Do the Right Thing
July 16, 2000
Matthew 7:21-29 The Rev. Carol DiBiasio-Snyder
Quite a few years ago Spike Lee make a movie called Do The Right Thing. Did you see it? It was a controversial film about poverty, relationships, racism, trust, violence, stereotyping, and life in New York's Bedford- Stuyvesant. Reviewers I read disagreed on just what this young film maker was saying. So did the people with whom I saw the movie. Who in the movie was doing the right thing? What was the right thing? While the movie characters were living in conditions very different from ours, most of us, like them, are all struggling in the same way -- that is, in the words that we say, in the decisions that we make and in the actions that we take, we're all trying to do the right thing.
Sometimes the right thing is obvious and easy. If the person with whom you are walking trips and falls, you instinctively reach out to assist them, if your daughter skins her knee and runs to you for comfort and first aid, you give it to her, if the store clerk mistakenly gives you a quarter too much change, it is easy to give it back -- Sometimes doing the right thing is obvious and easy.
Other times doing the right thing is obvious but difficult. If the store clerk gives you $10.00 too much change, if you are with a group of friends and someone makes a racist joke, if you find out a co-worker you like has been stealing at work, if your spouse is an alcoholic and you really want him or her to face that -- sometimes doing the right thing is obvious but difficult.
Often, even trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, can be painfully difficult. It may be anything but obvious and choices must be made without really knowing whether or not it is the right thing. When a family member is critically ill, and decisions have to be made concerning connecting them to life support systems, when your teenage son wants to go with some friends to a rock concert in Milwaukee, when your best friends tell you that after 23 years their marriage is ending, when your 14 year old daughter is pregnant -- trying to figure out the right thing can be painfully difficult.
The first part of today's Gospel reading is terribly disturbing. Let me repeat it, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of God who is in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'" Wow! Those are strong words. They are what Thomas Long calls, "some of the most frightening of all the words of Jesus."
My mind races with questions: Why was Jesus so hard on these people? They had done some pretty spectacular things, were they hypocrites and that is their evil? Isn't there room for forgiveness here? Or, were they well-intentioned? Had they been sincere in what they were doing, but wrong? If that is so, isn't sincerity enough? Isn't it better to do the right thing for the wrong reason, than not to do the right thing at all? Don't they get some credit for at least the results of their actions, even if the intentions are not the best? Am I one of those who say, "Lord, Lord" and will find I am not welcomed by Christ?
In doing some reading on the idea of sincerity, I found a variety of opinions on the question of whether it is better to do the right thing, whether you are sincere or not -OR- whether it is better to be sincere, whether or not you are doing the right thing. Listen to some of these views:
Charlie Brown's creator starts us off, "The way I see it, it doesn't matter what you believe, just so you're sincere." He must have read Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, "Every sincere man is right." But they would have an argument on their hands if they met up with Henry Ward Beecher or Billy Graham. Graham makes the point that, "The Devil is sincere, but he is sincerely wrong." And Beecher remarked,
It is often said it is no matter what a man believes, if he is only sincere. But let a man sincerely believe that seed planted without ploughing is as good as with, that January is as favorable for seed sowing as April, and that cockle seed will produce as good a harvest as wheat, and is it so?
For some, having the right intention is enough. For others, that may be honorable, but it is not enough, since there remains a question about being both sincere and wrong. For some the sincerity cancels being wrong. For others it does not.
The passage does not indicate whether those who are rejected are sincere or not. The point seems to be that they did not do the right thing. Jesus refuses them because they did not do God's will. They may have done spectacular things, but they weren't what God had in mind.
This seems a little unfair to me. I find it often difficult to know just what it is God wants me to do! I haven't received any written instructions lately, have you? Or have we?
Looking at the parable Jesus tells might help us. It is the familiar parable about the wise person who digs deeply to build a house on a good foundation of solid rock, and the foolish person who builds a house in a pleasant sandy hollow. When the rain falls and floods rise and the winds blow the house built on the rock survives, but the house built on the sand is toppled by a raging torrent of rushing water, it cannot stand.
Jesus makes it plain what the good foundation is. It is in the hearing and most importantly DOING of his teaching. He says, "Everyone who hears these words and does them will be like . . ." and then he says, "Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like . . ." This parable brings Jesus' teachings grouped in what we call the Sermon on the Mount to a close. The Sermon on the Mount -- those three wonderfully practical, terribly direct chapters in Matthew about what it means to be a follower of Christ. And it is these words to which Jesus refers when he tells this parable.
So it seems we do have some written instructions and I'm afraid that many of them come under the second category I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon -- when doing the right thing is obvious, but difficult. Jesus did not mince words in the Sermon on the Mount. It is our living out these words that will form the strong foundation upon which we will build all else in our lives.
The stability of a whole house rests on the condition of its foundation. The stability of a person's life rests on the condition of his or her foundation. It is not simply a matter of how sincerely the foundation is built. The person who built the house on the sand may have been even more sincere than the person who built the house on the rock. In the times of crisis and storm, when the rains and floods and winds have done their damage, the reason one house stands and not the other has more to do with the building materials than with the motives of the builder.
Jesus seems to say, "If you want a faith that is more than just a flash in the pan, more than just casting out demons and dramatic ministry, if you want to have a life that will truly mean something, if you want to have something that will weather the storms of tragedy, hopelessness, fear, loneliness, adversity, sickness, pain, and crisis, if you want a faith that will serve you over the long haul, then listen to my words and follow my teachings."
To survive whatever life throws our way, we must as individuals and as a church build our lives on the foundation of the Sermon on the Mount; on mercy, meekness, peacemaking, purity of heart, extravagant forgiveness, radical love of enemies and diligent seeking of God's reign of justice and righteousness. This is a tall order and thinking about trying to live this kind of life brings me back to questions about sincerity, intentions and motivations.
Clearly, from various teachings, many of them in this group of teachings, Jesus thinks our intentions are VERY important. He says that lust is as bad as adultery, hate as bad as murder, and he tells parables about insincere Pharisees at prayer. What motivates us, what is behind our actions is important to Christ. In addition, Jesus' teachings also emphasize doing what we say. He tells us to judge a tree by its fruit. For me, all these things come under the general category of integrity.
Now maybe I am rationalizing, maybe I just want to let myself off the hook, but I believe that while sincerity is a worthy goal, and I believe that doing something for the right reasons is a good goal, a Christ-like goal, we can never achieve it completely. I find my motives are always a mixture of good, right, pure ones, and self-serving, tainted ones. And I've come to believe this is realistically how they will always be. I can strive, and should strive, to have them be as virtuous as possible, but since I am human and not perfect, I believe that I will always struggle with mixed motives.
Perhaps the sincerity comes in wanting to have my intentions be as honorable as possible, and striving for that. So if I give my time to community service because I truly believe this is part of following the way of Christ that gives me a deep sense of satisfaction, and yet I also give time to community service because it gives me a sense of importance, and I want other people to think well of me for doing it, SO BE IT! Better I do it with mixed reasons, than not at all. Still, I must keep reaching for the goal of doing things for the right reasons.
Well, in the end, I think I have raised more questions than I have answered today. And I may sound like I'm asserting that Jesus was saying we better do the right thing, or else. And, in a way, maybe he was. But let me put it in a different perspective with a story from Anne Tyler's novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. An elementary school child asks his mother one day, "Mother, if it turned out that money grew on trees, just for one day and never again, would you let me stay home from school to pick it?" His mother tells him that she would not. He is puzzled and wonders why she would refuse to let him take advantage of this one-day spree. She says that his education is more important. "Other kids' mothers would let them, I bet," the child counters. "Other kids' mothers don't have plans for their children to amount to something," she replies. Connecting this story to the Bible, Thomas Long writes, "The [teachings of Jesus] are gifts from a [God] who wants us to amount to something. They are not the trivial demands of a fussy teacher. ('Write your name at the top of the paper, not the bottom. Write only on one side of the paper.') They are the secrets about what makes life human: love of God and neighbor. We weren't made for the sake of the commandments, the commandments were made for us."
When I try with varying degrees of success and failure to figure out what it means to do the right thing, and when I try with varying degrees of success and failure actually to do the right thing, I am eternally grateful that our God is one who judges fairly, who forgives extravagantly and who give us more chances to try again than we could imagine or even count! Amen.