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Morality v. Hedonism v. What on earth?

And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.”  And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”   Luke 7: 40-43


A year or two ago a house in Trinity was burgled. Had you been there you wouldn’t have noticed – because the burglar had a key. She had been entrusted with one and had later returned it, having secretly bought a copy.


Let’s assume the burglar was caught red-handed (that wasn’t the case). What should be done with regard to the thief?


At a school in Jersey a few months ago one pupil stole a unique item from another - “unique” in the sense that it had been personally made by the pupil. Ownership was readily provable. What should be done with regard to the thief when the theft came to light?


In Jersey (as elsewhere) individual views about the best response to the thief wall fall into two camps. The “morality” school will recommend punishment that “fits the crime”. Moralists will wish to teach the thief a lesson – and to do that publicly so as to discourage others. Is that the system you would prefer?


The “hedonism” school will recommend a different approach. The thief ought to be asked to think of others, to do good, not to do anything to another in future that they would not wish to have done to themselves. In the case of a child thief, there will be concern not to damage the child by a concept such as “guilt”. Thus the theft itself was not wrong – the wrong would only occur if the thief felt guilty. Is that the system you would prefer?


The “morality” school has been part of Jersey’s criminal justice system for centuries. But it’s fast disappearing from Jersey. UK Home Secretary Ken Clarke is, for his part, even closing prisons that are now empty despite the fact that they were over full a few months ago. The change of sentencing policy will be effective .... to save money for the UK Government ... for now.  


The “hedonism” school is endorsed by those parents who do not consider it right, at any time or for any reason, to discipline their children. They must not be constrained in their self-expression. Again, this policy will be effective .... in avoiding clashes in the home ... for now.


The two systems both fail in one vital regard. Neither system actually changes the intangible part of the thief – the unseen thoughts and intentions of the heart that gave rise to the theft and will continue to give rise to other deeds over future years.


So, what’s the “What on earth?” system in this newsletter’s heading. Is it an alternative to the other two - or an addition to them? Take a look at the conversation between Jesus and Simon, AD 30, in bold above.


Jesus was eating at Simon’s house when a “sinner” (interpret that how you will) came in, stood behind him at his feet, wept, began to wet his feet with her tears, wiped his feet with her hair, kissed his feet and poured valuable perfume over them. Simon knew that she was a “sinner” and inwardly criticised Jesus: he too should also have known it and put a stop to it.


The woman (unlike both the Jersey thieves above) was no longer denying her sins. In fact Jesus told Simon, “her sins, which are many, are forgiven” – forgiven because of her faith in Jesus, the Son of God.


What next? Will Jesus apply the “morality” system or the “hedonism” system to her? Will she be punished? Or will she be told that her sins didn’t and don’t matter?


Neither. She is changed inside by love. Her sins did matter. They were abhorrent. She was guilty. But the Son of God had power on earth to forgive sins. And those forgiven by the highest court on earth change inside. The more they are forgiven, the more their love for their redeemer changes them.

My object all sublime/ I shall achieve in time —/ To let the punishment fit the crime —/ The punishment fit the crime.’ (The Mikado in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, 1885)
‘Blest cross! Blest sepulchre! Blest rather be - the man that there was put to shame for me.' (John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress, 1684)
Richard Syvret

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