Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The End does not justify the Means

First Sunday in Lent Year C

It’s the First Sunday of Lent, and in all three yearly cycles of our Lectionary, we return to the story of the temptation of Christ. There are significant differences in all three versions. St Mark provides us with little information and the three temptations are visibly absent. St Matthew and St Luke share some common points in the narrative but the positionings are different; St Matthew ends with the temptation of power over the kingdoms of the world whereas St Luke concludes with the scene in the Temple. But today, I would like to act as the Devil’s Advocate - literally. I would like to suggest that the temptations were in principle good suggestions in themselves. Can it be bad to feed the hungry, or have the power to make significant changes in the world or even convert your enemies and make them your friends or fans? And the answer would be ‘no.’ What Satan is suggesting here is apparently good and the result would be guaranteed success for our Lord’s mission, with much ease and little cost and pain on His part. Wouldn’t that be great? The devil’s logic is simple, “It doesn’t matter how you get what you want as long as you get it.” But then again, the end doesn’t justify the means!

And this is how “evil” often looks like – it does not wear the face of a monster, but a benign one. It’s not like you have to wake up one morning, and decide to plot some monstrous plan to commit evil. You don’t. Evil often takes the path of a slippery slope, each decision, often innocent looking, taken one after another, until you’re swimming eyeball deep in the moral mud.

The “end justifying the means” is a philosophy known as pragmatism. At this point it’s important to distinguish between pragmatism, and being pragmatic. Being pragmatic is trying to solve a problem logically and there’s nothing wrong with that. Being a pragmatist means that you simply believe that the ends justify the means. In pragmatism, the guiding force is the force of expediency. Something is true if it works. Everything is justified, as long as you attain the desired results. Here’s an example of how a pragmatist might defend his position. Nazis come to your door and ask you if you have any Jews hidden there. You do, but obviously you don’t want to turn them over. So, instead of telling the truth, you lie to the Nazis and save the Jews. See? Good end (saving human life) justifies normally bad means (telling a lie).

But pragmatism has also resulted in extremely “evil” decisions. Nazis too have used pragmatism as an argument to support their sick ideology. They frequently used euphemistic language to disguise the true nature of their crimes. The term “Final Solution” was used to refer to their plan to commit genocide and annihilate the Jewish people. They argued that this was good for humanity and the purity of the Aryan race. Therefore, the end justifies the means. No reasonable person today, would argue that the Nazis were correct, but yet again, modern progressive society uses similar arguments to further the pro-choice cause, the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy. Here are several arguments: women have a moral right to decide what to do with their bodies; the right to abortion is vital for gender equality; banning abortion puts women at risk; and finally the sickest argument of all, “it’s for the good of the child” – killing it spares it from future sufferings of this world.. The pragmatist would argue that if it is good for the woman, then abortion is not just permissible but a fundamental right. Bishop Fulton Sheen once taught that “the greatest disaster that can happen to man or a nation is not, to do evil; it is to deny that evil exists by calling evil another name like “progress”.”

We can see that pragmatism is fixated on seeing results. The pragmatist relies upon brains, brawn, or beauty to accomplish his ends. Very often, these ends are self-serving. To achieve these selfish ends, anything can be justified. What does pragmatism look like in the Christian life? Well, it takes the things of God and turns them into the things of man. In our arrogance, we become self-sufficient relying on our own strength. We forget that it is actually God who should get all the credit! But the subtlety of the devil is to make us believe that we don’t really need God if we can find a solution of our own. Ultimately, in wanting to do it “our way,” it overlooks “God’s way.”

Returning to the story of the temptations of Christ, what is apparently missing from the “good” suggestions of Satan is God and His plans for us. Ultimately, pragmatism, just like the temptations of the devil, often seeks to remove God from the equation. We just need to take a quick look at each of the temptations to expose the cunning casuistry of the Tempter.

In the first temptation, the devil tells our Lord, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.” Of course, the Church recognises that there is a fundamental option for the poor and should work towards the alleviation and even where possible, the eradication of destitution. This is where we see the devil ingeniously subverting this good and then reducing the entire gospel to a socio-economic solution. Resolving social problems becomes the primary yardstick of redemption. Make sure the world has bread, other things, including God, comes later. But then the Lord reminds us, “man does not live on bread alone.” Rather, it is Christ, who is the Life-giving Bread from Heaven, who is the real answer to our hunger.

In the second temptation, which in the gospel of St Matthew is the third, the devil shows the Lord the kingdoms of the world and promises power over them if only Jesus should worship him. The tempter is not so crude as to suggest directly that we should worship him.  He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to our machinations and thoroughly organised world, where God is exiled to the private sphere. Faith and religion are now directed toward political goals. Religion matters only insofar as it can serve that objective. But then the Lord challenges this falsehood by reiterating the fundamental commandment, “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve Him alone.”

In the third temptation, the devil transports the Lord to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and challenges Him to perform a spectacular miracle. Imagine the instant influence and adulation Jesus could have acquired, if the crowds had witnessed Jesus literally being carried down by the angels or levitating in mid-air. But our Lord wisely responds that we “must not put the Lord your God to the test.” Authentic faith, does not grow in the midst of a “circus” performance but often in low-key seemingly ordinary situations in the silence of the heart.

Ultimately, when we choose the temptation of pragmatism over that of God’s way, we end up with a lie. We want victory with limited commitment. We want heaven without sacrifice. We want a crown without the cross. As we begin this penitential season of grace, let us not just merely rely on our meagre strength and resources. In our eagerness to perform Lenten practices of self-denial, let us not forget that the end of all these acts is to expand the space in our hearts for God. They are not performed as if they are goals or achievements in themselves. Conversion is impossible without the grace of God. As we contend with our usual list of habitual sins, we often fail to recognise that one of our greatest temptations is to begin to rely on ourselves rather than on the power of God. To be a Christian is to be dependent upon God for everything, in battling temptations and growing in virtue. So does the end justify the means? Not if that end does not end in God and the means lead us nowhere closer to Him, for as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, “the ultimate end of each thing (including man) is God.”

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