Rehumanizing Ethics

This sermon was first preached on October 23rd, 2017 at the First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo. (catching up on some old material, folks!)

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Matthew 22:23-33

There are not many things I hate in this world. There’s plenty I don’t like, but I tend to have a pretty positive outlook and be patient and understanding. But I have grown to hate one particular pedagogical tool–a tool used mostly to teach ethics: I hate thought experiments.

If you’re not familiar with this tool, thought experiments are small, hypothetical scenarios that pose a seemingly unresolvable ethical dilemma. They are meant to draw people out of binary right-and-wrong thinking patterns and explore the complexity of ethics.

Marble Head of a Girl, Roman ca. A.D. 138–161
Marble Head of a Girl, Roman ca. A.D. 138–161 from

I want to make a distinction here, between case studies and thought experiments. Case studies pose true-to-life situations in which there might be one or more ethical response, and some compromise or gray-area. A case study in ethics might be something like, “An anonymous donor gives your non-profit a large, unsolicited donation, but designates the donation for improving the signage on the front of the office building. The Board has identified their priorities for the year, and new signage is not among them, so they are debating whether to accept this donation. How will you advise them?”

That’s a case study, and that I find useful. By way of contrast, here is an example of a thought experiment that was making the rounds on social media last year, after a public figure used it to weigh in on the debate about whether to welcome refugees: If you have a bowl of skittles, and three of them are poisonous, would you still eat the bowl of skittles? This was meant to convey the risk of inadvertently allowing a terrorist into the country along with thousands of other refugees.

But, as critics of this thought experiment have pointed out, comparing human lives to a piece of candy is completely dehumanizing. This is not a question of whether I’d be willing to risk my life to enjoy a bowl of candy, it’s a question of whether I’d be willing to risk my life to save thousands, maybe even millions of other human beings!

Too often, I find that thought experiments collapse real-life ethical dilemmas into dehumanizing, two-dimensional puzzles–little mind games that try to back people into a corner where they feel trapped into conceding a point.

I hate them.

Our text from Matthew this morning depicts an encounter in which people who are feeling threatened by Jesus’s ministry try to trap him with an infuriating little thought experiment. And it’s a story I keep coming back to lately because of the way Jesus resists getting sucked into the rules of the game.

First, we need to understand that the goal of the Sadducees here is to make Jesus look foolish. He’s been talking more and more about resurrection, and since they were one of the sects in Israel that did not believe in resurrection anyway, they figured they could make Jesus look foolish by making the idea of resurrection look foolish–they had lots of experience at that game. And the reason they wanted Jesus to look foolish is because he was gaining popular support and approval while openly critiquing the Sadducees and other religious and political leaders. He was becoming a threat to those in power.

So, they bring this thought experiment, starting with the law of Moses that when a woman is widowed and without children, the brother of her late husband should marry her and try to produce an heir. But, they say, we know someone who had six brothers. He died, leaving a childless widow who then married the second brother, who also died without children, so she married the third, who also died, and on down the line until she had been married to all seven brothers, and had a child with none of them. If resurrection is real, then whose wife will she be in the coming world?

A Woman Ironing, Edgar Degas
A Woman Ironing, Edgar Degas from

And they probably chuckled at the absurdity of this hypothetical woman married to seven different men at once. It was unthinkable! How could a woman belong to seven different men? Because make no mistake–that is what marriage meant in this 1st century context–marriage was legal access to a woman’s body for the economic and genetic security afforded by offspring.

And I imagine the women travelling with Jesus cringed at this thought experiment. Do these powerful men have no compassion for the poor woman who lives a life of disgrace and disappointment, being passed against her will from one brother to the next, grieving the deaths of seven different spouses? Can they not imagine the kind of abuse that woman might experience as brother after brother berates her for not producing an heir, for letting their family down, for trapping them in a relationship they did not choose?

And I imagine Jesus looking at those women in his midst–the women like Mary who sat at his feet as a disciple and her sister Martha who extended radical hospitality and Mary Magdalene who found in his presence healing from years of torment, and Susanna and Joanna who appropriated their rich husbands’ wealth in order to support Jesus’ ministry–I imagine he looked at them before replying to those power-brokers, “You are wrong. You don’t know what you are talking about. In the coming world, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels.”

We hear those words, with our own cultural experiences of marriage, and some of us grieve it–marriage to us is intimacy and fidelity and choice and love, and to think that the relationships in which we invest the most of ourselves in this life will have no eternal significance is awful. But I don’t think Jesus is saying that at all.

Hear those words again within the power dynamics of the first century. “In the coming world, they neither take nor are taken in marriage. They neither accept nor are given.” I don’t know what being like the angels means–I don’t know exactly what Jesus meant there, but I like to think he meant we’d be free agents. The transactional nature of marriage that reduced women to the property of men is gone in the resurrection. Can you imagine how that would sound to those women in Jesus’ community? In the coming world, that woman with seven husbands belongs to NO ONE. She is her own person before God.

Woman in Red
Woman in Red, Roman from

Jesus refuses to be trapped by this petty little thought experiment, because when he talks about resurrection, he is not talking about the mechanics of a body reanimating, or some technicality of a hypothetical afterlife. No, the resurrection Jesus speaks of is the victory of life over death. The victory of God’s love over all the powers that oppress and dehumanize and bind us in fear. Who cares how many men that poor woman had to endure in her lifetime? That’s not what the resurrection is about! In the resurrection she is FREE.

And this is where we see the persistent, life-giving, life-affirming power of God at work in Christ. God is the God of the living, yes. God is the God of those people whose humanity and dignity have been compromised, but who stand before God as fully alive, fully human.

And this is the life-giving power we need in our world, friends. We live in a dehumanizing world. We live in a world in which women continue to be reduced to their perceived sexual availability. We live in a world where human beings are reduced to their economic potential, earning power, or buying power. We live in a world where people living in this country without legal documents are called “product” by private detention centers that make money from their incarceration. And we live in a world where people of all stripes and walks of life get flattened out on the internet into dehumanized political props. We live in a world where churches participate in this dehumanizing process, reducing our own children and sisters and brothers into the “homosexual issue,” or the “abortion debate.”

And I hate it. I have had enough of ethical tools, like thought experiments, that reinforce these dehumanizing trends, and treat people like game-pieces. We need an ethic of life–a Jesus ethic that insists that God is not concerned with outlandish hypothetical scenarios–God is the God of the Living–of real, fully alive people facing real-life problems, and trying our best to treat one another as fully human partners. We need an ethic that gives us the power and the clarity to take all those 2-dimensional props being wielded around in political and religious debates and prophesy to them, like Ezekiel’s bones, until they rattle and shake and the muscles and sinews reform, and the Spirit of God breathes life into them and our whole world can see that they are NOT pieces in a game, but people. Living people, made in the image of God, beloved and whole.

God of the Living, let us live for your people. Give us eyes to see through the games and the power plays; give us words to affirm life, and power to confront all that dehumanizes. Breathe your life into us, again. Amen.


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