It didn’t belong to me.  The clerk also knew that I was a minister and although he did not say as much, I think he gave me the extra money just to see how I would respond.  When I returned to the store and gave him the money, he just beamed.  I had done the right thing and not only did that validate me as a person, but it was also a validation of my calling as a minister.  According to Kant, whether it is doing something horrible or doing something seemingly inconsequential, wrongdoing undermines the very fabric of society and lays the foundations for a society governed by greed instead of ethical behavior.  Justice is seldom a result of behaviors and norms based upon self-interest.

If religion is the backbone of morality, then religious people dare not steal, they must not belittle others, they do not jeopardize the lives of others by breaking laws and the character of their faith must be based upon integrity rooted not in self-interest, but their love of God and hence, their love of others.

Yet, I fear all too often that even if people have heard of Kant, his words fall on deaf ears.  It is too difficult and often inconvenient to put the needs of others before our own needs.  Because of this, people rationalize ethics and define decency by what one wants rather than doing what one ought to do.  When self-interest is our guide, we often do what we feel is good for us rather than uphold the standards of honesty, accountability and responsibility ethical behavior requires.  In such cases, it is easy to confuse our desires with rights.  In such cases, social standards are not what matters; breaking the law is not at issue; and character is no longer determined by honesty and integrity.  What really matters is how decisions and behaviors facilitate our ends.

I don’t know about you, but I find this alarming.  If these attitudes are the future of our country, then our future is devoid of ethics and without ethics there can be no justice.  Goodness, the result of behaving ethically, needs to be an important part of the warp and woof of society’s fabric, and according to Kant, it is religion that should be the moral backbone of society.  But consider what this means.  If that is true, then religion must be more than words.  It must extend deeper than the songs we sing, the creeds we cite and the dogma we cherish.  It must reach to the very core of our being and transform us so that we become good people.  If religion is the backbone of morality, then religious people dare not steal, they must not belittle others, they do not jeopardize the lives of others by breaking laws and the character of their faith must be based upon integrity rooted not in self-interest, but their love of God and hence, their love of others.

It is this deep regenerative commitment to goodness that is the measure of a faithful life.  Being religious is hard.  It may even be impossible but that is why at the heart of our spirituality is grace, the empowering reality of God’s spirit that moves us beyond self-interest and grounds us securely in God’s goodness and love.  This is particularly true when things are difficult, when doing that which is loving and good is inconvenient and may even be dangerous. Such was the situation faced by the followers of Christ living in Asia Minor and to whom Peter’s epistle was intended.  The popularity of the new faith begun by Jesus was freaking out the leaders of Rome.  How do you control those who do goodness not out of obligation to Roman law but out of their obligation to God?  Caesar, you recall, thought highly of himself.  Indeed, Jesus’ reference to himself as “the son of God” was a direct challenge to the Roman leader who also called themselves “the son of God.”  Jesus wasn’t trying to start an insurrection in doing so.  He was drawing attention away from the efforts of a man and putting the attention where Jesus thought it should be…on the goodness of God.  The followers of Christ in Asia Minor were not insurrectionists, but their standard wasn’t the law of Rome as much as the goodness of God.  People who love God were a threat to Rome and Ceasar meant to put an end to it even if that meant the persecution of Christians

Nero was one of the first to persecute Christians, blaming them for the fire that destroyed much of Rome. However, it was not until later that decrees were made outlawing the practice of Christinaity, a crime punishable by death. While initially emperors such as Diocletian were tolerant of the many religions practiced in the regions encompassed by Rome, he eventually turned against Christians because of their refusal to worship Roman deities and charged them with being atheists, also a crime punishable by death. Revitalizing ancient Roman religions, Diocletian declared that he and his emperor in the East, Galerius, were the sons of Jupiter or, put differently, the sons of God.

The scenarios I presented pale in significance to this scenario.  To be faithful, to do the Good, as Kant might put it, may very well mean being put to death.  That is irony.  In trying to love others, they encountered the ire and hatred of those in power.  This shouldn’t be a surprise, for this is exactly what happened to Jesus.  But the followers of Christ in Asia Minor were not Jesus, and they laid no claim to being the Son of Man.  What should they do?

The short answer is that many died rather than quit loving others.  They embraced love even if it meant death.  Fortunately, most of us will never have to make that decision.  We live in an environment of religious freedom and tolerance where the worse we might receive is ridicule and scorn, but most of us will never have to die for our faith.  We are fortunate, but what do we do with our good fortune?

Putting behind us our obedience to self-interest, we live a life that is obedient to the truth, Peter tells us.  What is that truth?  It is the truth that God calls us to live for others.  It is the truth that society must be based not upon greed and the attitude that the Good is what is good for me.  Rather, we witness to others by doing what is right.  We demand accountability of ourselves while embracing our responsibility for others.  This is not a matter of convenience for seldom is the truth convenient and accountability and responsibility are hard.  Opening our lives to God, therefore, we commit ourselves to the truth that when we live as moral beings, we may not always rise above error and mistake, but as accountable beings we commit ourselves to loving others, even if that may mean our demise.  This is the lesson given to the followers of Christ in Asia Minor; it is a lesson that we need to hear and learn today. 

Throughout life, we encounter many ethical scenarios where we are called upon to figure out what the right thing to do is.  While this is not always easy, it is impossible if our guide is self-interest.  At the heart of this decision-making process, however, is not our self but our commitment to God.  This may not always be convenient, but it is the right thing to do and that is our truth.  Peter challenges us to do the right thing, the loving thing, and we do this not in word or belief, but by embracing accountability and responsibility, we live so that the right thing, the loving thing, becomes our testimony to the world.  This testimony is the imperishable seed implanted in us all by God’s word.  Amen.

Published by Harold W. Anderson

I am a retired United Methodist Minister working in private practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). I also work in addiction issues and am a Certified Addiction Counselor, level III (CAC III). I also supervise graduate students working on their Master Degrees and supervise Candidates in Training who are working towards licensure. My desire to provide a window of hope to those with whom I work that they live in a world of opportunity.

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