Do we sometimes do things to please or that are required of us by others leaving us feeling ashamed of ourselves? Or of course, not do things that we believe are right to avoid giving offence?
Herod and John: moral dilemma – unreasonable request from daughter.
Herod arrested John but wasn’t inclined towards killing him. He liked listening to him. That suggests that he was open to the possibility of redemption. When he allowed his daughter’s outrageous demand, it is likely that he felt ashamed of himself. That, to me, asks the question – ‘do I do that?’ ‘How do I react if I get put under pressure to do something I know is wrong?’ Do people find themselves in a position where it’s hard to avoid?
Employment for me – how would I have felt about moral dilemma?
What would I have done, I wonder, if my employer had asked me to do something I considered unethical? I might risk my job if I refused. I’ve always tended to avoid jobs what that sort of issue might come up. Working in finance, I always preferred to work in the payment of bills rather than in collecting debts. Working in social care I preferred the probation service to Social Services – in probation the client has already been to court, had the chance to defend themselves – in SS, it’s act first and let who may appeal against your actions. Most social workers are very caring, but the processes they’re required to carry out may not always allow space for caring. Not for me, I’m not tough enough.
Dilemmas of pressure in any role
In fact, in any role, paid or unpaid; in employment or in relationships, where we have authority or influence over others but are subject to authority or, perhaps we simply don’t want to ‘let people down’ or appear to ‘deny our love’ for them – we may find ourselves faced with moral dilemmas quite easily.
So what does the Bible say about it? There’s a bit of a mixed message there, we’ll start with today’s OT:
Jacob and Laban-
- Moral dilemma 1: Jacob’s not getting paid. Laban has a moral dilemma. His young relative has come to stay and has naturally fallen into the work of the household just as he did at home. Laban could just take advantage of that position but he recognises that it’s wrong. There doesn’t seem to be any pressure on him to do otherwise (other than a bit of embarrassment) and he offers Jacob wages.
- Moral dilemma 2: Laban has agreed Jacob to marry Rachel, but it’s 7 years on and Leah is still unmarried. Here we have a very different situation. It does appear that when Jacob first meets Laban’s 2 daughters they are close to marriageable age – his description of them would not be appropriate to children – he’s talking of their attractiveness as a young man would who was, at least, interested. So when Laban agreed to the deal that Jacob could marry Rachel he was probably assuming that by the end of the 7 years, the elder girl, Leah would have already got married. Now, 7 years later he faces shame among his community. He’s probably got a lot of pressure from his wife, and possibly even real distress from Leah at the idea that her younger sister is going to be married leaving her on the shelf. Laban can’t find the right of it, he can cheat Jacob or he can disappoint his wife, shame himself before his neighbours and leave his elder daughter completely unmarriageable. People might well have assumed that there’s something wrong with her that she’s not married at her age and then her younger sister gets married first. Of course there was a way out – he could have discussed the problem with Jacob and since polygamy seems to have been acceptable, both socially and in terms of the people’s relationship with God – he could have offered him both girls or none. Instead he got another 7 years free labour out of Jacob while keeping him waiting for the girl he really loved.
Abraham and Isaac:
This is the moral dilemma story that always appals me. Abraham thinks God is telling him to sacrifice his son. The story is usually told as a wonderful example of Abraham’s willingness to obey God. To me it’s a story that tells of human capacity to misunderstand the intentions of a truly loving God in terms of the social context of the time. In Abraham’s time and the cultures around him, animal sacrifices were normal, human sacrifices less common but presumably were known. I’d have been a lot more impressed if Abraham had said ‘No, Lord, surely I’ve misunderstood you – you can’t really mean me to kill my son’. But he didn’t – and thankfully he got the message in time to see the lamb standing there to take Isaac’s place.
It’s the same sort of misunderstanding you see today in some churches that teach hatred and cruelty towards segments of the community that they somehow assume don’t deserve God’s love: Gay people, Muslims, women who decide after long and painful deliberation to have an abortion. It’s not an issue of whether people’s behaviour is right or wrong – on that, Jesus has made it clear, it’s not for us to judge – no, it’s simply a matter of God’s expressed love for all his people. We are all of us capable of misunderstanding what God is telling us to do, but if it’s in contradiction of God’s love then we should be suspicious.
Peter and the unclean food:
Peter had a moral dilemma when God sent him a dream about the unclean food that he was to eat. He stood up to it, he was suspicious, ‘no Lord’ he said, ‘I have never eaten unclean food’. But he managed to sort it out when God sent him into a situation where the instruction made sense. God’s love over-ruled Peter’s social context – the unclean food was merely a symbol of the acceptance into his love of people Peter wouldn’t have considered to be potential followers of Jesus – gentiles. Us, that is. God’s love is the greater law.
I have a lot of sympathy with people who work in the Jobcentres these days. They’re under a lot of pressure to stop people’s benefits, apply ‘sanctions’ that will mean that people go without any money for weeks, or months or even years. And the media is putting pressure on us all to believe that those people deserve it. But the people who work for the DWP know full well that they’re being pressured to create situations that will make as many people as possible subject to these ‘sanctions’. Many of them must be going home at the end of the day feeling sick with horror at what they’re doing to people. And yet, to refuse to do it would risk their own jobs, their own livelihood, their own families. That’s a terrifying moral dilemma. I don’t know how I’d cope with it, probably I’d become ill under the pressure and lose the job through ill-health. Both they, and the poor claimants who are left with nowhere to turn but the foodbank, are greatly in need of our prayers.
Genesis 29. 1-20
Mark 6. 7-29
* Call: For all in trouble Response: Let God’s Love Rule
We pray for all who are stuck with moral dilemmas.
We pray for all who exercise authority over others, especially where conflicting interests make it hard to know what is right, and what is wrong. May God’s love shine clarity into their situations and guide them to decisions which will bring us all closer to ‘heaven on earth’.*
We pray for churches and all people of every faith. All faiths give moral guidance but it is human intelligence which interprets and understands it, threading a way through the dilemmas that all are faced with day by day. May that intelligence be inspired by God’s spirit with love for all humanity so that, through people of faith all can come to know and experience God’s love.*
We pray for families juggling the dilemmas presented by their children’s need for freedom to develop and safety to develop within. We pray for families which struggle with conflict and who try to see how they can best move on, what direction will give the best outcome for the children? May God’s love resolve their conflicts.*
We pray for those employees required to act in a way which they feel is wrong, and who have to choose between right action and the threat of losing their job. We pray for those who are bullied at work by managers or as a result of policies over which they have no control. May they know the safety and comfort of God’s love within which to resolve their difficulty.*
We pray for benefit claimants, suffering under a lot of different changes to the system so that for some people there are a number of different cuts to their income all occurring at the same time – causing dilemmas as to which bill to pay, whether to buy food or pay bills. May God’s love give them courage and strength.*
We pray for ourselves. For whatever moral dilemmas we may have to face. For our parish, our homes and our loved ones. May God love be with us and inspire us to right decisions that will lead us further and deeper into his love.*