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Good Moralistic Preaching

This post continues a series of essays on preaching from the perspective of lay people. Previous entries may be found here.

By Elisabeth Rain Kincaid

In the classic movie Footloose, Chicago teen Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) sets out to free the town from the oppressive stranglehold of the local pastor, who has convinced the city counsel to ban dancing within the town limits, preventing the senior class from holding a senior prom. In this cinematic confrontation, named as one of the top ten most anti-Christian movies ever by Vulture magazine, we can catch a revealing glimpse of the popular American perception of pastors and preaching. Being a pastor, it appears, means that you use your powerful influence to lay down the law and ruin everybody’s fun — even such an All-American institution as a senior prom.

As pop culture examples like this make clear, nobody likes a moralizing preacher. At best, the moralizing preacher is an ineffective bore — the teacher from the Charlie Brown comic strips dressed up in liturgical robes declaiming “blah, blah, blah.” At worst, they are reason, in and of themselves, to reject the claim of the Gospel. The reality, thankfully, is that most pastors don’t set out to preach moralizing sermons. Most pastors don’t want to be “that preacher” who harasses and harangues his or her congregation into either compliance, oblivion or rejection.

However, the dangers of moralizing preaching are insidious. After all, any pastor who actually cares about her people wants to say something of significance, something to send the congregation home with, something that might actually impact how people act beyond the church doors. In these situations, although pastors are wisely careful to avoid the appearance of moralizing, it’s still very easy for moralizing content to remain — for a stern command or moralistic message to creep in wrapped up in jokes and heart-warming personal stories.

The danger of this type of moralistic preaching is not rejection, but rather that lecturing a congregation on morals, whether openly or covertly, is bad moral theology.

The Dominican theologian Servais Pinckaers describes two types of moral theology: a morality of happiness and a morality of obligation. A morality of obligation, he argues, presents the Christian life as centered around obedience to the law, our inevitable failure to obey, and our salvation by God’s grace alone. A morality of happiness does not focus simply on our failures, but on our ultimate goal — the true happiness that comes from experiencing the beatific vision, the fullness of relationship with God.

A morality of happiness, he argues, is equally dependent on grace, which makes it possible for us to enter into relationship with God. This grace does not simply cover up our sins, but changes us from the inside out – making us, through the developments of the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit — the type of people who, in the words of St. Paul, actually “put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24). According to Pinckaers, moral rules are helpful in guiding us through this transformation, the same way that learning chords and proper fingering is crucial for the beginning piano player.

The moralizing preacher who simply lays down the law fails to explain the beauty, joy, and adventure of life in Christ. She is like the piano teacher who never exposes her students to beautiful music, but simply presents them with a program of chord exercises and describes this as the sum total of musical experience. This approach, in preachers, fails to explain both the goal of proper moral action and how proper moral action can be accomplished.

What then, would be a better approach? In his encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II reminds us of Jesus’ approach to moral teaching. In the story of the rich young ruler, as described in Matthew 19, Jesus is accosted by a young man who is asking the question “what good must I do to have eternal life?” John Paul universalized the story by identifying the young man with each one of us. Each of us, he argues, intrinsically senses “a connection between the moral good and the fulfilment of [our] own destiny.”

If John Paul is right, this innate urge also explains the urge to moralistic preaching. Each pastor senses, on some level of awareness or another, that the person presenting himself in the pews at the church is asking this exact same question, and seeking this exact same direction. And, at first, Jesus appears to provide him with the moralizing answer: “There is only one who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments”  (Matt 19:16).

The young man has a moralizing response: “Which ones?” he asks. Jesus responds by listing the second table of the Decalogue. He has kept all of the commandments, he assures Jesus (Matt 19:20). The dubious nature of this facile assumption is striking, considering that Jesus had just informed the Pharisees — the most strict law keepers — that Moses had granted them exceptions to perfect law keeping of the commandment against adultery “because [their] hearts were hard.” (Matt 19: 8–9) However, although he fails to realize that he is overly confident in his law-keeping, the young man still knows something is missing. “What do I lack?” he asks Jesus. Here, Jesus declines to one-up his moralizing. Rather, he gives him a completely different answer. Just as he also urges the disciples to let the little children come to him in Matthew 19: 14–15, he calls the young man to him as well. However, the young man has a few things standing in his way. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt 19:21).

John Paul II argues that what Jesus is asking is “not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment. More radically, it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father.” Only through this sharing in the life of Jesus can we hope to achieve what is good.

Good preaching, based on this model of Jesus’s teaching, should provide direction — it should teach the law, show us that we need to clear the debris of sins and all the goods impeding our progress towards Jesus from our own lives, and direct us to care for the poor. It becomes dangerously moralizing when it neglects to point us to the one who is good, when it fails to call us towards the relationship with him which allows us to share in his righteousness, and when it substitutes law alone in place of the happiness we can only find in Jesus Christ.

Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is assistant professor of Christian ethics and moral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.


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