Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

Homily – 14 April 2013 – What Would Jesus Do?

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Easter 3 – April 14, 2103 – What Would Jesus Do?

Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Psalm 30:2,4-6,11-13; Rev 5:11-14; John 21:1-19 (or up to 14)

I was at a church meeting recently where a teenager asked a question about a certain issue — “What would Jesus do?” The answer can only be a guess. We can only imagine what Jesus might do when confronted with the ethical issues of today.

Where do we learn to make ethical decisions?  I had to go to the best sources to get the answer. The other night I asked three young members of my family (in the 6th, 8th, and 10th grades) what were the big problems in their schools. They said — bullying, drug abuse and cheating. I also learned that PDA was short for “public display of affection” – another problem in schools. I thought it meant personal digital assistant!

I then asked how did they learned to know right from wrong. Andrew, Emily and Ryan agreed in this order: 1) parents, 2) common sense (or figuring it out for themselves), 3) maybe in church and 4) a commandment or two. Their response is interesting. We cannot identify ethics with religion only. Ethics is not only for people who are religious. Ethical issues are the responsibility of all people whether or not they practice a religion. [1] So what does the bible have to do with ethical decisions? 

In today’s first reading we heard about the authorities prohibiting the disciples from teaching what Jesus taught. The neophyte Christians boldly answered they would be obedient to God and not to laws devised by humans. This was an important declaration. Creating a new identity was a struggle for the early church. What would rally them together? According to moral philosopher Dov Seidman  — a set of “common beliefs or values” binds groups together. Religious belief systems prescribe that we act in a certain way toward one another [2] even though others may not agree .

Maybe this explains the polarization we observe in Congress, our nation and our religions. There is not much clear-across-the-board agreement about major moral issues: health care, birth control, gun control, war, same sex marriage, immigration, abortion. The fact is we human beings do not agree on everything. Frequently, to strengthen arguments, dissimilar groups will actually quote from the bible using different interpretations of the same texts! Learning to compromise is difficult. What would Jesus do?!

A group of Protestant churches recently released a Formula of Agreement. The report stated 1) scripture does not always shed direct light on contemporary questions, 2) every verse and passage stands in the entire wisdom of the bible and 3)  science and other modern sources of wisdom illuminate our reading of scripture. Scripture shapes and forms our identity, our imagination, our language, and our moral development.” [3] That’s what the biblical texts can do for us.

But … the bible is not a moral handbook. You cannot go to the index and look up information on, e.g., pre-marital sex, and find an direct “yes or no” answer to a specific contemporary moral dilemma. “Biblical interpretation requires that we use our brains as well. Faithful interpretation asks about the biblical languages and cultures. It takes account of the historical and social settings in which biblical books were composed and developed.” [4]

Just last week, while addressing the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Pope Francis taught that the Word of God embraces and extends beyond Scripture. He said the presence of the holy Spirit is necessary to properly understand it. [5]

So, is it a fair question to ask “what would Jesus do?” The gospel today was a late addition to the text but still provides us with a lesson. After failing to catch any fish, the disciples who cowardly abandoned Jesus at his trial and execution, found Jesus, standing on the shore “ready to greet them with breakfast and total forgiveness.” [6] That’s what Jesus did. We might say then that making ethical decisions today requires respect for all human beings no matter who they are or what they may have done to us.

Why pursue this question about ethics? This afternoon our teenagers will be discussing how to make ethical decisions. Perhaps we adults could get together sometime in the future to have the same conversation — how do we make ethical decisions?

______

1 Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer. “What is Ethics?” Markula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/whatisethics.html

2 Seidman, Dov. How: Why We Do Anything Means Everything (NY: Wiley) 2007, 72

3 Formula of Agreement, 01/07/13. Browse http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Office-of-the-Presiding-Bishop/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations.aspx

4 Carey, Greg. “The Bible and Our Moral Lives” in Huff Post, 01/14/13

5 Pope Francis to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Vatican Information Services, Vatican City, April 12, 2013

6 Judith, Walloon, Australia in catholica.com.au, 04/13/13

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Author: Richard S. Vosko

Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA, is an internationally known sacred space planner. He is a presbyter in the Diocese of Albany who enjoys the classroom as much as the pulpit. On Sundays he presides at worship at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY. For more information on Vosko’s background, his projects, publications and speaking engagements please go to his website. For his homilies and occasional musings about religion, art and architecture go to his blog. Comments, questions and suggestions are always welcomed there.

5 thoughts on “Homily – 14 April 2013 – What Would Jesus Do?

  1. Oddly today’s homily got me to think of the Georgia Guidestone, built in 1979 by an anonymous benefactor (some say Ted Turner but that seems unlikely). There is what some consider a controversial inscription on the structure written in English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Russian. The inscription reads:

    1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
    2. Guide reproduction wisely – improving fitness and diversity.
    3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
    4. Rule passion – faith – tradition – and all things with tempered reason.
    5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
    6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
    7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
    8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
    9. Prize truth – beauty – love – seeking harmony with the infinite.
    10. Be not a cancer on the earth – Leave room for nature – Leave room for nature.

    Sound advice but the first item is where most of the controversy seems to originate, the so called climax event where the population of the planet, by natural and/or man-made means, is reduced to 500,000,000 from the current +7,000,000,000.

    I won’t bore you with details but a Google search would provide plenty of information. I’ll leave it to the reader to make any interpretation. For me it’s simply a monument with nonetheless sound advice engraved on it.

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  2. Thank you for making clear the distinction that ethics are not only for the religious… This is sadly lost by many who are religious who think that they have all the answers. I heard a radio news story on NPR last night, about an atheist who made a pilgrimage in France. Something that he said struck me profoundly – “I set out with a zillion questions in my head, and I didn’t come back with a lot of answers; I came back with more questions. But I really do think that the question is the answer.”

    That in an of itself is not an ethical issue, but it reminds me that we must not always orient ourselves in a dualistic manner, but rather to see the larger questions, and as Rilke advised, live those questions.

    That, it seems, is so often what Jesus did.

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  3. The expression “what would Jesus do” has always bothered me. It seems like its in the wrong tense: It should read: “What DID Jesus do.”
    I see at the end of your blog that you do reference the “did” vs. “would” issue. From that position we have all had the opportunity read scripture, live the faith, and look for the ethical decision to made in our lives.
    It was refreshing to see the younger folks in your family saw their role models to be their parents and their own experiences. They also included Church which does tell their parents that what they’re doing is working… I really would have liked to have seen their teachers given honorable-mention. I think our youth learn Ethics (decisions that generate consequences) are often how many educators set the tone in their class room.
    Being that I come from a Business background I can only call on what I learned in one particualr class “Behavioral science in Business Decision making” – The author Immanuel Kant comes to mind. Being an 18th century phiolosopher he positioned the science of morality around that fact humanity has the resources of freedom and reason. When interacting with people in business, church, socially, or on the playing field we have the duty to respect other people as human beings and to promote their ability to realize their desired potential or goals. From the deontological perspective Kant was a desciple of the belief that Duty was more important than the Result!!
    Nice theory but in the business world of today – Results are King, and not so much Duty.. While we wait for congress to address compromises and pass laws I truly believe that the politicians think that jargoning, filibustering, and going on boondoggles are just part o their DUTY….. Where are the RESULTS?? Boy, did I ever get “off point” on this one. In the end I guess it all comes down to Virtue Ethics – What’s the character of the person perfoming the action? We can all agree that there was none finer than Jesus!

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  4. Hi Dick, We are in New Orleans at my brother Jim’s house but yesterday morning we were in Cullman, Alabama at the St. Bernard’s Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery. They used to run a college there and that is where Don played ball and went to class. We went to reminisce. It was the saddest, most joyless Sunday liturgy! The homily was something we heard in second grade and we ached for the monks there who seemed totally lifeless and depressed. The paint was chipping off of all the buildings where Don used to attend school. Anyway, it was a treat to be able to read this. Thanks. Ruth

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    • donandruthsmith, are these the “totally lifeless and depressed” monks of which you speak? They look pretty vivacious and joyful to me! The number of vocations they’re getting speaks volumes: Orthodox communities like St. Bernard Abbey are thriving, while the heterodox communities of the 1960s and 70s are falling by the wayside. This is not an accident.

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