FAITHFUL IN LITTLE, FAITHFUL IN MUCH
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Texts: Jeremiah 8: 19-9:3; Luke 16: 1-15
I’ve gotten into the habit of judging people by what they will not do – it looks like it’s the opposite of the “faithful in little, faithful in much” approach to life, but not really. For instance, I’ve noticed how often people will not let a driver come into a lane on a busy road near a stoplight. Look at Route 35, for instance, you know the area over by Laurel Road, where the exit from the Barnes & Noble shopping area --ooh! Listen to that way of describing the whatever shopping center it is.
Well, say the light is red and you want to come onto 35 and the lanes are crowded. How long do you have to wait? Five cars? Ten cars? More than five minutes? Now, how difficult is it to let someone into the lane? I’ll argue that those who are not faithful in little are also not faithful in much. We’ve all been caught in that situation: either the car waiting to get in or the car that won’t let the other one in. We could have not even seen it -- or it could have been a bad hair day.
So, just what are the little things we are supposed to be faithful in? We’re coming down the home stretch in Luke’s Gospel and somehow, I think, if we haven’t gotten the message yet, I’m not sure whether we will get it. The United States is ostensibly the most Christian nation on earth; a higher percentage of our population goes to church than in any other country that is historically Christian. If you are skeptical, just look at the numbers who actually attend church in England or Germany or even Italy, for that matter. However, only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments; 12 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife; and more than half cannot tell you what the Beatitudes are, not to mention who said them.
The radical right has taken this statement of Jesus and turned it into a sermon on obtaining wealth. But, let’s look at the obverse: whoever is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. It’s what we call in law the slippery slope argument. It permits a government to come up with a term, any term, such as enhanced interrogation techniques instead of being honest about what is actually happening: torture.
Torture has moved a long way from pulling out fingernails -- something our School of the Americas taught Guatemalan and Salvadoran army forces to do very effectively. Forcing a person to stand without moving for eight to ten to twelve hours causes swelling in the lower legs, the drain of blood from the brain downwards, and will cause the excruciating pain. Total isolation in the dark or in bright lights without any change will disorient a person so badly that there is a total lack of awareness of time, space, even logical thought.
But we need not go to such extreme examples. Each one of us has had to face our own slippery slope of descent into faithlessness. Each of us has committed some small action, from the seemingly ridiculous example of not letting a car into the lane onto 35, to more serious examples of lack of care for the other person. I think that is what Jesus is talking about here -- how easy it is to brush aside something because it doesn’t seem to matter, but in the end that it does.
Is there no balm in Gilead? What kind of physician do we need to provide the healing either nationally or personally? What kind of insight is necessary to heal our sin-sick souls, as the old song goes? How do we go through the process of discernment as we make these decisions about our personal behavior and our national policies?
First, do no harm. It’s the old statement from the Hippocratic oath, but one that applies across the board. First, do no harm. There are several kinds of harm. There is the physical harm to others, of course, but there is also the spiritual harm we do to ourselves, consequences of our actions or inaction. It’s always easier to figure out the consequences of actions rather than of inaction. Inaction always seems more innocuous and its results are more difficult to measure.
Next, consider the consequences. By this, I mean, think about the results the action or inaction has on our souls. Remember souls? How is it that we feel when we don’t let that person into the lane? Upset with ourselves? Justified because each of us has been the person trying to get onto 35 and someone else has not let us in? What are a few seconds? We’re not the local ambulance. As an aside, I am often stunned at how many drivers don’t even pull over for a flashing ambulance light. Are we so important?
Then, consider the alternative. Not as easy as it at first seems. Letting someone into the lane is easy, but there are many times when our decisions are far more difficult. Several weeks ago a law student in the “Ethicist “column in the Sunday New York Times debated whether he should take a job with a corporation whose policies he opposed in order to get enough money to pay off his student loans.
Having been a law student with student loans, I read the response by the so-called ethicist Anthony Appiah. The response was appalling to my way of thinking. Instead of being like Jeremiah, who called out priests and kings without fear, he slid down into the mud.
To paraphrase, it attempted to justify the student working for a polluter by commenting that the adversarial system required people to work on many sides of a legal issue. So, go ahead, and sell your soul.
What hogwash! The adversarial system does not require me to work for polluters, big Pharma, or a whole host of other really disgusting people or companies that need lawyers. Unfortunately, there are always more than enough people who become lawyers only for the money and really don’t give a hoot or a holler about justice, righteousness, or morality.
We may shrug this off because we do not seem to be directly affected. But we are. These kinds of tactics are part of the slippery slope. We should remember Martin Niemoller’s statement made when asked what happened in Germany. First, they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a Communist; then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew; then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist;; then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up because I was a Protestant; and then they came for me and there was no one left to speak up. Sounds a bit dramatic, but the germ of truth is there.
It’s all related. It’s the shortcut mentality that we have fallen into. It’s the bottom-line result oriented approach to life that seems to have taken over our thinking. What is the balm? What kind of healing do we need to help us think through these issues and to help us discern the best way to address them in our lives? I wish I could offer an easy formula. That’s why the slopes are slippery -- there are no easy formulae, just the difficult process of analysis, situation by situation. We have to prayerfully consider each situation as it occurs and hope we have made the right decision. Some are easier than others, like letting the car in. Others are more difficult.
Let us pay: Grant us wisdom, O God, to see the slippery slope and not to slide down into the mud. In the name of the One who shows us your wisdom, eve Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.