Sermon: "Beware Rationalization"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22
The past few days were perfect for ice-fishing, but the ice is rapidly melting. I endured the usual good-natured ribbing from my fishing friends as they speculated on the length of today’s sermon – given the time on the ice, consensus held it was bound to be short! I reminded my friends that Jesus’ first disciples were called from among fishermen; thus, if we are to hear God’s call, we should be fishing! See how easy it is to rationalize!
One of my former colleagues was enjoying a cheeseburger and fries. She remarked, “Look at this cholesterol bomb-burger!” I immediately replied, “Well Pat, think of it this way. If heaven is as wonderful as they say it is, you will arrive just a bit sooner!” She then informed me that she suspected I could rationalize anything. All that rationalization requires is a desire and a somewhat inventive mind!
Last Sunday we considered the challenge of maintaining a penitent heart and steadfast faith; Our Collect in part read: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son …” Given the ease of rationalization, we truly need penitent hearts and a steadfast faith.
This Sunday’s readings invite us to consider God’s gift of the Ten Commandments, the psalmist’s praise for God’s law, St. Paul’s emphasis on proclaiming Christ crucified as opposed to seeking signs or wisdom, and the story of Jesus’ cleansing the temple. As usual, the Collect provides a clue to the connections among these readings: “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. Let’s consider how these scriptures relate to rationalization.
Most people perceive the Ten Commandments as a list of prohibitions: Don’t murder; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; etc. In large part, we have no comprehension of the true significance of this moral code. The Hebrews escaped Egypt, miraculously crossed the Red Sea, and are encamped in the vicinity of Mt. Sinai. They are somewhat adrift as they no longer are subject to Egyptian laws and administration. If they are to survive and thrive, they need governance and a moral code.
God gave this code to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The first commandments remind the people of God’s deliverance and set forth the nature of God’s relationship to the people: “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol … You shall not bow down to them or worship them … You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God … Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy” (Exodus 20.1-8; NRSV). Larry Gillick notes the significance of this relationship as follows: “The whole historical relationship between God and Israel is summed up with God’s reminding the people who God is in their history, namely, the one who brought them out of the land and state of slavery. These ten laws are forms of living gratefully as the people who were saved. They are ways of respecting God’s presence in all of life’s relationships” (Emphasis mine) (https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/3LentB030721/reflections_gillick.html ).
Another commentator notes: “The commandments represent not just a set of rules but an ideal of a social order for which we are to give our lives, as Christ did on the cross” (Gerald Darring: https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/3LentB030721/reflections_justice.html ).
The last commandment is striking for it addresses the very root of violence – desire and our propensity to imitate others: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20.17; NRSV). The word translated as “covet” is the Hebrew “hamad” which means “to desire, to long for.” The New Jerusalem Bible Commentary (NJBC) “suggests that conspire is a better translation” (Haslam: http://www.montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/blnt3m.shtml ). When we conspire, we actively plot ways to obtain what we desire.
I have previously spoken of mimetic desire. In terms of mimetic desire, the Ten Commandments are “remarkably sophisticated … so sophisticated … in fact, that in its final injunction it forbids not only rivalrous and violent behavior but the covetousness that gives rise to rivalry and violence” (Gil Bailie: http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/lent3b/ ).
Having noted several characteristics and the significance of the Ten Commandments, let’s turn our attention to the appointed psalm. The psalmist begins by calling to mind God’s glory as revealed in the works of creation, then says, “The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul … The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes” (Psalm 19.7a, 8; BCP). The psalmist continues by praising the judgments of the Lord, then raises a question for us to ponder: “Who can tell how often he offends” (Psalm 19.12a; BCP)?
Rationalization comes so easily. We may not realize how effects our words and actions. The psalmist concludes: “Cleanse me from my secret faults. Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer” (Psalm 19.12b-14; BCP).
One of my favorite spiritual writers, Ron Rolheiser, Oblate, speaks of the ease with which we offend and rationalize in a meditation entitled Our One Great Fidelity:
The older I get, the more I see too how blind I am to my own hypocrisies and how weak and rationalizing is my human nature. I don't always know when I'm rationalizing, or biased, or following Christ properly. And, even when I do, I don't always have the strength or will to do what I know is right. And so I lean heavily on the invitation that Jesus left us on the night before he died, to break bread and drink wine in his memory and to trust that this, if all else is uncertain, is what I should be doing while I wait for him to return (https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/3LentB030721/reflections_rolheiser.html ).
Rolheiser wisely observes that “our one great fidelity” is partaking in the Eucharist. In this observance, this action, we can be faithful.
The gospel reading provides a good example of rationalization and of Jesus’ reaction to it. When Jesus went up to Jerusalem and entered the temple, “he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables” (John 2.14; NRSV). These activities were prohibited inside the confines off the temple. The activities themselves were not prohibited – indeed, they were meant to serve as a convenience for those coming to worship and to make a sacrifice. If one traveled some distance, one could not very well bring one’s own animal, so animals were available for purchase. As the coinage of the realm bore Caesar’s image, it was considered unholy. Hence, it needed to be converted to shekels. Over time, and undoubtedly with considerable rationalization, these operations moved inside the confines of the temple, and the system was abused through exorbitant exchange rates.
In response to these actions, Jesus braided a whip with which he drove the sheep and the cattle out of the temple; he then overturned the tables of the money changers. With a bit of imagination one can see the moneychangers on their hands and knees as they scrambled to recover their money, and if possible, a bit of someone else’s money. We are sometimes a bit shocked at Jesus’ actions. They seem to violate our understanding of who Jesus was and of how he acted. Eleanor Stump, a noted Catholic philosopher, comments on Jesus’ actions as follows:
In doing this he helps us understand how to apply the rules. In cases where turning the other cheek would make your enemy worse instead of better, loving your enemy requires helping him to stop his evil in some other way. And that is why the same Christ who gave the Sermon on the Mount drives out the moneychangers. If he had turned the other cheek to them, he would have been an enabler of their evil. Instead, it is good for them, as well as for others, that they stop the evil they were doing. And so Christ uses force to get them to stop (https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/3LentB030721/reflections_stump.html ).
Stump further points to a medieval saying, “Every act of Christ is a teaching for us,” and reminds us that “Christ’s life and actions, as they are set out in the Gospels, are our best help for seeing how to live our lives well. Our best instruction manual is Christ himself” (Ibid.).
When confronted with temptation, we are prone to rationalize. “Who can tell how often we offend?” I am sure Jesus was tempted to rationalize. Would there really be any harm in turning one of these little stones into bread? Jesus resisted. He is our exemplar and teacher. Like Jesus, we may find times when we are called to exercise a very tough and demanding love, to call one another to account. We need to support one another in resisting the urge to rationalize. We need to strengthen our desire to live as God would have us live.
I close with a prayer from Thomas Merton, a prayer which stresses the importance of right desire:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”