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Teaching Across the Ethical Spectrum

My month-long career pumping gas at a boat dock lost most of its luster on the day that the owner’s snarling, snapping Doberman broke some skin on my bottom while chasing me into the lake.  That’s when I decided to walk the country mile, just on the other side of the cornfield from my house, to a recently constructed, Stuckey’s Pecan Shop. 

Stuckey’s were built for a customer from a different era.  At a time when roadside stops were rare, Stuckey’s provided a motorist the opportunity to leisurely stroll through aisle after aisle of souvenirs and pecan-based candies while stocking up on hand-dipped milkshakes, made-to-order food, and full-service fuel.  Today’s motorist could care less about corn-cob pipes, cedar jewel boxes etched with Abraham Lincoln’s head, and pecan log rolls. They want fuel for their car, fuel for their passengers, and they want to be back on the road in ten minutes.  I have often speculated that the inventor of a special travel-catheter could make millions by assisting hurried motorists in eliminating restroom breaks.   

When I took up my Stuckey’s hamburger flipper and ice cream scoop in the early Seventies, the trade winds of traveler commerce had already started to shift.  We still did a brisk business during the summer tourist season, but for seven months out of the year, things could get pretty lonely.    

On weekend mornings in the winter, it was my job to open the snack bar at 7:00 a.m.  After oiling the grill, heating up the deep fryer, and setting up the cash register, it was time to start a game of cards with whomever was pumping gas for the day. Often a full hour would pass while we drank a pot of coffee, played pinochle, and poker, and compromised the health of our airways with the help of Phillip Morris products.  When it appeared that a customer, or worse still, a Stuckey’s manager, threatened to enter our store, we would abruptly remove the evidence of our leisure-time activities and proceed to “look busy.”

This Sunday’s Gospel selection (Luke 12: 32-48) struck me as curious.  It began with the consoling words that we are to put fear aside because everything that the author of the universe has, belongs to us.  But as the passage continued, Jesus utilized the anxiety provoking metaphor of master and slaves to communicate a sense of urgency about living a fully self-donating life.  The slaves who were caught lolly-gagging were beaten by their disappointed master.  The passage ended with the somber, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (vs. 48).

The famous developmental psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, noted that the development of a conscience is a complicated process dependent upon many factors including one’s cognitive development, as well as one’s history of attachment to a dedicated caregiver.  By the time I was fourteen years old, my father’s messages about the values of honesty and hard work had been etched into my soul.  But on cold, wintery Stuckey’s mornings, these basic values were not motivating my behavior.  What pulled my sedentary bottom off of the chair to give a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wages, was the fear of being caught doing nothing and being fired.  

According to Kohlberg’s schema, as my soul became informed with the capacities of insight and empathy, something more profound began to drive my moral behavior than the fear of punishment.  At eighteen years old, I had a job where my friends and I could get away with taking naps at the expense of the taxpayers of Illinois.  I chose to work rather than sit in the shop and nap.  Something more profound had developed that was now motivating moral behavior. 

In this Sunday’s reading, Jesus’ comments were addressed to an audience spread across the spectrum of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.  In that crowd there were people who needed to hear that the world is constructed with the hard edges of natural laws built into it.  When we act in certain unfortunate ways, God will not beat us, but we will never beat reality.  In the natural order, behavior has consequences.  For those who were like the fourteen year old version of me, Jesus presented a parable that outlined a logical consequences approach for a concrete thinker.  

In the earlier section of this passage, Jesus was speaking to those with the capacity for a deeper, more mature understanding of God and ethical behavior.  For those more developed audience members he appealed to the bonds of relationship and heartfelt love.  For them, ethical behavior, and self donation are more of a reflex born of a sense of bone-deep gratitude for what has been received.  It seems to me that Jesus’ catechetical method embodied in the Gospel this week provided a challenge for anyone attempting to coax ethical behavior out of a classroom of high school or college students, a congregation of believers, or a cohort of fellow citizens.  How do we build bridges to escort those with fear-based approaches to ethical decision-making to more developed relationship-based approaches to Gospel living?  I believe that the answer has to be found somewhere in the neighborhood of developing a rich personal spiritual life for the leader.  

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