When I took an ethics class in college, one of the things we did most was study stories. Growing in moral character is not just a matter of learning rules, but understanding stories. I think this is one of the big reasons why the Torah is not just a list of rules and laws, but a collection of many stories. These stories cause you to think about the character of God, and to reflect on your own character, too – and how God is growing you.
One of my favorite stories was the Walrus and the Carpenter, from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, published in 1871. The story is told to Alice by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, about a Walrus and a Carpenter who go into the sea and entice a bunch of oysters to follow them (there is a lesson there about not following strangers!). We can pick up the story as the Walrus and the Carpenter have invited them to a “meal”:
“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said, “Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides, Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear, We can begin to feed.”
“But not on us!” the Oysters cried, Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be, A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said. “Do you admire the view?
“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said, “To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far, And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but “The butter’s spread too thick!”
“I weep for you,” the Walrus said: “I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out, Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief, Before his streaming eyes.
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter, “You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’ But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because, They’d eaten every one.
So who is the worse villain, who has worse moral character – the Walrus or the Carpenter? The Walrus feels bad for what he is doing – he weeps for them as he eats; the Carpenter feels no remorse at all – and would even like to eat more. They both have the same action – but different intentions, different feelings of guilt. That brings us to our question: Is our moral character based on our actual actions, or our intentions? What do you think? Even harder – how do you tend to evaluate life – on intentions, or on actions? Do you have the same standard for yourself as you do for others? Which matters more: intentions, actions, both???
How does the Bible talk about our moral character – more about actions, or more about intentions? What did Jesus have to say? Next week I will share some of my thoughts on these questions. For this week, think on these things, and please share your thoughts, too!