"Our Answer is God. God's answer is us. Through partnership we make our world better."
- Dorian Scott Cole

Teaching/Sermon Material

Moral, Ethical, Legal - If it's legal, is it right?

Lectionary: Nov. 1 - 15, 2009 - Mark 12:28-44

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We tend to divide our world into parts: family, education, business, government, and spirituality and religion - possibly more. We act as if each had a different set of rules. We expect families to be moral. We disdain people who cheat in education, but we stop at remedying it. We expect businesses to lie, cheat, and steal from us, skirting the law as if it was all a big game. We know politicians lie and cheat to get into office, and then work party or lobbyists' agendas instead of the public's agenda. Politicians seem to think that if you can't win any other way, then lie.

None of it seems to be within our power to change, so we blink and shake our heads, and go on. But if we don't control our world, who will? Who will? Those who are in power and leadership. It is a constant, never-ending battle. Mark chapters 11 and 12 advise us on the standards for the world in which we live in.

Context: Mark chapters 11 and 12 are about the place of government, individual responsibility, religion, and God in our lives. These chapters follow after several chapters outlining the moral standards required of the followers of Christ (disciples), and then the even higher standards required of the Apostles or others in leadership, and then what it means to be great (serving others). At each stop along the way, he showed kindness to others, usually healing them.

Moral simply means how we treat each other. Some prefer to divorce this from a religious context and call it "ethics." Rather than a complex system of rules, most people use the overriding moral code, "Love your neighbor as yourself," summed up in the golden rule, "Treat others as you wish to be treated."

In Mark chapter 11, Jesus entered the seat of religious and governmental power, Jerusalem. He talked to them about their responsibilities as individuals and religious institutions.

Individuals: First he addressed us. He stopped at a fig tree and it had no figs - a non-productive plant. He used it as an object lesson. He put a curse on it. We gather from that incident that individuals who think only of themselves, have no real purpose or place in this life. It is a sobering thought.

We each have a role in making this world work. But there are individuals, religious groups, and institutions whose only thought is to feed their own desires. Some only want to make money rather than address a real need in our world. Some only want to feed their propaganda machine and appetite for self-pleasing statements, rather than truly help those in need.

(Later that day his group passed the tree again and they marveled that the tree had died. Jesus used it again as an example of faith. Great things will happen when people ask for it, believing that it will happen. As an example, when people use their voices to condemn something that business does, and boycott the business, things change. This worked to change South Africa as well. This worked for slavery. This worked for civil and other rights. People can commit their voices and actions to changing the world.)

Religious institutions: Financial interests had taken over the Temple, the place of worship. In Mark 11 verses 15-18, Jesus entered the Temple and found a thriving business of people selling animals for sacrifice. The animals were never sacrificed - offerings were simply collected and sold again. The entire thing brought a carnival atmosphere to the Temple. But a religious institution is not a carnival of hucksters and illusion.

Jesus reminded them that the Temple is a house of prayer for all nations. They had made it a den of thieves. He expected the same high moral conduct required of the Apostles to be maintained by religious institutions. Religious institutions are not to be a place of tricks and illusions. That doesn't mean that people can't have fun or do fun things, or even do some business to help fund the institution or causes. It does mean that matters of faith are not a trick or an illusion. Magic will be exposed as a trick and harm faith and the institution. Illusions fall and bring disrepute to faith and the institution. Faith is concrete and endures.

Today we have people making statues bleed to try to encourage faith, we have people collecting money for charities and ministry while living in the lap of luxury, we have faith healing scams, we have leaders living in low moral situations while speaking of lofty ideals (not that people can't make a mistake and be forgiven). The Catholic Church has been very good at investigating "miracle" claims within its organization, while not having been so good in the past about dealing with moral problems among its leaders. It seems the investigative news media has been delegated the task of monitoring religious groups, which makes all faith and institutions suspect. Argh! But perhaps press investigations are how it should be - religions should not be fighting other religions.

(Mark 11: 27-33: Jesus remained very elusive with the religious authorities who were always trying to trick him into an answer that would incriminate him. Nor would he even tell them at this time the authority by which he did his actions, such as miracles and driving out the money changers in the Temple, and even his teachings. His authority, demonstrated by his miracles of healing, came from God. The people could plainly see that. But he would not tell the religious authorities because they would seize him and punish him. They believed that prophecy and the mighty miracles of the past had ceased.)

In Mark chapter 12, Jesus talked to them about their responsibilities to the world's institutions, and reiterated the most important commandment.

(Mark 12: 1-12: Jesus speaks of his rejection by those who pretend to be religious, but are really only after their own desires.)

The world's institutions: What does it take to make a world operate successfully? In Mark 12: 13-17, Jesus addresses this question. Tax collectors were despised by the people. The Jewish people especially resented the authority of the Romans over them. Tax collectors were notoriously corrupt and kept some of what they collected for themselves. Some of them, when they encountered Jesus, became followers of Christ and dropped their wicked ways.

But are taxes and operating our world a bad thing? The religious authorities who wanted to trap Jesus came to him and asked him if paying taxes was lawful. Jesus noted that the picture of the governmental authority, Caesar, was on their currency. He said to them, give to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God's. This was the situation: The popular belief among the people and some religious authorities was that a "savior" would come and liberate them from the Romans and become a king. But Christ's idea of a kingdom was of people who followed his teachings, not a military conqueror.

Are capitalism, taxes, businesses, and governing our world through institutions a bad thing? These are all essential. But the world requires checks and balances between the institutions that operate within it. For example, we have ample evidence that if all power is given to religious institutions, they become corrupt, whimsical in their rules, and overbearing (or lethal) in enforcement. We have plenty of examples of the church in the Middle Ages, and today of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of the hate teachings of religious institutions in many parts of the world. Religions stomp out differences through tyranny and oppression.

Without the influence of our collective values (not necessarily religious values), the government becomes corrupt, whimsical in its rules, and overbearing (or lethal) in enforcement. Third world countries are infamous for these problems, as were European countries before the 19th. Century, which influenced our Founding Fathers to put safeguards in our Constitution. We have the power, within legal limits, to control our institutions and our lives.

Without the influence of our collective values, business becomes corrupt, self-serving in its rules, and overbearing. The only self-limiting restriction on business is "what the market will bear." In other words, they raise the prices or interest until a significant percentage of the public stops buying (they don't care if they lose a few customers to maximize profits). They do everything they can to eliminate competition because competition drives down prices and promotes expensive innovation - all things that are good for consumers. We have the power, within legal limits, to control our institutions and our lives.

Supply and demand in a capitalist system regulate price. It isn't always fair, but it works. The tragedies in supply/demand occur when people in third world countries can't purchase their diet staples, such as rice, because the world price goes too high. "What the market will bear" pricing is a variation on supply and demand, and isn't "evil," but care has to be paid to the tragedies that it can leave in its wake, such as people being priced out of food and insurance. Our voice has to set limits.

Businesses have to make money or they go out of business and then you and I don't have a job. Businesses do this hopefully not because money is an end in itself. Businesses make money to meet needs and enable their employees and stockholders to make good lives for themselves. Jesus never said that money is evil. He said that "the love of money is the root of all evil." Love of money causes a complete loss of perspective and priorities. Love of money takes without giving equal value in return.

In our world today, taking without giving equal value in return is exactly what we are seeing, from individuals to huge companies. It's all a big game. Financial companies especially, have huge sums of money at their disposal. This makes for unbridled greed that destroys our world. They took reckless risks and nearly destroyed the economy. Huge bonuses are paid to executives and CEOs, which they reinvest, giving them even more resources at their disposal.

Every move these companies make is prioritized only to make more money. If it destroys a town - that's OK to them. If it cuts jobs, that's OK. If it shifts jobs to only those that are manufacturing, as opposed to jobs that improve our world through research and innovation, that's OK. If it shifts the balance of wealth and power to only a few, destroying the ability of many people to live reasonable lives, that's OK. There is no moral imperative other than to make money as fast and as much as possible, and the problems this causes are exactly what we are seeing today: job loss, low paying jobs, no advancement, loss of insurance and other benefits, unwarranted mergers that end jobs and innovation, and corrupt insurance systems that dump people who are sick and costly to them, a much larger divide between the wealthy and the poor and the disappearance of the middle class.

Business has a very important role to play in our world. It is the mechanism by which we earn a living, and by which we improve our world. Christ often used businesses and investment as examples - they were very much part of his world. His message was usually to use your talents; do business fairly, both as managers and as workers; and expect a fair return on investment. This follows long used ancient capitalistic traditions, and even the ancients had to put in safeguards to protect people. The codes of religious and governmental law that began over 5000 years ago in places like Ancient Sumer, contained major elements about making business and government officials fair to individuals. Nothing has changed in human nature.

In today's world, we have allowed law, the bare minimum standards, to take over for our responsibilities. We don't ask if it is moral or ethical. We simply defer to whether or not it is legal. I can't emphasize the following statement enough: "There isn't enough paper in the world to write down legal codes for every circumstance in life, and no one would ever have the time to even read it all, let alone know it all."

Legality is the endgame of the damned. Legality means that civil discourse and respect have broken down, and people are not able to reconcile in intelligent and moral decisions. Intelligence and morality have to guide us all in our choices as individuals, businesses, and investors. Just because something hasn't been declared illegal, doesn't mean that it is moral or ethical or right and should be done.

Every activity in life should not have to go before a court for a judgment to make a new rule. Even Jesus did not judge - he was very careful about condemning anything. He didn't condemn individuals, he simply guided them toward a better way of life. He didn't condemn the institutions of the world - not even slavery. Not slavery we might ask? Why not? Jesus simply left it to us to determine what is not good in this world, and to change it. Note that the emphasis is on us to change the world. We have an important role here - one we can't ignore. We are all individually and collectively responsible for changing our world for the better. We all need to use our collective voices to say, "That's wrong," and take collective action to reinforce our point.

An example of something that needs changed is the money businesses in this world that prey on those who are poor and can afford financial expenses the least, and who often have difficulties paying back borrowed money. The poor, or those in the lower middle class, often must borrow money on an emergency basis. Single parents often fall into this category, and financial institutions rob from them. We have allowed companies to loan money at obscene interest rates in "Payday Loans," "Title Loans," and "cash advances." Such loans are fools gold to those who take them.

Interest rates run around 650% annually on these supposedly short-term loans. In two weeks a person who borrows $500.00 will owe $575.00, a price they can't afford, but can't avoid. If they "flip" (renew) the loan when it is due continuously for a year instead of paying it, they will pay back $3,250.00. If the person misses a payment, he will be charged sizeable penalties, and probably pay interest on those penalties. To add insult to injury, these high interest rates are being charged on secured "Title" loans (have collateral, such as a car). If the individual doesn't repay the loan, he loses his vehicle so he has no way to get to a job or care for his family, and he still owes the remainder of the loan.

The loan shark business, which replaced individual loan sharks who break legs for nonpayment, has become so lucrative that even banks are now getting in on the act. They "only" charge around 120% interest on short term cash advances (until a deposit is made), which can have major impact on those who have many shortfalls over a period of a year. Banks have similar interest rates on overdrafts and negative balances, capitalizing on any mistakes or shortfalls that an individual makes. Is this legal? Yes. Is it moral and ethical? It is what people have to pay - what the market will bear. In contrast, is there something wrong with charging a $5.00 fee and 10% interest to cover an overdraft transaction for up to a week... other than the fact that it doesn't make the bank rich? Who would mistreat a friend or neighbor the way banks do?

We are the ones who decide what our institutions will be like, a power given to us by our Constitution. The institutions we create can be very beneficial to us, or can very destructively run rampant through our lives. Government, by our voice, sets limits so that the powers in our world don't hurt us. We have to define what the limits are.

Banks need our voice. Basically the fine print on credit card and bank accounts says that the banks can do whatever they want. People have no leverage to change this. If a bank wants to triple the interest rate, it can do so with impunity. If banks want to tack on new fees, there is nothing to limit them. In fact, they and other financial institutions invested many times more money than they had, gambling with our money and losing much of it. Perhaps the only thing that will permanently limit the banks is voters demanding that Congress pass laws that limit them. Unrestricted account terms should be ended.

We decide what are the best systems for ourselves, and we decide what is fair within our systems. Opinions vary widely, so there is plenty of discourse and give and take. Life isn't fair, but we should do what we can to take the destructiveness out of it. We can set up our systems so that we treat others as we wish to be treated.

Sometimes our ideal systems are simply unaffordable, and we have to settle for less than the ideal. One thing is certain: we don't improve everyone's life by dragging everyone down to the same low standard. We have to balance the ideal against the achievable, or we ruin it for everyone. But that isn't an excuse for not trying to make life better for everyone. We have to work through our institutions. Our institutions are often the avenue in which we express our love (concern for welfare, charity) for each other. Our strength is in our common achievement, not in our individual suffering.

The world changes and continues to change, bringing new challenges. At the time of Christ, that world had undergone a revolution. The world had mostly been an agrarian society that depended mostly on agriculture. Up to that time, the people had depended on local armies to defend them, local teachers to teach them religion, local storehouses to keep their crops, local judges to dispense justice, and a king and Chief Priest at the Temple to oversee it all. Their religion was a blend of Judaism and the local religions. They were required to give 10% of their income to the Temple, and various taxes were imposed on them by Rome. Although many people lived to an advanced age, most did hard labor all of their lives, shortening their life span. The average life span was 32 years and many died as children.

The Romans brought things that many rejected and many welcomed, as it always has been during times of great change. Trade became international, opening up large new markets while bringing many new items to them. Defense came through a gigantic army that defended the entire region and took care of law enforcement. Crops were stored in larger central storehouses. The government was controlled by Rome and was consistent throughout the region, although local variances for custom and religion were allowed. Public bath houses and nude racing were not appreciated, but theater was. Roman rule was harsh and brought cultural changes, but it brought large dividends.

In today's world, we don't have the problems that existed even at Christ's time. Our food comes from all corners of the earth, ensuring a consistent supply for nations that can afford it (the poor in many countries are hugely affected by food prices and availability, and many starve). We have excellent health care. We have a stable government and legal system. We have excellent militaries for defense. Compared to people in Christ's time, those in advanced nations all live in the lap of luxury.

Today those who give to a religious institution typically give around 5% of their income, which funds ministry, social justice (charity) programs, and outreach. Religious institutions no longer are burdened with being the storehouse and the distributor of food to the needy, although many maintain food pantries to help people survive when other plans are inadequate. Instead, we pay taxes, which funds our social responsibility programs, which are mostly run by the government in the form of welfare, Medicaid, retirement security, funding for medical research, etc. It is a very different form that we have chosen through which to meet our responsibilities, but it reflects our collective values and it is more effective than local or religious programs that would be incapable of doing these things effectively despite best intentions.

The world's institutions are an essential part of our world. Without them, we would all struggle to accomplish individually or locally what is much more easily and effectively accomplished collectively.

(The conundrums of life: What would life be without paradoxical mysteries within it? Boring! We love a mystery. We love to ponder mysteries - after they are solved they are nothing. As philosophers we can think up all kinds of intriguing possible situations and puzzle over the incongruity of it all. But we can get so caught up in the puzzle, and the fear of making an error, that we neglect to live life or see the larger picture. In Mark 12:18-27 we see some of those in Jesus' time puzzling over life.

They brought Jesus a complex question about a woman who became married to several brothers as each died, as was the requirement of the time. They wanted to know whose wife she would be in the afterlife. Jesus replied simply that they didn't know their religious readings well enough. They would not be married in the afterlife.)

The Prime Directive: What does God ask of each of us? There are a few places in the Bible where this is summed up succinctly. One of my favorites, which spells out a couple of details, is Micah 6:8, which says (NIV): "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (To act justly means to make sure that what is just is actually done.)

In Mark 12:28-34 Jesus teaches us that much greater than any sacrifice we could make for God, what is most important is to give God priority in our life, and to love (concern for welfare, charity) your neighbor as yourself.

The interesting thing about making God a priority is that you soon see that God's first priority for you is treating others fairly. That's the prime directive. We as individuals and our institutions should all reflect our collective values (not religion). We should not create injustice in the world. Our institutions, whether government, religious, or business, should not create injustice in the world. On the contrary, they should see that justice is done. No individual or institution can become so large (international in scope) that it is free of the burden of human values.

(Pretentious and honor seeking: In Mark 12:38-44, once again Jesus returns to his common theme of those who are simply motivated by gaining as much honor as they can, seeking speaking engagements and seats of honor, everything related to show. But in their hearts they are hollow, only pretending to be religious. He follows up with an example of the wealthy throwing large sums into the collection, and a poor widow throws in only a small amount. The small amount was everything she had. While he has nothing negative to say about the giving of the wealthy people, in contrast she has given much more of herself.)

Conclusion: We have allowed ourselves to become ensnared with the idea that if it hasn't been declared illegal, then it is OK. Legality does not reflect moral and ethical issues - legality is a bare minimum standard based only on past abuses. Abuse has never been what we are about as a people. In the US, we have the Constitution, Congress, and legal system through which we express our collective values, if we bother. Our Constitution reflects our appreciation of the value of our collective effort in the Preamble: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

The Preamble is big on people power, but it does not say a word about business, capitalism, banking, or any of the institutions we have created. "Institutions we created" - this is an important point. The things we create or allow are up to us - they don't just exist on their own. Even the Articles in the Constitution and the Amendments are about the governmental branches, states, taxes, and slavery, not the economy and commercial institutions. In fact, some of our Founding Fathers hated banks. As a people, we are about the just treatment of people. Such things as justice, "insuring domestic tranquility" and "promoting the general welfare" (welfare means wellbeing) are the hallmark principles of our democracy. We are primarily about working together for each other. Business, capitalism, and banking are not mentioned, but our constitution makes it possible for us to determine what institutions we want to serve us. We posit the invitation to ourselves, "What can we collectively do together for our own good?"

One of our choices has been to continue with the ancient economic system of capitalism. It simply means that goods are traded freely between people and nations. Capitalism is different from systems where kings control trade with privileged trading partners and everyone else is left in the dirt. Capitalism is different from purely socialistic systems where everyone is dragged down to the same level and corruption abounds.

We hear both good and bad about capitalism. Some believe it is simply a system motivated by greed. Some think greed is good. Some purists think of it as the goose that laid the golden egg, and you don't try to control it. Capitalism works well... as long as it is regulated. If not regulated, it goes out of control with unbridled competition and greed - neither one of these is good for companies or individuals. The economy has to be regulated.

Without regulation, companies develop monopolies that push prices to the sky. They take risks like the infamous financial risks in the last ten years. They buy up competitors and stop innovating so they become overpriced bloated bureaucracies that stifle positive change and keep prices very high. The list of enormous problems with unregulated companies is endless. Both unbridled competition and greed have been happening for the last twenty years and we are seeing the destructive results in the continuous shift of wealth from those who have little to those who have much, fewer and poorer paying jobs, and an economic collapse that almost took down the entire world.

One of the major things that makes our economy work is banking. There is one major reason why, and it isn't interest paid. Banks are legally allowed to loan more money than they take in, which makes our economy "expansive." This makes businesses able to borrow the capital needed to expand and create more jobs, even if the bank doesn't have the money on deposit. People can borrow to purchase houses and other major things, even if the bank doesn't have the money on deposit. Without the ability to loan, our economy and jobs would grow at a much slower rate, so there would be smaller incomes and fewer jobs. This was the economic situation during the early 19th. Century reign of the murderous industrialists who built railroads and factories, leaving behind a trail of dead and abused men and poor salaries. None of us can afford to be against banking. But we should all be against the abuses of the public seen in the banking and financial world over the last ten to twenty years. We need to raise our voices while the object lessons are in front of us and get it stopped.

Actions: Point others to this article, send a note to your congressman telling him to get legislation moving to restrict the banking and financial sectors from abusing people, and to disregard powerful special interest lobbying. The more people send messages, the more likely the congressman will perceive these as essential votes that may send put out of office or keep him in.

Raise your collective voices against banks and lenders that abuse consumers with changes in interest, very high interest rates, and abusive fees. This should not be tolerated. There is no excuse for interest rates above 10%.

Consider finding ways to lend money to those who are poor and whose expenses often go beyond their means. Those who live week to week can hardly afford expensive loans, and repayment is almost always difficult. A short term guaranteed loan at a fair interest rate would be much better, and short term payment in full must be required (or the loan will likely remain unpaid and a source of problems for lender and lendee). The funds for a guarantee could come from a fee charged to each lendee, so that risk to the lender is limited and the guarantee fund is continuously renewed. (Credit reporting is essential to make sure that those who make their living through scamming others are avoided - but you can't avoid addressing the issues of the poor because of the misconduct of some.)

Let's talk about it. Social Media and One Spirit Resources Blog below. - Dorian Scott Cole.












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