Sunday, July 27, 2008

Discerning Good and Evil

1 Kings 3.5-12
Romans 8.26-39
Matthew 13.31-3, 44-52


The wisdom of Solomon is proverbial. But he did not ask God for wisdom. He asked only for "an understanding mind able to discern between good and evil." God was so impressed by Solomon's selflessness and maturity that he gave him the gift of wisdom too.

It would be nice to be guided by wise leaders, wouldn't it? One of Gordon Brown's difficulties is that on television he appears less wise than he apparently is in person. Someone commented that, at an award ceremony this week for former members of the Women's Land Army, he was dignified, relaxed and good humoured. He gave a short speech, without any notes, in which he said just the right things to impress everyone there and he captured precisely the mood of the occasion.

But, unlike Tony Blair, he cannot do this in front of the cameras. Tony Blair always looked assured and at ease on television. Love him or hate him, he often found just the right thing to say, whereas Gordon Brown looks wooden and uncomfortable, both on television and at Prime Minister's Question Time in Parliament.

Yet, who is the wiser of the two? The man whose hubris convinced him that he could pull off the invasion of Iraq, or the iron chancellor who presided over so many years of economic prosperity and - at the same time - managed to ease the burden of debt for poor people in Africa? It is Gordon Brown who often seemed better able to discern the difference between good and evil, which is why - in the end - he was able to ease his rival out of the way. How odd then that he now seems unable to govern people in the assured way that Solomon did.

I mustn't be partisan, so it's only fair to say that David Cameron and George Osbourne have their own approach to wise leadership. Barak Obama is interested in it, too. It's called 'libertarian paternalism', but that's just a complicated way of saying that they hope to nudge or influence people into making wiser choices. For instance, one way of nudging us towards better behaviour would be to give us a discount off our council tax if we agree to have our bins emptied less often. Another idea is to give us a cooling off period before we are allowed to borrow money. They also want our electric and gas bills to tell us how much the average customer pays, and to go back to the old system of giving tax incentives to couples who get married. All of these ideas do seem sensible, especially from a Christian point of view, but they're not exactly earth shattering. They won't deal with anti-social behaviour, knife crime or binge drinking. They don't really compare with the wisdom of Solomon.

But then perhaps we expect to much from our politicians. Some people have had to put up with leaders who were not only unwise but who could not discern the difference between good and evil at all, and who plunged their countries into turmoil as a result. Examples which come to mind are President Mugabe in Zimbabwe and President al-Bashir of the Sudan. And then there is Radovan Karadzic, a man so obsessed with ancient myths - about the little Serbian nation being threatened by the peril of Islam - that he was prepared to sanction mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing in order to create a pure Serbian state. Shamefully, Western diplomats parleyed with him - trying to work out a peaceful way of meeting his absurd demands. They included top-ranking politicians like Lord Carrington, Lord Owen, Lord Hurd and Sir Malcolm Rifkind. And equally shamefully, Christian monks have been some of the people who helped him to evade capture, which just goes to prove that it isn't only leaders who need to pray for wisdom and discernment.

One of the hallmarks of democracy is that we all have a part to play in making decisions, so we all need to able to discern between good and evil. And, in the life of the Christian community, we also need to be able to make wise choices that will help to build up the church, sustain its mission and proclaim the gospel. The problem, as always, is knowing the right thing to do. The Bible points us to the need to rely on prayer - in other words, to immerse ourselves in a relationship with God so intimate and strong that God's discernment of right and wrong will soak into our perception too.

Romans 8.26-39 is a beautiful summary of the unbreakable power of God's love, from which nothing can ever separate us. But this protection does not seem to be available to everyone. The passage begins by narrowing its focus down to those who have been called by God and who have received the gift of his Spirit, which overcomes our own weakness and gives us the discernment to know what God wants us to do. However, Paul seems to be saying that only the elect - chosen by God before the beginning of time - can enjoy this gift and experience this indestructible love.

At first sight, this would seem to be completely contrary to the teaching of the Methodist Church but, in his Notes on the New Testament, John Wesley argues that Paul is only describing here the step by step process by which God calls all human beings to follow him, because he has always intended the whole human race to be in the same kind of perfect relationship with him as Jesus, so that Jesus might be the firstborn Son of a very large family. Therefore, says Wesley in his commentary on this passage, all human beings have been justified by Jesus' death and the possibility of completely discerning God's mind, or being glorified, is also open to absolutely everyone.

When Paul talks about people being 'elect', Wesley says that the 'elect' doesn't mean an exclusive club of pre-determined lucky winners. It means everyone who has identified themselves with his chosen people - that is to say, everyone who has freely chosen to put their faith in Jesus. And Wesley justifies this claim by pointing out that, just as in the old covenant with Israel the Chosen People included everyone - good and bad alike, so God clearly chooses to include everyone in the new covenant, just so long as they are prepared to put their trust in Jesus.

You may think that Wesley is forcing Paul's words to fit his argument here, and that Paul actually did believe God has chosen some people to receive the Spirit, through faith in Jesus, and so to be able to discern the difference between good and evil and enter into a loving relationship with him, while others will never have that gift or enjoy that love and were never even intended to be part of God's People. Paul was certainly disappointed that so few Jewish people had adopted the Christian faith, and his talk of people needing to be chosen or elected by God in order to be put right with him, might be part of his explanation for why Jesus was so unpopular with his own countrymen and women.

But perhaps the difference between Paul and Wesley is not so great as it seems. Predestination - the idea that some people are destined before their birth to be in relationship with God while others are already destined to reject him - is not really about our freedom to choose. It's about God's ability to know, before they happen, what choices we will make.

The famous theologian Jurgen Moltmann has said that God is the Future, the destination to which everything in the universe is travelling, and he has argued that God has not yet made up his mind about that future. It's still wide open to change and development, and God still wills all things to opt into it and share the future with him. That's pretty much what John Wesley was arguing nearly three hundred years ago. But perhaps that's not incompatible with arguing that some people will still decide not to be part of the future and sometimes even we can glimpse who they might be.

Last week I heard a detective talking about cold cases on the radio. Cold cases are unresolved ones where the trail for evidence seems to have gone cold but, of course, new DNA evidence is allowing some of those cases to be reopened. He talked about the people who committed these crimes and he said that, broadly speaking, they fall into two groups. There are the people who feel guilty and troubled about what they have done, and who are always looking over their shoulder expecting to be caught. They are, perhaps, the sort of people who - no matter what they might have done in the past - are capable of changing and seeking redemption. But then, he said, there is another group who feel no remorse at all, because they convince themselves either that they never even committed the crime in the first place or that it wasn't their fault. 'If you really believe that you never did anything wrong, then you never have to worry about it,' he said. Perhaps that's how one murderer managed to be so surprised when he was finally arrested. 'You must be joking!' he told the arresting officers, even though the DNA evidence was stacked against him.

One suspects that Radovan Karadzic had convinced himself that he was innocent too, even while he was authorising his generals to shell civilians or carry out massacres. Despite all the reports to the contrary, he denied that he was doing anything wrong and portrayed himself as a man of culture, a poet and a healer who cared about the well being of other people.

Is that the kind of person who might be predestined to remain outside God's wonderful love? According to Wesley and Moltmann, even when people have convinced themselves that they are innocent of terrible crimes we can't say for certain what the future holds for them. Having to face a war crimes tribunal in the Hague is unlikely to bring Karadzic to his senses, but who can say what encountering the love of God might do?

The Kingdom parables in today's passage from Matthew's gospel do give us a hint as to what to expect from an encounter with God's way of doing things. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast have the same message as the parable of the sower. They remind us how much can be achieved, even by a very small nucleus of people, if they are inspired and guided by God's Spirit and act in God's power. We don't need the majesty of Solomon, or even the influence and status of a councillor or MP in order to influence the community in which we live. We can all subtlely act for good in the choices that we make and the causes we support and, in so doing, we can make a difference out of all proportion to our size as a Christian community - like a tiny lump of yeast mixed into three measures of flour or a tiny mustard seed growing into a huge bush where birds can hide and build their nests.

But then the next set of parables makes a different point. Is the person who finds the buried treasure, or the merchant who finds the pearl, meant to represent the ideal disciple, someone who hears the message of God's amazing love and devotes their whole life to following him? Or are the treasure and the pearl meant to represent you and I, diamonds in the rough whose true worth will only be recognised when we are discovered by someone who has as much discernment and love in their heart as God? Like the merchant or the treasure seeker, is God prepared to give up everything he has in order to save us from getting lost, because - being a true expert in human nature - he recognises our ultimate value? Or are the pearl and the treasure meant to represent things like the ability to discern good and evil? It's something that might not be immediately obvious to everyone, but it really is one of the most precious gifts we could ask for or hope to possess.

And, then, there's the story of the net full of fish - a story that is acted out in some of the traditions about Jesus. Is this another reminder of the openness of God's future. The fisherman in the story hasn't gone out looking for just one special kind of catch. He isn't using a pot or a line, with a particular kind of lure or bait to attract a particular species. Instead he's trawling for fish or reeling in an enormously long drift net, and as a result he scoops everything out of the water indiscriminately. We would now say, perhaps, that it's not a very environmentally friendly way of fishing. In fact, there is no attempt here to discern good from bad, edible from inedible, valuable from worthless. The fisherman simply winches in the lot, sails back to shore, and then gets his staff to sort the catch on the beach. The good fish are kept and the useless ones are thrown away.

This story is not unlike the story of the wheat and the tares. It could be seen as a warning that if we are worthless God's love will be withheld from us, but I think it's a story which bears out Wesley and Moltmann's understanding of God's grace. God has limitless ambition. He has chosen to save everything, if he possibly can. So he has set out to catch us all in his net, in the hope that - as the future unfolds - we will all discern where truth, goodness and value lie and commit ourselves to live for him. Then, all being well, none of us will need to be thrown away.

God is like an antique's dealer who has gradually amassed treasures old and new - things which other people might have felt were past their best, or out-of-date, or unlikely to catch-on, but which the dealer saw would be of lasting value. Like the fisherman, the antique dealer's motto is to hang onto things to see how they turn out over time.

But, of course there are bound to be some failures - some fish that simply never grow to the right size or some antique things that never become marketable. So we are reminded to make sure that we have understood all this, and that we really can discern the mind of God, and the difference between good and evil.

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