When I was in seminary, I’d a friend who had spent a significant time in the Army before he discovered a vocation to the priesthood and came to seminary. Because of his years in the Army, he’d picked up on a saying, which seemed applicable for many situations, and he used to joke about it. Here’s the saying: “The minimum is good enough; otherwise it wouldn’t be the minimum.”
Unfortunately, there is a tendency, a very human tendency to apply that maxim to a wide variety of human endeavors. Especially it seems to be in vogue when it comes to dealing with what should be questions concerning moral and ethical theology. If “the minimum is good enough, otherwise it wouldn’t be the minimum,” then discourse about right and wrong become a conversation about “what can a person get away with” and still preserve the appearance of moral decency.
Because human beings have a marvelous capacity to rationalize almost anything, it is easy to lose track of synteresis. Synteresis is what ethicists call the fundamental human sense of what is right and wrong. Synteresis is not particular to either revealed or applied theology. It is more the innate sense within that has to do with right and wrong and a human desire to seek that which is good and that which is positive. In the imagery Saint John’s Gospel, it is to be drawn towards the light not the darkness. Because of the human tendency towards rationalization, when synteresis is clouded, discussions about right and wrong devolve into what’s called ethical relativism, or what the ethicist Daniel Maguire called the muddle on the moralscape.
“The minimum is good enough, otherwise it wouldn’t be the minimum.”
Jesus’ ethics transcend this. He pointed out in Matthew 5:20 that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. And while this is one of those difficult sayings of Jesus, for we are left to wonder how we might accomplish such a thing in contemporary life, those scribes and Pharisees had, in fact reduced the requirements of the Torah to the minimalistic standards. So although they lived out the minimum requirements of the Law from a legalistic view, they were far, far indeed from the Spirit of the Law.
One way in which they had done that was to separate the notion of holiness from righteousness. They saw holiness as being set apart, cutting themselves off from the wickedness of the world, and they reduced righteousness to being a complex system of legal requirements to be met, rather than being a living relationship between God and man.
Yet, even in the Torah, the Law, the religion of the Old Testament, there were ways in which holiness and righteousness were knit together: that is demonstrated in the first lesson today. “You shall be holy,” says the Lord. But the way to holiness is to love justice and to do acts of mercy to provide for the downtrodden and those in need. “You shall not reap to the edge of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip the vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard: you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.
The ethics of Jesus are based on a foundation of love. That is reflected in today’s gospel. Today’s Gospel is particularly a warning about not catering to the desire for revenge. As an aside, I am reminded of the old proverb: “If you go for revenge, dig two graves one for your adversary and one for you.”
The collect also reminds us about the importance of love by reminding us in no uncertain terms that all our deeds, without love, are meaningless and worthless.
If the minimum is good enough, then I suppose we have to identify that in Jesus’ terms the minimum is the ethic of love: love that goes the extra mile, love that turns the other cheek; love that looks down from the cross and prays, “Father forgive them.”