The Stuff of Life | Ancient Wisdom: Ethics and Ethos

As I mentioned last week, I was challenged in a good way by a CrossWalker who wondered if any or all of our talk about giving was simply based on self-interest from a business perspective.  Since we have bills to pay and we count on contributions to cover those bills, do we therefore offer courses on financial management so that our people will be better equipped to donate to the church?  This didn’t sit well with him – it sounded suspect, I think, and it should.  It’s not that we don’t have needs as a church – we obviously do.  But if our asking for donations is simply about keeping the place open, we actually violate our core purpose as a church.  We exist, first and foremost, to bring about resurrection, restoration, and renewal in our members and in our world with the power of God witnessed in Jesus.  We work hard to invite people to choose to live in ways that facilitate a relationship with God that will allow that resurrection/renewal to happen in their lives and in the lives of those they serve.  Another way to put it: we exist to help people Walk with God, Walk with others, and Go Be Jesus – because this trifold motto serves the greater purpose of resurrection.

The core motivation for talking about our relationship with the stuff of life – our material possessions – is directly related to our capacity to our experience of God.  How we relate to money and material possessions is one of the greatest threats or greatest tools relating to our faith.  The verses I’ll share will give you some clear instruction on the ethical front.  But the ethic alone isn’t really the point.  The ethic points to the ethos, the Way of Being that, once embraced, works from within us to fulfill the ethic.  This is why Jesus said that the greatest commandments, when honored, fulfill all of the commandments.

Sometimes we run into a problem, however.  We tend toward very mechanical thinking at times.  We might look at this giving thing as a simple transaction – I give what God mandates so that God will bless me in return.  We may get the ethic right but miss the ethos where the real life happens.  The ethics will surely help protect us in many ways from much harm, but the Law is not the point or goal. The Spirit is.  The whole faith thing is about finding ourselves in rhythm with God and letting that do it’s thing.  Our ethics give us a structure to more likely get there, but “clean living” alone isn’t the point.  In fact, sometimes that creates judgmental monsters.

Jesus ran into this one day while he was teaching:

Once a religious leader asked Jesus this question: “Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
     “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother.’”
     The man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
     When Jesus heard his answer, he said, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
     But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich.
     When Jesus saw this, he said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God! In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
    Those who heard this said, “Then who in the world can be saved?”
     He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.”
     Peter said, “We’ve left our homes to follow you.”
     “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come.” – Luke 18:18-30 (NLT)

Generosity is written into the ethical code that became Jewish law.  In one of the early books detailing what the ethic looks like, there is clear instruction about being generous:

“But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin. Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.” – Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (NLT)

Not only did this include issues of cash flow, it also included how crops were to be harvested with the poor in mind:

“When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 9:9-10 (NLT)

Some is left behind for those who struggle, and it is left for them to pick – I think this may be a nod toward the dignity of work.

Being generous – and with the right attitude – was a core ethic to be embraced by our ancestors in faith.

One word you may have heard used in relation to money and stuff is “tithe.”  The word literally translates as “tenth” and has been used to refer to a standard for giving in churches for a very long time.  Here is one of the most oft-quoted verses about tithing:

“Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me! “But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’ “You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!” – Malachi 3:8-10 (NLT)

The Rich Religious Leader knew all of this, and I imagine he kept to the letter of the Law pretty well.  He had the ethical living down, but he was missing the ethos.  The funny thing about this ethic-ethos reality is that you could line people up, side by side, one being all about the ethics and the other all about the ethos, and on the outside, they might look very much the same.  Yet there can be a world of difference between the two.  Think of it in relation to two couples.  Both can be similar in ethic: doing a lot of basic couple behaviors that are good.  And yet one couple can have a vibrant, growing connection with each other while the other feels like they are just going through the motions.  So it is with the faith.  The point and goal of the Way of Jesus is the embracing of the ethos, the heart, the Spirit, which includes the ethic but is not about the ethic. 

The rich guy thought he was nailing it based on his ethical living.  And yet he was missing the heart of everything – the relationship with God, walking in the Spirit, ongoing resurrection and renewal.  This is what I really believe people are after.  They long for a deep spiritual connection.  Unfortunately, the Church as a whole has focused so much on do’s and don’ts and the self-righteous legalism born from it that many people have left the building – because they sense that the Spirit left a long time ago. 

I would go even further to suggest that if we look at ethics as a way to in some way manipulate God into fulfilling God’s part of the equation, we have stepped away from the very ethos which gives birth to the ethic and thereby undermine the spiritual connection we so crave.  The fundamental defining character of God is love.  Love is bigger than a contract or transaction.  Don’t settle for ethic when ethos is within your grasp.

Lynne and I really didn’t know that we were being indoctrinated from the moment we drew our first breaths.  During elementary school, we both likely could pick up subtle clues that we had been brainwashed, but we really couldn’t see it until our later high school years and early adulthood.  Now having raised our own children through their teens into adulthood, and as we make new friends and acquaintances, the depths and complexity of our respective parents’ dogma drilled into us has become incredibly clear as we contrast the ethics and ethos we unwittingly adopted with competing ways of living and being around us.  In short, we were raised in the Way of Jesus.  Frankly, I am pretty sure neither of us appropriately appreciated this training program that was in session all day, everyday of our lives.  Now, however, we could not be more grateful.

Things that we didn’t know were somewhat different were normal for us.  Like families that were loving and supportive, where conflict certainly happened yet healthy resolution and reconciliation were just as common.  Neither one of us have any truly Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that can have the capacity to increase the likelihood of addiction, heart disease, obesity, and lifespan.  Neither one of us have any idea what it would be like to live in a household where emotional, physical, or sexual abuse took place, or physical or emotional neglect. We both grew up in households with long marriages – our respective parents are all still alive in their 80’s and all apparently happily married – both sets over 60 years now.  As far as we know, none of four parental units were incarcerated (at least not for very long – but I suspect my mother-in-law just never got caught…).  No immediate family members or parents struggled with mental illness, addiction, or domestic violence.  Out of ten potential ACE’s, we both come up with goose eggs.  Zilch.  Our households were places of peace, love, support, encouragement, hope, warmth, grace, and respect, as well as structure, expectations, consequences, and accountability.  Our parents and family members were all very human, mind you, but all living by the same ethic (rules for life) and ethos (way of being) which is the Way of Jesus.  Note: I use “Way of Jesus” instead of “Christian” because in our culture, the former gets at the ethic/ethos and the latter is more about religious orthodoxy.

One of the areas of ethics and ethos we were unwittingly taught had to do with the subject of this series – our stuff, our material possessions, our money.  Last week I told you about Lawrence Wheaton, my wife’s grandpa on her mother’s side.  I painted a picture of him as a man who was very thrifty – which is entirely true.  Yet he and his wife, Fern, were also generous.  They believed in the work of the church in particular, and faithfully supported it throughout their adult lives.  Lawrence and Fern’s thriftiness allowed them to walk into a car dealership and pay cash for whatever Ford they wanted.  Their being tight with a nickel also meant that they saved enough that when the church needed a roof, Fern wrote a check to cover it.  Pretty impressive for a couple whose primary income was from his wages driving a Rainbow Bread delivery truck!  The same basic thing could be said of both of my grandparents as well – a wisdom about money that included a conservativism on the one hand, and an ethic of generosity on the other.  This ethic was passed down to the next generation, which was also handed down to my siblings and Lynne’s, too.  It’s a wisdom that extends generations back.

When it comes to money, there are ethical behaviors which help us guard against greed and self-centeredness while providing for those in need – behaviors most people struggle to keep.  We need to learn them.  But we need to keep in mind that the point of it all is not to simply obey commands, but to connect to Life.  Because we live and breathe money, this has great potential to control everything else.  Learn the ethic of generosity, the freedom it brings and the good that it does.  Learn more, however, the Christ that is behind the ethic, which is ever and always generous as a key descriptor of the ethos of God.  The God who is represented by the shepherd who throws a party when he finds his 1-out-of-100 lost sheep, the woman who finds her 1-of-10 coins and invites everyone over to celebrate, and the father who welcomes his lost 1-of-2 sons home and hosts a feast to beat all feasts.  This is just simply the heartbeat of God.  When we choose to have our hearts beat in the same rhythm, we find ourselves deeply connected to the Spirit of God.  And when we don’t, we don’t.

The rich religious leader also knew – but perhaps forgot – about a key verse that I am certain Jesus knew and lived out fully.  I offer two versions here:

O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    and this is what he requires of you:
        to do what is right, to love mercy,
             and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 (NLT)

God has already made it plain how to live, what to do,
  what God is looking for in men and women.
    It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
       be compassionate and loyal in your love,
          And don't take yourself too seriously—
             take God seriously. – Micah 6:8 (The Message)

This verse is right in line with Jesus take on the most important thing to remember about life and faith:

Love the Lord your Godwith all your heart, soul, mind & strength.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love like I loved. – Jesus

The ethic and ethos together – which includes giving – leads us into deep spirituality, personal maturation, and global transformation. This is an invitation to choose a different way of life.  This is a “get to” thing, not a “you better or else.”  Love invites you into life abundant.  This both/and approach to ethics and ethos delivers beautiful results for everybody if we’ll have it.  Of course, you are free to walk away as well.  The love of God is, after all, unconditional and uncontrolling. What do you choose?