Christ and the Conscience

June 24, 2016 Length: 16:41

Because in creation man was modeled on the deliberating mind of God, he has a capacity for conscience. The Samaritan Woman escaped the condemnation of her conscience because she permitted her heart to receive the mercy of God in Christ.

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We hear this reading every Paschal season, don’t we? This will be the 18th time I have preached on it since I have been here. Haven’t repeated myself yet, have I? Maybe, maybe. We don’t take every aspect of the story every time we hear it; we just take parts. This morning my scope is going to be fairly narrow. Let’s consider this morning Christ and the conscience.

The Samaritan woman this morning meets somebody that she recognizes as a prophet. He says to her, “The man you have now is not your husband,” and what is her response? “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” She senses that it is the calling of a prophet to address the conscience. Doubtless she was familiar with the story of another prophet, the prophet who said, “You are the man!” as he sticks his bony, prophetic finger into the face of David.

The address to the conscience may be taken as the quality found in all the biblical prophets, different as they are. I assert this, aware that the word “conscience” never appears in the Hebrew Bible, and this is a point of irony. It is widely acknowledged that the Bible addresses the conscience. A rather famous American said, “I am not bothered by those parts of the Bible I don’t understand; I am terrified by those that I do.” Yet the Hebrew word for conscience, matzpun, never appears in the Hebrew Bible.

Moreover, it never appears in the Mishna nor the Talmud. Indeed, in Jewish literature there is no serious discussion or theory of conscience until the Enlightenment period. Yet can anyone seriously contend that the Hebrew Bible is not about, does not address the subject of conscience? Why, for instance, did Joseph flee from the blandishments of Potiphar’s wife? Why did David refuse to murder Saul in his sleep? In fact, conscience is so intrinsic to the message of the Bible that the Bible does not even have a word for it—not because it’s not there, but because it is so clearly presumed there is no need to discuss it. It is no exaggeration to say that the idea of conscience was given to the world by the Hebrew Bible. I’d be quite willing to argue that with anybody.

Someone who understood this perfectly well was someone I don’t often quote in my sermons, a man by the name of Adolf Hitler. Brace yourselves. Here’s what Adolf Hitler had to say about the matter. “Das Gewissen ist eine jüdische Erfindung. Es ist ein Makel wie Beschneidung. Gewissen (conscience) is a jüdische Erfindung, a Jewish invention. It is a blemish, a Makel wie Beschneidung, like circumcision.” Hitler goes on. “I am setting man free from the restraints of a false vision called conscience and morality, Vision die Gewissen und Moral.” A false vision called conscience and morality. There’s a plaque over the gate of Auschwitz that reads, “I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacy of conscience, Gewissen.” Why? Because it was a jüdische Erfindung, a Jewish invention. I have to tell you, I’ve never read that at Auschwitz myself because I’ve never been to Auschwitz, but it’s quoted in the biographies of Hitler. I refer you, for example, to probably the best biography of Hitler, the one by Ian Kershaw, volume one of his two-volume biography, the volume entitled “Hubris.”

This morning, beloved, I want to make three points about conscience: first, the human capacity for conscience; second, the conscience and God; and third, the conscience and Christ. Let’s talk about man’s capacity for conscience. You just kind of look at the word, you see the word “science” in there, don’t you? Con-, which is a form of the Latin cum which means “with.” The Latin, con-scientia, conscientiascientia means knowledge—knowledge with. The words indicate the sharing of knowledge. In fact, originally the words means exactly as the Greek does, sharing of information: conscientia. It came, however, to mean discussion of knowledge, even if you’re the only person discussing it: sharing with oneself. That is to say, the word indicates man’s capacity for an internal dialogue. Conscientia means internal dialogue; at least, it comes to mean that in Latin literature, and certainly in Cicero and most especially in Seneca. The capacity for internal dialogue, the mind’s ability to talk to itself.

The human mind is a kind of parliament between man’s two ears. It’s a place where he talks, where he discusses. The capacity for conscience is based in the human ability to assess the content and the processes of one’s thought. I probably only said that about a million times since I arrived here. Man is the only creature with a conscience, because he is the only thing in all creation with a capacity for self-consciousness and deliberate self-reflection. He is the only thing. Neither beasts nor plants nor angels have that capacity. Man can discuss things within the confines of his own mind. In this respect he is the only thing in creation modeled on the deliberating mind of God. Notice how these ideas are all there together in that first chapter of Genesis.

The first chapter of Genesis points to this aspect of the divine thought. God’s resolve to create human beings springs from a dialogue within the mind of God. There is a massive difference, a different planet, between creation in the Bible and creation in any other form, such as creation of Islam. There’s nothing like that in Islam. God speaks to his word, he addresses his word. Naaseh adam besalmenu. Let us make man in our image—besalmenu, not besalmeni, not “my image” but “our image.” He makes man in his image, and he does this by a dialogue within himself, and that dialogue within himself is projected into the creature. Man’s own structure is modeled on God’s own discursive mind. This is what Christians mean when they speak of conscience.

The same sense is conveyed, by the way, with the Greek word for conscience, the one used in the New Testament and the Church Fathers: syneidēsēs. -Eida in Greek is to know, and you’ve got the syn, which is the absolute equivalent of the Latin cum: with. With knowledge. Thinking together. The word indicates that there are two different egos in the same subject.

When I was young, somebody told me, “Don’t talk to yourself.” If you don’t talk to yourself, you’re out of your mind, quite literally out of your mind. [Laughter] Maybe you don’t want to yell at yourself; that can get you in trouble. A person who doesn’t talk to himself may as well be a dog, because the dog can’t talk to himself. It’s in talking to ourselves that we’re most like God, which brings us to point two: the conscience and God.

In pagan literature, the Greek and Latin words for conscience refer to the human moral sense, the difference between true and false, right and wrong. But in pagan literature, this has almost nothing to do with God. It’s just a moral sense. In classical paganism, there are moral principles and moral laws which the human conscience recognizes, but these principles and laws are discovered by human thought. The gods, that is to say, are not much concerned about them. Indeed, the gods are often enough the violators of these laws and principles. If you want a theological foundation for the moral life, do not go to classical paganism!

In this respect the journey from Homer and Hesiod to Moses and Isaiah is like a trip to another galaxy. In the Bible the moral law comes from the God of creation and the covenant. In the Bible, conscience is more than just a moral sense, and that’s what Hitler meant by calling it a jüdische Erfindung, the Jewish invention. It’s a Jewish invention because the Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures. When Joseph resisted Potiphar’s wife, what did he say? “Hold on, honey; this is wrong”? No, he didn’t say that! He doesn’t say that. “I’m going to be in big trouble with your old man if we do this”? That’s not what he says. He says, “How can I do this great evil and sin against God?”

You see, the Bible, beloved, does not leave a man alone with his conscience. He places man’s conscience under his own eyes. Eve did not simply disobey; she rebelled. From the very beginning, when you have human beings, from that point on, God is a law-giver. From that point on. It’s not something added later on, on Sinai. From the very beginning, God is a law-giver. Man’s ethical sense always has to do with God.

We presume that so much now that we take that for granted. Nobody took that for granted in the Mediterranean world or the Fertile Crescent until the Jewish diaspora. They were the first ones to teach human beings about that. That was an important and essential preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel. The restlessness of Cain is not simply a symptom of an uneasy conscience. It is the outworking of a divine curse. Man’s moral consciousness is convicted by God, and this morning among the chants near the end of matins, the Samaritan woman is saying to her compatriots, “I have met the Reader of hearts.” I have met the Reader of hearts.

Third, let us talk about the conscience and Christ. The God who encircles our hearts is the Father of Jesus Christ. God is very merciful in the sense—many senses, but in this sense—that God does not leave us alone with our conscience, unless we insist on being left alone with our conscience, and that is the definition of Hell. Everybody in Hell is self-condemned. Anybody who says, “Leave me alone with my conscience,” is stepping off on a path he’d better look to the end of. Woe to the heart in which the heart has the final word. God does not leave man with a tortured and self-accusing heart. It’s called the mercy, the hesed of God, the mercy of God.

He does not leave man with a tortured and self-accusing heart. “Even if our heart condemn us,” wrote St. John, “God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” I must tell you, beloved, I think that verse is what got me through my teens and twenties, when my heart was always condemning me. “Even if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” You see, a man without God has no escape from his conscience. The sinful woman at the Samaritan well was not left there alone to deal with her conscience, and at the end of the story, the very last verse that the deacon sang to us this morning, Jesus is not just a prophet. He is the Savior of the world.

This Samaritan woman, Photini, according to the narrative of the Church, escaped the condemnation of her conscience because she permitted her heart to receive the mercy of God in Christ. “In Christ,” says the epistle to the Hebrews, “there is no more remembrance of sin.” And I leave you with this question today: Why should you remember what God has forgotten? Amen.