Profiting from the Prophets Part Two

5 September 1999

Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Rom. 13: 8-10; Matt. 18: 15-20

This sermon is a follow-on from last week's sermon, so it's called Profiting from the Prophets Part Two.

For the sake of those who missed last week, here is a very short resumé of it.

The prophets were men and women who spoke, almost without exception, to the people of their own day and culture. they weren't soothsayers or futurologists, from whom they kept a good distance. Very occasionally they might be inspired by the Holy Spirit to proclaim (like Micah, for instance) that the Saviour would be born in Bethlehem of Judaea.

Far more often, however, they found themselves called by God to speak out (that's what the word Prophecy means) to the people amongst whom they were living, about things which were happening there and then. Their message, though it was often in clean contradiction to the more popular soothsayers and spin-doctors of the day, was as often a message of hope as it was of criticism.

Now, let's take the matter one stage further.

Much of what the prophets talked about had to do with people's personal behaviour and what we might call the permanent values by which it is intended by God that we should live. If you look at any civilization or society or sub-section of society you will find that, in contrast to what is popularly believed, the values that all societies hold in common with each other outnumber the ones where they differ by a factor of several hundred to one.

Even when they do differ there is usually some straightforward explanation for the difference. A simple example the is ban on eating pork which exists amongst Jews and Moslems. It stems from the fact that in hot climates when there is no refrigeration, bacteria like salmonella multiply much faster in pork than they do in, say, lamb or beef, and are therefore much more likely to give people food-poisoning. So in those societies a ban on pork makes good sense, even if today refrigeration has made it redundant.

But these exceptions to the rule about permanent, universal values are few and far between, and it needs very little acquaintance with the human race to make us realise that "Permanent Values" really are permanent.

But to say that something is "permanent" is very different from saying that it's "inborn" or "self-evident". We don't expect dogs and cats to be born house-trained. We train them. We don't expect horses to be rideable the moment they're strong enough to carry someone on their back. We break them in. The values which make both horses and dogs useful to us are values which have been instilled or inculcated by man.

This is even more obvious in the case of human beings themselves with their much greater potential for good and evil than either horses or dogs. Babies are born with a mass of potential, and as near as dammit no values at all. Baby does what baby's body suggests at any given moment. The whole process of developing the human personality and potential consists in teaching every individual, one by one, to acquire these "permanent values".

Now where on earth can we get these values from other than from people who have themselves learnt them in the first place? It might just happen, I suppose, that a man might go into a church for the first time, see the Ten Commandments on the board above the altar and suddenly say to himself "Good heavens, I've been committing adultery for the past 20 years without realising that it was wrong!"

Possible, but not very likely. Far more certain to "convict" him of the wrong he has done is if someone, spouse, friend, brother, sister or parish priest takes him on one side and, as Jesus suggested, "has it out with him"; or like Ezekiel in the first reading suggests, "warns a wicked man to renounce and amend his ways." Even if he doesn't repent (and of course there's no guarantee that he will) at least he will stand convicted.

It looks then, does it not, that there is a whole code of right behaviour, varying little from one age or civilization to another, that everyone needs to learn and practise. In order for people to learn it, it's necessary for them to have teachers who both know what they're talking about, who practise what they preach, and who have the gift of communicating their wisdom to others.

And that's just the point where the whole process of inculcating permanent values breaks down from time to time. We are going through a such a period of crisis in moral teaching right at this moment.

For not only do many of today's teachers fail to practise what they preach – which can sometimes be alleviated if not overcome by the "Do-as-I-say-but-don't-do-as-I-do" approach. Even if that is far from the ideal it at least gets one side of the equation, the permanent value, right in people's minds.

Far worse than that, however, is the problem that for many years now even well-educated people people have never been taught even the basic rudiments of moral philosophy, with the result that few of them have any idea of how to work out what is right and what is wrong in the first place.

So here, to start you off are some very simple rules about how to educate ourselves into being morally literate and therefore able to pass on the "Permanent values" to others.

Rule Number One: Don't begin by thinking about hard cases Let them come up later when you've had some practice with the easier ones. So don't worry about whether it's morally right, for instance, for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family who have already been refused assistance by their friends, their neighbours and the local community. Take instead the much simpler case of how to answer the ordinary common or garden shoplifter who tries to justify his or her behaviour on the grounds that "supermarkets have plenty more where that came from" or "because they're so rich anyway that they won't notice if a little goes missing every now and then"

Rule Number Two: Study the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the epistles of St Paul, especially the passage which we heard this morning, and the writings of good men and women throughout history and try and work out what moral principle lies behind each thing they are recorded as having said. Ask yourself, for instance, why it's so important to take part in at least one act of corporate worship every week, as Christians have insisted we should do from Day One; or whether there are things we can steal from people besides their material possessions: their reputation? their health? their happiness? their future?

Rule Number Three: Never be afraid to ask someone else's advice if you're not certain whether you should do something or not. Many wrong moral decisions today are taken, for example, on the principle of "What Feels Good" or "What Everyone Today Does". Neither if these is a reliable guide to the moral goodness or otherwise of a particular course of action. How often could people be headed off from moral disaster by some friend or relation, speaking prophetically, who says to them "I don't think that's a very good idea" or, better still "Why not do it this way rather than the way you are proposing"

If anyone follows these three simple Rules most moral dilemmas resolve themselves quite simply. It's here, in particular, that a thorough grounding in the Prophets really pays dividends – profits in other words.

For the stock-in-trade of the Prophet in this, as in every bygone age, are what we have been calling Permanent Values – values which don't change because they have come to us from a God who doesn't change, who has spoken to us "by the mouth of his holy prophets which have been since the world began"

Or, as one such prophet so neatly put it: For the best results, follow the Maker's instructions.

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