Proper 25A’23 “Finding Our Moral Compass”
29 October 2023
Matthew 22.34-46
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
North Little Rock, Arkansas
The Rev. Carey Stone <+>

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one -to [our] own way;” Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. Amen.

          – From Isaiah 53.6

The other day I was visiting with an anonymous parishioner whose initials are John Rhodes, and he told me a story that was both funny and true. His son, Buddy, attended St. Mary’s School which prided itself (and I suppose still does) on providing a well-rounded education that included bible lessons. One day a nun was teaching a class on the Old Testament and asked the students how many commandments there were in the bible. Someone quickly answered that there were ten. But Buddy couldn’t let that answer stand! He raised his hand and retorted, “my church says there’s only two!” The teacher corrected him, and Buddy continued to insist that his church taught there were only two! What did he mean by only two? Had he really learned that in the Episcopal Church? Yes, indeed he did!

Jesus reveals this in today’s gospel reading. When asked by a Jewish lawyer which commandment was the greatest, he answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  When we look at all ten commandments it’s clear that the first four deals with our relationship to God:1) you shall have no other gods but me 2) you shall not make idols and worship them 3) You shall not take the name of your Lord God in vain and 4) you shall remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy.

The other six have to do with our relationship with our neighbors.

5) Honor your father and your mother 6) You shall not commit murder 7) You shall not commit adultery 8) you shall not steal 9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor 10) You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. He further shortened the list when he said: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

Jesus essentially gave the “Cliff Notes” version of the law: It’s all about love – love of God and love of neighbor as we love ourselves.

In these ten commandments, and in their simplified form of two commandments, millions have found their moral compass for thousands of years. Our own Supreme Court building has the symbol of the two tablets one with the Roman numerals I-IV and the second tablet with the Roman numerals V-X carved into wooden doors of the court room. But sometime over the last century America abandoned them. The results, have been dramatic. In his article “How America Got Mean”[1] social commentator David Brooks notes that what has come in their place is a pervasive sadness and meanness and can be seen in the rising rates of depression, death from despair, drugs, alcohol, and suicide.

Other factors have statistically increased: The percentage of people who say they don’t have close friends has increased fourfold since 1990. Americans from age 25 to 54 who aren’t married or living with a partner has gone up from 29%$ in 1990 to 38% in 2019. A record high 25% of 40-year-old Americans have never married. More than half of all Americans say that no one knows them well. The percentage of high-school students who report “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” shot up from 26% in 2009 to 44% in 2021. Sadness and isolation.

Brooks also was struck by the increase in out right meanness in America. Do you remember how people started driving during the pandemic? Much more aggressive at higher rates of speed and plentiful middle finger salutes and cutting people off. I was at a doctor’s office in LR the other day and I kid you not there was a sign that said “Warning: Please respect our staff and do not attack them. If you do you will be prosecuted to the furthest extent of the law.” I was in a restaurant last year and the waitstaff shouted at a customer that had arrived 15 mins before closing time and refused to serve them.

Besides the lack of courtesy and respect, we’ve gotten stingier. In 2000 two-thirds of American households gave to charity; in 2018 less than half did. Social observers have cited various culprits contributing to the turn toward meanness: Not surprising first on the list, social media, and technology where everyone has felt compelled to reveal their deepest held beliefs on politics and religion and other hot button topics; also noted “our increased isolation” as “our participation in community has decreased.” Our demography is shifting rapidly away from a white majority leading to a rise in panic and racial tensions. The economic situation has left many feeling afraid, alienated, and pessimistic. How did we get to such a sad and angry state as Americans? Again, David Brooks points at the loss of a moral compass: “We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one on which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free reign.”

He then tries to encapsulate what it is we have lost: “In a healthy society, a web of institutions – families, schools, religious groups, community organizations (like Boy and Girl Scouts, YMCA/YWCA, civic clubs,) and workplaces – helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another.” We seem to have lost this to a large degree. 

In the past these organizations all seemed to be working off of a similar playbook, that we needed to train and prepare young people to be educated, kind, and responsible citizens, and yes, I will say it, people of faith, hope, and love. Our society knew the value of teaching people how to bear up under the difficulties of life with resilience, having ideals to cling to in the good times but especially the bad times. 

So, Fr. Carey are you saying we need to turn the clock back to the 50s no, no and let me say no. Clearly that system didn’t make for perfect people, there were unbearable loads of guilting and shaming, all kinds of phobias towards anyone that was different from us. That all needed to change and obviously, there is still much work left to do. But it seems in trying to make room from everyone we throw a baby out with the bathwater.

In the scene from the gospel, we see Jesus in the middle between two divided religious groups and both were bent on dominating the religious market and besting anyone who saw the law different than they did. Jesus did and does continue to ultimately disappoint people on both ends of the political and religious spectrum. Rather than coming down on a side with either the Sadducees or the Pharisees he offered a “middle way” not of compromise but of something totally different; this way consisted of Faith, Hope, and Love with the greatest of these being love.

Buddy was right – there are two commandments and they point the way forward, and show us how to live in these difficult days. Let’s come home, and come back to Jesus (our truest and best moral compass) in the middle, where we are invited to Love God, and to Love our neighbors as we Love ourselves. Amen. 



[1] David Brooks, “How America Got Mean” in The Atlantic Magazine, September 2023