Easy Virtue

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain

1 October 2017

Readings: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Matthew 21:23-32

I was asked a terrific question recently: What are the greatest misconceptions about your faith? It’s a brilliant question because it explores so many perspectives – what I believe, what others think I believe, and why these two things might not be the same. Here’s a short list of some of the misconceptions I came up with – but you may well have a different list which comes to mind on the Pier Walk, or when you should be dealing with your own first assignment of the semester.

One. Christians don’t believe in science.
Two. Christians believe that God will send most people to hell.
Three. Christians believe that sex is wrong – or at least, most sex is wrong.
Four. Christians believe you have to be good to get into heaven.
Five. The Christian faith is hard.

For me these are misconceptions – they do not accurately express the truth – but they do convey what some Christians do think and say and express through their actions. And in some ways there are half-truths lurking in these positions, and half-truths are usually more persuasive than outright falsehoods. What intrigued me this week was that when I took a close look at the readings set in the lectionary for today – readings which will be read in thousands of churches around the world – I realised how connected they were to some of these misconceptions I had also been thinking about.

First: Christians don’t believe in science.
Now, I don’t want to spend too long on this as it is not the heart of our readings. But on a superficial level there is evidence for this misconception. The Old Testament reading from Ezekiel says more than once that people die because of their wrongdoing, while people who turn away from sin will not die. Yet any student here of biology or medicine, and perhaps of physics, may already be thinking: But science has discovered natural reasons for death unconnected to human wrongdoing. And science has no evidence at all of immortality. Do Christians then have to treat the findings of science as wrong? And do scientists have to regard Christian beliefs as impossible?

My answer to both of these questions is: no. And if I said anything else, I couldn’t work in a University. Christians should believe in science as the discovery of the truth of nature, the way that creation works, and in this case, the natural reasons for life, illness, aging and death. But I also believe that scientists should not necessarily discount Christians’ beliefs. For there may be more to life, illness, aging and death than biology – there is poetry, morality and spirituality. Christians who take Ezekiel as a scientific textbook may give rise to our misconception, but I would encourage Christians not to read Ezekiel as science but instead as expressing something richly suggestive about life’s commitments, convictions, actions and destiny.

Anyway, if this misconception interests you, there are two speakers coming to St Andrews over the next week or so who may explore it in slightly different ways – Richard Dawkins on Thursday in the Younger Hall, and Elaine Ecklund a week on Monday in her James Gregory Lecture. I hope to hear them both.

Second misconception: Christians believe that God will send most people to hell.
Well, as we have just heard, Ezekiel does say that iniquity leads to death, which Christian interpreters have taken to mean eternal separation from God, perhaps in a place of punishment. As the Scottish novelist James Hogg said, Nothing in the world delights a truly religious people so much as consigning them to eternal damnation. And perhaps the wicked do outnumber the righteous, though it all depends whether we are predisposed to see other people as wicked or righteous or a mixture of both.

But, although this passage from Ezekiel is in the Bible, does it say all that can be said about this question? I don’t think so. Yes, it rightly encourages each person to take personal responsibility for our convictions and commitments. But read on its own it leads to a doctrine of just deserts which is not the Christian gospel. Christians do not believe that our wrongdoing is the last word, and that every single mistake we make in thought, word and deed will send us inexorably to a place of fire. Christians believe that God is merciful, forgiving, accepting, and welcoming, and most of the Old Testament, and pretty much all of the New Testament explores the ways in which God offers healing for our harm, and hope rather than hell. The American writer Marilynne Robinson offers a different perspective from our misconception: Nobody deserves anything, good or bad. It’s all grace. In other words – God’s fundamental approach to the world is not to condemn, but to love.

Which brings us to our third misconception: Christians believe that sex is wrong – or at least, most sex is wrong. Turning to our New Testament passage, in which Jesus tells a story as part of broader teaching to chief priests and elders, he mentions more than once tax-collectors and prostitutes, women as we say in English, of easy virtue. Jesus does not explore in ways we would today the appalling circumstances of poverty, addiction, desperation, powerlessness and slavery which may lead women and others to being sex workers. Clearly he sees prostitutes as wrongdoers, having sex for gain, cheapening sexual relationships, far from the loving union of marriage. He lumps them in with tax-collectors, feared and loathed for their corruption, greed and cruelty.

And yet – and this is the central verse in today’s whole service – Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” He says that they are closer to God than the religious authorities he’s talking to. Being a crook, being a sex worker is no bar to God’s mercy. Perhaps Jesus is saying that for all that selling one’s body is wrong, it is no worse than all the rest of the ways that life is spoiled, compromised, imperfect. Sex is just like everything else, like eating, drinking, working, speaking, studying, getting money, managing others, being part of the church. All are different areas of life which can lead to joy, to flourishing, but all are open to selfishness, greed and cruelty. Sex is powerful, and it is a mistake to ignore it. But perhaps our misconception arises because Christians have mistakenly cited it as the only arena for sin.

Staying with Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel, how do they connect with our final misconception: Christians believe you have to be good to get into heaven? Well, in the parable he tells of two sons, the “good” are those who have been religious, have worshipped regularly, know their Bible and spout conventional pieties. But at a moment when commitment is required, they do not act. The other son represents the unreligious – maybe the slackers, the procrastinators, the slobs, the drunks – but when the moment comes when they are asked to commit, they do.

The tax-collectors, the prostitutes are examples of this. No matter what they have done, they hear that God has not given up on them, that love is still reaching out to them, that they have not put themselves beyond God’s grace. They are forgiven. And so they respond. The misconception is truly pernicious. It gets the gospel the wrong way round. We do not have to be good to enter God’s kingdom. It is being part of God’s kingdom that leads us to be good. Lily Tomlin the actress said this: Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past. But that giving up is a liberation for a better future.

I suppose female prostitutes are called women of easy virtue because people assume they have given up on virtue, that they have given it easily away. But in reality we are all people of easy virtue, who will turn off the right path, hurt our neighbour and ourself, fail to be authentic. And a fundamental misconception in society is that that’s it then. It is what it is. We are who we are. A leopard can’t change its spots. Stupid is as stupid does. We follow that wrong path to its destination. But I was struck on Thursday night by a different conception. In the candlelit St Leonard’s Chapel, at Compline, I heard these words shine in the gloom, again said by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
An easy yoke, offering a life of a truly easy virtue. The final misconception about the Christian faith is that it’s hard. It’s not. It is easy – wonderfully easy to join the prostitutes, the tax-collectors and all the others in the community of God.