It was such a small town it only had one church. And it was so long ago everyone went to church. One day this guy who was always on time came to church late. After the service when he was shaking hands, the priest asked the guy why he was late.
“Somebody stole my bicycle!” the guy said.
“Do you know who stole it?” asked the priest.
“Well,” the priest says. “We're in Lent now and every Sunday we begin by reciting the Ten Commandments. Next week, get here early, sit in the front pew, and when we start the commandments, turn and look at the congregation. When we get to 'Thou shalt not steal,' see who can't look you in the eye.”
“OK,” the guy says and next week, he gets to the church early and does as the priest says. After the service when he's shaking hands, the priest says, “How did it go?”
And the guy says, “It worked like a charm. I sat up front and I turned like you said as we started reciting the commandments. And when we got to 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,' I remembered where I left my bicycle.”
Most people don't understand what a moral dilemma is. A lot of them think that's when you want to do something, like cheat or lie, and you know you shouldn't. Or you don't want to do something, like give to the homeless, but you know you ought to. But those aren't moral dilemmas; they are simply a choice between what we desire and what we don't desire. A dilemma is when you have to choose between two alternatives that are equally desirable or equally unattractive. A moral dilemma is the clash of two ethical demands or values that are mutually exclusive. Let's say, Uncle Joe is terminally ill and in great pain but the medication that will give him relief will probably hasten his death. The dilemma is between two good actions: relieving suffering and preserving life. If one morally right action requires you to do a morally wrong action, that's a dilemma. During World War Two, a lot of Christians hid Jews from the Nazis. Corrie Ten Boom and her family did so. But in this case preserving lives meant lying to authorities, disobeying the government, even forging ration books in order to feed the Jews they were hiding. It also meant putting the lives of her family in danger. And indeed Corrie, her sister and her father were thrown into a concentration camps when what they did was discovered. The Jews were saved but of her family, only Corrie survived the camps.
Most ethical systems recognize a hierarchy of moral values. In other words, while telling the truth is an important ethical value, it can be superseded when in conflict with a more important value, such as saving a life. Thus all the nuns and monks in the Italian town of Assisi felt morally justified in hiding Jews in all the monasteries and nunneries of the hometown of St. Francis though it meant systematically deceiving the Nazi authorities. You'd have to be morally tone deaf to think otherwise.
For that matter, the Jews who were in hiding had to face moral dilemmas. They had to bend or even break the rules of their religion. The Gentiles hiding them could not always offer them Kosher food. Or they might have to move from one hiding place to another at any time including on the Sabbath, which could be considered work. Judaism recognizes that saving lives takes precedence over almost all other moral rules. An observant Jew would only choose death if the price of saving his or her life was denying God or performing idolatry.
What about Jesus? Did he recognize a hierarchy of values? Did he countenance choosing the lesser of two evils?
In today's Gospel (Luke 13:10-17) Jesus is faced with two mutually exclusive moral goods: healing and observing the Sabbath. To us this doesn't seem to be much of a dilemma but in his day it was. The Sabbath was one of the main distinctives of Judaism. They devoted a whole day to God and no one was supposed to work. If you did work on the Sabbath, the penalty was death! And there was a reason they were so adamant about it.
If you read the Old Testament, you see that it didn't take long for the Israelites to start taking God for granted and even succumbing to worshiping other gods. And this affected the society morally. The most important gods of the region were fertility gods. Worshiping them often involved things like sacred prostitution and even child sacrifice. Over and over again the prophets condemned not only idolatry but the practices that went with it. The Hebrews also forgot all of the laws about providing for widows, orphans and the poor. They ignored the passages about treating immigrants fairly and even loving the immigrant as yourself, which is found in Leviticus 19:34, just a few verses after the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Quite frankly the Israelites were starting to act as if they could do anything they like because they could make it all right by simply offering a sacrifice at the temple.
If you read the prophets you see them again and again condemning two things: not treating God properly and not treating other people properly. The two go together. If you don't have respect for the creator, you will not likely have any respect for those created in his image. If you don't take God seriously, what else could possibly merit being taken seriously? Oh, sure, you can not love God but still love your spouse or your children. But for what possible reason should you love someone with whom you don't share blood or nationality or culture or geographical proximity? Why should I care about people dying in Syria? Or Africa? Why should I care about what happens to people who are not of my race or religion? Why should I help drug addicts? Or people whose poor life choices have left them in poverty? Why in the world should I love my enemies? That makes no sense whatsoever if there is no God or if God isn't really going to hold me responsible for such things.
The prophets said that God did care about these things and that the people's attitudes and behavior would have consequences. And when foreign empires conquered the Israelites and then the Jews and took them into exile, things got real. And in exile, the Jews started to think about the ways they had neglected God's laws and began to codify them and observe them. After 70 years, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and let the Jews return to their homeland. And thereafter they had a very strong motive to try to observe the laws that were handed down to God's people. The Pharisees and the scribes not only promoted observance of the law but also tried to apply it to new situations. And they expanded the prohibitions so that one couldn't even get close to violating the commandments. These were considered a hedge or fence around the Torah or law.
For instance, you weren't supposed to work on the Sabbath but what is work? The rabbis came close to the modern scientific definition of work—energy expended—although technically it was any activity that is creative or which exercises control over one's environment. So you not only couldn't do your job; you weren't supposed to bake or cook or pick bones out of fish or sort out undesired food from a mixture that contains desired food or do laundry or write or set a fire or extinguish a fire or complete anything. The Talmud, that commentary on a commentary on the Torah, comes up with 39 broad categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. Saving a life was permitted but when it came to medicine, the less serious or life-threatening the condition, the more restrictions there were on what you could do for the patient on the Sabbath.
The leader of the synagogue in today's passage probably is thinking this way. Since this woman has been like this for 18 years, it won't kill her to wait another day to be healed. But Jesus is having none of it. He's saying, “Come on! You know that you would untie your animal on the Sabbath (tying and untying things are generally among the forbidden activities) and lead them to water. I am merely freeing this woman from what's been tying up her life in knots for nearly two decades.”
In Mark 2:23-28 Jesus defends his disciples for picking and eating grain on the Sabbath. Technically what they were doing was harvesting and that was forbidden on the Sabbath, not just in the Talmud, but in the Bible (Exodus 34:21). Jesus cites David letting his men eat the consecrated bread which was reserved for the priests. Jesus admits it was unlawful but states this principle: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
A few verses later, in regards to another healing, he asks, “What is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill?” What Jesus is saying is that things that are good for physical health are exempted from the Sabbath. When it comes to feeding a hungry person or healing one who is suffering, those life-restoring acts take priority over the strict observance of the law. God made these rules to benefit us not to punish us.
You still find people who think laws come before people, who will not even make common sense exceptions to rules when the rule is harming rather than helping people. For instance, I bet most people do not know that a jury has the power of nullification; that is, a jury has the right to give a verdict that contradicts the evidence that the person did indeed break the law. In 1735 a jury acquitted a journalist who had violated the law that made it a crime to criticize public officials. Northern juries at times refused to convict people for violating the Fugitive Slave Act, which demanded that runaway slaves be captured and returned to their masters. When jurors feel the law violated is an unjust one, they can refuse to convict the person being tried. Naturally jurors are rarely, if ever told they can do this. But the power exists because sometimes applying a law to a certain situation is unjust. Think of Jean Valjean pursued his whole life for stealing a loaf of bread. A reasonable jury would have set him free despite his theft.
In summarizing the law, Jesus boiled it down to two commandments taken from the Torah: To love God with all one is and has (Deuteronomy 6:4,5) and to love one's neighbor as one loves oneself (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus says that no other commandment is greater than these. (Mark 12:28-30). And he means it.
We all know how Jesus felt about adultery. He felt even divorce and remarriage constituted adultery. So what happens when the Pharisees and scribes bring him a woman caught in the act of presumably unambiguous adultery. According to the law, she should be stoned. Jesus could have and, based on his teachings, should have denounced the woman. But instead he stoops and begins writing on the ground. And when he is pressed on the matter, he stands and says, “The person among you who is sinless can cast the first stone.” And he squats down and continues writing. No one is arrogant enough to claim that he is without sin and so they leave, one by one. When Jesus sees that no one has stayed to condemn her, he says, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” Jesus nullifies one of the Ten Commandments because in this case, a person could be saved. And possibly because her accusers singled her out for punishment. It takes two to commit adultery. Where was the man she was caught committing adultery with?
It's not that Jesus thinks that sins shouldn't be punished. But he knows that God is love and that love of God and love of other people are the two principles from which all the rest of the law derives from. They are at the top of the hierarchy of moral values and any application of the other laws that is at odds with the two greatest commandments is a violation of the spirit in which they were given.
One way to think about it is that the 2 greatest commandments are about two kinds of relationships that we have. Picture them as the two axes of the cross. The vertical beam represents our relationship with God. The horizontal beam represents our relationship with other people. You need both. If you only pay attention to your relationship to God and lose the horizontal beam, you get a big “I.” And indeed people who think only about themselves and God to the exclusion of their relationships with and duty to others get very arrogant and egotistical. They tend to confuse their own thoughts with God's and create a god in their own image, usually a God who is not very compassionate toward people.
If you eliminate the vertical beam and focus solely on your relationship with others you can find yourself doing awful things because those relationships matter more than any transcendent moral values. This kind of thinking leads to a father more concerned with his son's swimming career than with the fact that his son raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. This kind of thinking leads to reformers who overthrow their oppressors only to become oppressors in turn. Take away the vertical beam and you have a big minus sign. Social action without regards to God is a big negative.
For a big plus, you need the balance of having both the right relationship with God and the right relationship with others. And when there is a conflict between the two, a moral dilemma, you need to decide on the basis of love. If you pull the plug on terminal Uncle Joe because you hate his guts, that's wrong. But if you love him so much that you want to relieve his suffering even if it means hastening his inevitable death, that's not wrong. And it it tears you up to do so, that means you really do love him. If you defy the government for grins and giggles or to make an illegal buck, that's wrong. If the government is demanding you turn over people to be killed merely because of their race or creed or color or national origin, and you defy that unjust law, that is far from wrong.
Jesus didn't promise us that following him would be easy. Quite the contrary. In this world we will have trouble. But he said that if we obey his commandments to love God and love one another as he loves us, we will know real love. Or as he put it, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him...If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home in him.” (John 14:21, 23a)
You will have moral dilemmas. When in doubt, do the most loving thing. And the God who is love will be there.