Matthew 10:26-28, Luke 16:19-31
In his book The Republic, the philosopher Plato wondered what would happen if we could do anything we liked without being detected and punished. He drew on the fable of the shepherd Gyges who, after an earthquake, stumbled upon an ancient tomb where he discovered a magic ring. By twisting the ring in his finger or in his pocket he found that he could make himself invisible. Using his new gift Gyges went to the palace, crept into the queen’s bedroom, seduced her and then persuaded her to help him kill the king, a task for which the invisible ring also came in very handy.
In The Republic Plato's mentor Aristotle poses the question, ‘What might we be tempted to do if we thought we could get away with something wicked without being detected?’ The virtuous person would, of course, behave just the same way if they thought they were invisible as they would if they thought someone could see them. But are we really that virtuous?
A security guard was the only person who worked in his office block at night. He could go anywhere he liked and in fact he was encouraged to patrol all around the building to make sure it was secure. Only one place was out of bounds, and that was the boss’s office!
Of course, curiosity soon got the better of him and after a time he became determined to look inside. He tried every key he could find, but none of them fitted the lock. Eventually he realised that the only way to see inside the boss’s office was to peer through the keyhole. Imagine the surprise he got when he saw an eye staring straight back at him. The boss had put a big poster of an eye on the opposite wall from the door so that it would look as though someone was also staring through the keyhole straight back at him on the opposite side of the door!
The boss knew that his security guards would never be able to resist the temptation to peek. By the same token, Plato wondered how many people would ever be virtuous enough to resist the temptation to do something they shouldn't if they thought they could really get away with it!
Jesus asks an even harder question? How many of us are virtuous enough to do our good deeds in private, where no one else will ever know about them? Aren't we always tempted to let people to know how good we are so that we can get the recognition we think we deserve?
Plato also told another story in the Republic. He said that life is a bit like being imprisoned in a cave. The prisoners are chained up so that they can’t look behind them. All they can see is the wall of the cave in front of their faces. But behind them the guards have lit a fire, to keep warm and light up the cave. The prisoners cannot see the fire, only the shadows that it casts on the wall they’re facing.
Suppose one of the guards walked up to the fire behind them carrying a rabbit, maybe intending to cook it for dinner in a pot. The prisoners would see only the shadow of the rabbit. If they asked the guard what he was was holding, and he told them it was a rabbit, that’s what they would think a rabbit looks like. It would be similar to a game of shadow puppets, where someone makes the shadow of a rabbit’s head and ears on the wall, only in the cave the guard would actually be holding a real rabbit which the prisoners couldn't see.
But suppose that at long last one of the prisoners escaped, wriggled out of her fetters, went to the entrance of the cave and saw rabbits running about wild in the fields. Suddenly she would know how things really are, instead of how they just seemed to be in the cave. And what if she then came back to visit the prisoners and tell them what she had seen, or even to set them free too?
Of course, the cave is just an allegory. Really it’s us who are the prisoners! We imagine we're seeing what's really going on when actually we're only seeing part of the picture. But what if someone were able to put that right and show us what we're missing?
Jesus tells us a story like this too, the Parable of Dives and Lazarus, the rich man and the poor man. Dives leads a life of luxury and ignores the poor man, Lazarus, begging at his gate. But when they die Dives finds their roles are reversed. He’s now the one facing multiple disadvantages, as he burns in Hell, while Lazarus is now the one enjoying all the privileges of life in Heaven. Dives wants to go and warn his brothers what life is really like, but Jesus points out that they're unlikely to believe him. They’ve always lived in the world of shadows. Why should they believe the truth about what it’s like to live in the real world outside the cave?
And Jesus concludes that even if, in the real world outside the story, someone came back from the dead, most people would choose not to believe it was true. People are imprisoned in a false world view, but that prison is sometimes more comfortable than the truth.
There’s a proverb which says that people see only what they expect to see, like the crew of an allied bomber that flew back from a night-time sortie over Italy during World War II towards their base in northern Libya. A strong air current picked up the plane and carried them across the Mediterranean much faster than they’d expected, so they refused to believe their instruments when the dashboard told them that they’d arrived back over their destination. They carried on flying and by the time they realised their mistake they were deep into the desert. They crash landed when their fuel ran out and only years later were their bodies recovered, sitting beside the plane, together with a brief account of what had gone wrong written in their logbook.
Are we the kind of people who always want to do the right thing or who only do what's right because we're afraid of getting caught if we transgress? And are we the kind of people who prefer a miserable but familiar captivity to the risk and excitement of true freedom, or the kind of people who want to live life to the full? Are we the kind of people who prefer to continue in trusted routines, the way we’ve always done, until we run out of fuel and crash land, or the kind of people who are waiting - not to be tempted by the Devil, as Jesus was in the wilderness, to do reckless and dangerous things - but for God to show us new opportunities or new directions of travel so long as they're the right way to go?