Sunday, May 10, 2015

Christian Ethics and the Virtues of Faith: part 4, Prudence

Deuteronomy 30:11-20
James 1:1-8
Luke 14:25-33

"Prudence is love choosing wisely between the things that help and those that hinder."  St. Augustine

“Three things are necessary for salvation: to know what is to be believed, to know what is to be desired, and to know what is to be done.”  St. Thomas Aquinas

Today we begin what are known as the “cardinal” virtues, “cardinal” coming from the Latin “cardo” which means “hinge” (as in the hinge of a door).  The reason prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are considered “cardinal” virtues is that all other virtues “hinge” on our understanding of these four and their place in the sanctified Christian life.  I submit that these four “cardinal” virtues together define “righteousness” – always pursuing the Good.

“Ethics” at its most basic level is knowing right from wrong.  Prudence, then, is that virtue which not only knows the difference but also seeks to know why something is right and why something is wrong.  Prudence has to go beyond basic instinct and must never be reduced to a human impulse, especially an impulse driven by emotion.  And though the Christian is morally bound by the Divine Law which prohibits certain acts (doing harm) while requiring other acts (doing good), it cannot be said there is a universal understanding of right and wrong even among Christians.

“St. Thomas Aquinas ranked prudence as the first cardinal virtue because it is concerned with the intellect. Aristotle defined prudence as, ‘right reason applied to practice’.  [It cannot be said to be a virtue until it is put to good use.]  ( 

Unlike the “theological” virtues (faith, hope, and charity), the “cardinal” virtues are not considered Divine Gifts in themselves but are rather virtues we learn through prayer, Scripture study, thinking of the good of others, and faithful practice – in other words, we learn through deliberate effort.  We must learn how to think things through not only because of social implications and possible consequences, but also because of what Jesus teaches in Luke’s Gospel (14:25-33).  

Jesus seems to be saying that when we act strictly on emotional impulse, more often than not we will be revealed as impulsive fools regardless of noble intent – because our impulses, though perhaps honest, are not indicators of right and wrong.  Our impulses are not “common sense” as in common to all or universally understood; they are, more often than not, personal knee-jerk reactions to a particular situation.  Our impulses do not take “long-term” or even “collateral damage” into account because our impulses are almost always entirely self-serving.

Though I am aware not everyone will agree, the decision to host a “Mohammed Cartoon Contest” was not a prudent decision.  Though we have an impulsive reaction to perceived threats to “freedom of speech” ideals and the situation turned out as best it could under the circumstances, it could have been a lot worse and could have involved many more than were in attendance.  That situation could have ended badly for a lot of innocent Garland TX residents and police officers who wanted nothing to do with the event had the radicals decided to show up in force as they did in Paris, France.  The organizers did not “count the cost” or take into account the potential for risk to innocent persons.  Or if they did, they did not care – determined as they were to make a political point.

I dare say Jesus would not have approved of this event, and ultimately the decisions we make must always – always – bear in mind our baptized status as ambassadors of the Church and witnesses for Christ.  Deliberately antagonizing someone, anyone, for political purposes – and putting other innocent persons at risk! – is not a prudent course of action even if it is our right to do so.  As John Paul II once said, having a right to do something does not always mean we should

It is not about running scared from Islam’s sensibilities or “kowtowing” to threats from radicals.  It is about thinking things through from all angles before a course of action is taken, embracing the responsibilities that come with “rights”, and understanding our place as disciples of Jesus Christ.  We could post hate-filled, anti-Islamic or anti-gay or anti-abortion messages on our outdoor sign and would be perfectly within our right to do so, but is that the Divine Image we are called to project?  Or are we willing to put our own children or our grandchildren at risk of some unstable soul deciding to retaliate violently? 

Like a fellow Marine recently stated, “It’s all well and good to stand up for what you believe … until you put the lives of others on the line who may not share your beliefs.” 

We are United Methodists.  Of the abiding rules of the early Methodist societies of John Wesley’s day, the first Rule applies to an understanding of the reach and the depth of prudence, the need to think things through before we act: “First, do no harm.”  Period.  To anyone.  For any reason.  So we ask ourselves before we do anything proactive or reactive: will someone – anyone - be harmed, directly or indirectly, by our proposed course of action? 

This means we consider not only what is right before us, but we must also learn to look beyond the moment to consider the fallout.  Of course we can always apologize later if our choice blows up in someone else’s face; but if direct or indirect harm comes to someone due to our own personal choice because we acted impulsively or selfishly and didn’t take the time to think it through, “I’m sorry” may be too little too late.

The second Rule is: “Do good”.  This means we not only consider the harm we may do by acting impulsively, but we must also deliberately consider the “good” that must always come from what we choose to do as ambassadors and witnesses for Christ in the Image of The Lord our God.  And if there is no “good” to be found in what we wish to do (and the Rules are not strictly self-serving.  They serve the good of the whole Society!), we must consider the potential for harm to others – going back to the First Rule. 

This is an acknowledgement of a certain biblical and philosophical reality: in the presence of evil, there is no good; and in the presence of good, there is no evil.  Neither is benign.  Good and evil will always each feed upon themselves and reproduce.  The choices we make are part of that reproductive cycle – for good or evil.

Finally, the third Rule is: “Attend all the ordinances of God”.  Disciples are compelled by the Spirit to worship, to pray, to fast, to fellowship in mutual accountability, to receive and participate in the Sacraments of the Church, to embrace all the means of grace at our disposal.  From these come the understanding of virtue and the need to always consider the well-being of the whole rather than only a select few of the preferred parts.  We seek the will of The Lord through these means of grace with the intent that we learn to think like Christ so we may act like Christ and build up His Church, His Body.  Only then may we dare hope to share in the divinity of Christ. 

Prudence of the Church begins at baptism.  This is when we become part of the Covenant.  In our tradition this Sacrament is celebrated as early as possible because it is not strictly a personal decision based on an emotional response.  Jesus teaches that we always “count the cost”. 

So the decision to baptize or be baptized is a faithful, thoughtful, deliberate decision, a family decision to present the child to The Lord through the Covenant, and to ask the community to receive the child being presented for baptism so we may all share in the responsibility and joys and blessings of being a part of the child’s spiritual nurture and development. 

In the Presence of Almighty God and others, we make a sacred vow and enter into a sacred covenant with the child, with the parents, and with one another.  And we do so for this reason: we are seeking Good.  Good in the life of the Church has a beginning, and the prudent choice of baptism is it.

Prudence demands our efforts, our prayers, our deliberate and disciplined thoughts, and our determination to serve The Lord and others through His Church, His congregation of the faithful, His community of disciples.  It is not a decision to be taken lightly.  It is a forthright and deliberate choice that requires much of us – but is always toward the Good which is, according to Jesus, our Holy Father in Heaven.  He alone is Good.  Let us always choose His will, His way … beginning today.  Amen.

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