“Whom do you serve?” by Brian Donovan, 1/20/19

Ovid, a Roman poet and contemporary of Jesus once said in his poetic anthology, The Heroines, that “the result justifies the deeds.” This quote changed over time and was falsely attributed to Machiavelli who lived by the famous proverb we know today as – the ends justify the means. But, do they? Do the ends justify the means? This question is one of the largest moral dilemmas that humanity has ever known. Philosophers, politicians, Civil Rights activist all ask the question in a variety of ways. Perhaps though, we have been asking the wrong moral question. Perhaps there is another more basic question, a simple idea that must be answered – first. An answer which will undoubtably change the whole premise of ends and means. Perhaps, we should be asking whom do you serve by reaching those ends?

Before we begin though would you pray with me…

Holy God, whom we come to today with love and curiosity, we thank you for your care, your guidance, and your leadership even in the troubling times of our life when the world is so full of ambiguity. Please let the words of my mouth and the thoughts on all of our hearts be a blessing to you

Now, it may seem odd to be speaking of this moral dilemma the Sunday following Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. For, he is one of our moral heroes and I hope everyone here recognizes the vast importance MLK jr. had on bringing equality to people.  His ends of equal Civil Rights were inspired through the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the Poor people’s campaign, to name a few. The results of his work are examples of morality which were finally honored in 1983, when MLK jr. was the first private citizen to be recognized with a federal holiday.

However, King did not fight for civil rights and equality by following civil law. The means to his ends was civil disobedience as was Gandhi’s, Henry David Thoreau’s, and Jesus’. Now I am not suggesting that anyone break civil laws, per say. Rather, I feel it is important to notice that this form of nonviolent resistance has been present in our culture since at least Sophocles when he wrote the play Antigone around 441 BC.

This resistance also continues today in three different forms according to Ronald Dworkin. He says that there is an “integrity-based” civil disobedience which occurs for morality reasons. A “justice-based” civil disobedience which happens when a person’s rights are denied like in our Civil Rights movement, and a “policy-based” civil disobedience which is designed to change a policy someone believes to be wrong. Thus, Dworkin is detailing three different forms, ways, means of achieving civil disobedience – all of which have the ends of changing laws or policies. And so, when all else fails, people have the authority of civil disobedience to fall back on as a means to their ends. Means which are even more accessible today than in King’s time, for the digital age has provided everyone an equal voice. But do these ends justify the means? Perhaps, but with any form of authority, and civil disobedience is a form of authority, one must really ask whom do you serve?  Why are you wielding that authority? Who is benefiting or suffering from your civil disobedience?

As you may have noticed, I did not give an example of civil disobedience, this means to an end, this authority which is used for good and for ill. I did not give an example because it is a tool and that tool is not the question, we need to ask ourselves the real question: what reason is behind using civil disobedience. Why are we wielding this authority? Whom are we serving? To explain, let us turn to scripture.

Today’s passage follows the scripture from last week when Jesus was baptized and then accepted by God through the proclamation, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Although Jesus’ ministry has officially started, he does not begin proclaiming God’s word, yet. Instead Jesus is led by the spirit into the wilderness where he remains for “forty days and forty nights.” This number of days has been theorized as symbolic for a time of testing, or a probationary period. Therefore, I imagine that failure during this period or the subsequent temptation by Satan would terminate Jesus’ ministry before it fully began. Thankfully, this failure did not happen.

However, what did occur was a series of temptations focused on the ideas of authority. The first temptation is when Satan tells Jesus to prove his authority by transforming stones to bread. The theologian Craig S. Keener points out that “models of power in (the Roman) culture included magicians.” In other words, the temptation is for Jesus to claim his own authority and serve himself as a magician by transforming the stones into bread without God’s help. Yet, Jesus responds with Divine authority drawn from the Bible.

Satan’s second temptation is based on the authority of the Jewish faith. To explain, Satan by positioning Jesus on the “pinnacle of the temple” and by using the laws of the Jewish people, or the Hebrew Bible, is tempting Jesus to claim the temple as whom he serves. Instead, Jesus quotes from the Bible a second time not as an authority but to explain the authority of God; he is using the Bible as a means to his ends. However, this temptation also shows that the means of the Bible may be used by Jesus and Satan alike. Just like the tool of civil disobedience could be used for good or for ill. Therefore, it would seem faulty to base a moral quandary on whether the means justify the ends when the means themselves are but a tool. Rather, we must ask whom do we serve in creating those ends to discover the morality of a situation.

The third temptation is the most intriguing, Satan offers “all the kingdoms of the world” to Jesus in exchange for serving the tempter instead of God. The theologian Warren Carter believes that Jesus-followers saw this, “temptation (as) position(ing) the devil as the power in control of Rome’s empire.” For, Satan could not offer these kingdoms unless he was in fact controlling them. By virtue, today’s Christians could apply this point to all civil authority. Now, I am not saying that our civil / secular world does not have authority, they do, and following their laws is important. But when asking whom do you serve for moral reasons, I believe the points raised by Carter show that the Bible does not agree with ascribing moral servitude to the civil authorities.

Continuing though I wonder what would have happened if Jesus accepted this temptation and bowed before Satan. I imagine he would have made the world a better place. I mean Jesus is good and has been accepted by God as God’s son. So, the means of bowing before Satan would have had a wonderful end, right? So, why not accept it? Again, we come full circle to the question do the ends justify the means? If that is the only question, the extent of our moral concern, the whole point of morality – than Jesus should have accepted Satan’s offer, right? For if that is all that we are truly concerned about – the ends – then yes Jesus should have accepted. Because the ends, his rulership of all the kingdoms on earth would have been his to determine and Jesus is good. The ends would be justified by any means to get there. That is, if that really was the moral question at hand. But it is not. For the story, ends differently. Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan, for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Serve only God. It is through this acknowledgment of serving her that Jesus has passed the true test and ended his probationary period. Jesus can then begin his ministry in Galilee.

But why, why serve only God – Well in the context of the temptation, if Jesus had bowed before Satan. If Jesus had followed those means to get to those ends of ruling all the Kingdoms on earth, then the story would have been different. Jesus would have committed idolatry, he would no longer be perfect, and therefore his rulership could not be the life-giving, the healing, the saving grace which his ministry became. So that is why Jesus served only God and why whom do you serve is the true moral question. Let me ask this point another way:

What is the difference between anonymously circumventing the law by convicting people online without due process and Martin Luther King Jr. who acts with integrity by staying in jail to both raise consciousness of an unjust law and to respect the law in general?

What is the difference between Representative Steve King who is civilly disobedient by using separationist hate speech and Martin Luther King Jr. who was being civilly disobedient when he wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a letter which has inspired generations of people to come together in unity?

What is the difference between even the smallest of infractions like when Donald Trump was civilly disobedient by refusing to reveal his tax record before he became president and when Martin Luther King jr. was civilly disobedient by leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott to change policy?

The difference is not the means – they are all using civil disobedience, the difference is not even the ends – they are predominantly seeking changes in the law and / or policy. The real question is whom do they serve? If we take Martin Luther King jr.’s moral actions as an example than I believe it is obvious who we are called to serve: our God of integrity, of Justice, and of equality.

I bring these points to you today because our world is full of ambiguity. The news stations tell us that one issue is moral – while other stations tell us the opposite position is moral. Our online world is even worse with everyone having and voicing their opinion which creates a very ambiguous world requiring each person to discern their truth, their position, their morals. Furthermore, we as a community here are trying to step out of the boat as a people of God; but, to do so we must remember the reason behind the means, the reason behind our ends, the divine whom we serve. So, let this focus be our guide as we discern the morality of all the issues which our world is throwing at us. Let us ask: whom do we serve and does the outcome of this service fall in line with the goals we strive for as followers of Christ, unified in Spirit, in worship to God almighty? Whom do we serve and do the values of the issue facing us this day fall in line with God’s values?  Whom do we serve and do our actions build up God by benefiting all of humanity? This is the true question of morality as old as our Greek and Jewish ancestors, a question written in archaic language, so we do not forget that this is our oldest moral question with the simplest of answers: Whom do you serve? I serve God.