Sometimes it seems our world’s cultures and religious institutions are surrendering to moral relativism. Things that were once thought either right or wrong now come in shades of morality. Misbehavior is often swept under the rug to save public face and/or to avoid the legal costs of pursuing justice. Many business organizations—and even our own Catholic church—have paid the price for white-collar crimes. Harvard Business Review actually put our church in the same context with Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Siemens and Volkswagen to make a key point about the publication’s research into organizational misbehavior.
“Our research indicates that organizations with leaders [who engage with their industry peers to fight corruption] don’t pay a high financial price for their integrity,” a recent HBR article stated. “Although they may not grow as quickly as their less-scrupulous peers, their growth is more profitable.”
The Bible is full of stories about people who went morally bankrupt, but it also offers models of moral profitability. This Sunday’s readings prove the clear values of moral absolutes are as timeless as humanity’s struggle with both its light and dark sides. The first, from Isaiah (IS 58:7-10), offers this prophet’s insights into our soul’s profitability.
If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.
Humanity’s light and dark sides constantly clash because we can’t hide our flaws. Too often we throw shade on them, believing that makes them more presentable—or to throw shade at someone else to make them less presentable, if the goal is to besmirch an enemy. The latter is how “Throwing shade” on someone entered our 21st century vocabulary. But talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words in scripture. That’s why Paul knew he would draw more disciples into Christianity’s light by being Christ-like, as Sunday’s second reading shows (1 COR 2:1-5).
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
True wisdom is divinely inspired, and the light of its truth can rescue us from our shadiness. The rescued don’t just come into the light, they become part of it, as Jesus tells us in Sunday’s gospel reading (MT 5:13-16).
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds.
Even our religions can be tainted by how humanity colors its truths—hence the differences among clergies in how they treat matters concerning life, death, marriage, divorce, adultery—even sexuality. Christ himself confronted our wishy-washy morality later in the same chapter of Matthew by speaking in the absolutes of the Commandments:
Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus concludes with a call to action that is both simple and impossible:
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Makes salvation seem like an impossible dream, doesn’t it? Yet he wore our flesh to ensure our soul’s success. So let’s try his Spirit on for size. We can grow into it.