Sunday, September 1, 2019
Why Live 'The Good Life'? (22.C)
A homily on a holiday weekend ought to be fairly short. That’s what I’m aiming for, but I want to try an answer to a very big question: why be good?
Over the centuries, both pagan philosophers and Christian thinkers have offered two basic answers to the question. And those two answers create two basic approaches to what we call morality or right moral living.
The first we can call the morality of obligation. We live in a certain way because we’re supposed to. We act in a certain way because God says so—or because our parents or society tell us to.
The second we can call the morality of happiness. We choose to live in a certain way because we think it’s the path to happiness.
In his highly-readable book Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, moral theologian William C. Mattison III says it’s tempting to think that the morality of obligation is the Christian or religious perspective, and the morality of happiness, the pagan understanding. In fact, he says, there are pagan philosophers and Christian theologians on both sides of the question.
Where do you stand? Do you try to live a moral life because God tells you to do so? Or are you striving to be good because you believe virtue is its own reward?
The Scriptures today help us find answers. But before we look at them, I want to tell you two stories.
The first is about a fellow from Ireland who wrote to a pastor in Manhattan looking for some advice. “Dear Father,” he wrote, “Can a young man live a Christian life in New York City on two hundred dollars a week?”
The priest replied, “Young man, that’s the only kind of life you can live in New York City on two hundred dollars a week.”
The humour in the story, of course, comes from the assumption that the Christian life’s not much fun.
The other story’s a true one. It’s the story of one of the most brilliant men in the 20th century, someone few people under seventy know anything about. General Douglas MacArthur was an American five-star general who was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific during much of World War II.
MacArthur is most famous for the words “I shall return,” the promise he made to the people of the Philippines as his troops withdrew in the face of a superior enemy army, a promise which he kept two years later.
But history has many great generals. MacArthur fascinates me because of his role in post-war Japan. His power was so absolute that one biographer called him the American Caesar. Almost single-handedly, with little direction from the Allied powers, he reshaped the Japanese political culture and economy.
If you had to bet which World War II general would become president, the smart money was on MacArthur, not on the unassuming Dwight Eisenhower. In fact, MacArthur never came close.
There were many reasons why MacArthur’s later life fulfilled his own sad words “Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away,” but the chief one was his lack of humility. He started to believe his own press releases. He thought that he knew more than the elected president, Harry S Truman, and began to ignore him.
MacArthur was dead before Mac Davis sang “Oh Lord it's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way.” But I wonder if he ever heard the words of today’s first reading, “the greater you are, the more you must humble yourself.”
A humble MacArthur would have made a great president.
Two stories, two perspectives on morality. The morality of obligation, and the morality of happiness. Be good because God tells you to, or be good because your life will have a better and happier outcome. What’s the right perspective? Is heaven the reward for good behavior, or is virtue its own reward?
Our three readings this morning support both ways of thinking. The answer is both/and not either/or.
The first half of today’s Gospel comes down firmly on the side of “virtue is its own reward.” Humble behavior, not taking the place of honour, spares the banquet guest from a huge embarrassment. You might even say that humility avoids humiliation. More than that, the humble decision to take the lowest place makes it possible to be honoured in front of all the other guests.
But in the second half of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus takes us in the other direction. The humble host who invites the outcast to his table will not receive an immediate reward but will be repaid in heaven.
The first reading also offers both perspectives. In the first verse, Sirach says “perform your tasks with humility; then you will be loved.” In the second verse, he adds “you will find favour in the sight of the Lord.”
These scriptures focus on one virtue, humility, but their lessons apply to all aspects of our lives.
If you’re trying to be good mainly because God says you must, it might be good to think over the blessings that brings to your life. And if your rule of life is based on what seems most likely to make for a happy life, it might be good to think about the ultimate reward in the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, where the righteous will gather with the angels and saints.
Living the moral life, following the commandments and Christ’s teaching, is both a morality of obligation and a morality of happiness. It’s a path to heaven and to happiness on earth.