Voices

Overly righteous?

Seeking answers on the little gray ethical choices that arise daily

Issue: "Kerry praying for votes," Oct. 9, 2004

I'm at the Hotel Wolcott on W. 31st. Street, New York, eyeing the one-ounce complimentary bottle of "Tapestry conditioning shampoo" I didn't use, and wondering if it's OK to toss it into the suitcase as I pack.

"Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool . . . the one who fears God shall come out from both of them" (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18).

All right, it's unrighteous to pinch towels and the silver. But is it "overly righteous" to refrain from making off with the cute little soaps?

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Is it "overly righteous" to pay AMC theaters $4 for 15 cents' worth of popcorn and $3 for a Coke-times four kids-when you can easily smuggle your homemade snack into the theater in your handbag?

Is it "overly righteous" to insist on paying adult fare for your 13-year-old on the SEPTA train when the clerk takes a look at him and says with a wink that he's 11? Is it "overly righteous" to pay for a guest to accompany you to the community swimming pool when she could easily get in on your husband's season pool pass, which he hasn't used all summer anyway?

Say you live on a street split down the middle into one-ways going opposite ways, and say your driveway is 20 feet from the split intersection. Is it "overly righteous" to refrain from backing out the "wrong" way and driving the first 20 feet "illegally"? (Is there a slippery slope there? Is it the little gray choices that nibble away at integrity over the long haul?)

Say your 20-year-old son just bought a 2001 Acura, which he added to your insurance policy along with your own '94 Volvo 940. And say you then ask the insurance representative for a breakdown of the premium (for the purpose of later telling your son his share of the costs), and the woman cites a figure higher for your clunker than for the kid's nearly new wheels. And when you seek edification on this point, she explains casually that she put your son as main driver of the geriatric Volvo and you as main driver of the newer vehicle, thus saving you hundreds of dollars. Is it "overly righteous" to complain about that?

When you know for sure that the township requires a permit for bathroom renovation, it's wrong not to get one. But if you're not sure, is it overly righteous to bring it up to the contractor if he himself doesn't mention it?

Say the guy who led you to the Lord 30 years ago remarked, "You realize, don't you, that you'll want eventually to get rid of those Beatles albums." And so you promptly and righteously (or overrighteously) did. And now you wish you hadn't.

I know a Christian couple who found a wad of $500 on the beach. The husband exclaimed, "We've got to find the owner!" The wife simultaneously exclaimed, "Praise the Lord, we can pay the electric bill!"

Smarter people than I-folks more on the ball in the Normative, Situational, and Existential departments-will immediately discern the lack of moral equivalency among my examples. Would you call me, please, because in the course of a day I run into the aforementioned ethical problems a lot more than the problem of how to handle al-Qaeda?

And what's up with Ecclesiastes anyway? Might it not be (like Job) chapters and chapters of "under-the-sun" advice all debunked in the 12:9-14 epilogue?

Or alternatively, couldn't "be not overly righteous" be the Old Testament equivalent of Paul's exhortation in 1 Corinthians 4:4-5: "I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time"? That is, don't go through life with the baggage of a morbidly neurotic and oversensitive conscience?

I want answers. And I want them now. Never mind that while I puzzle at the fringes I often miss the core. While fretting over the Advil purchased on a Sunday for a headache, I am an impossible grouch to my husband-straining a gnat, letting a camel through.

Jesus had a clear eye and always did the right thing about pool tags and shampoo issues. Let me strive to "follow Him more nearly and love Him more dearly, day by day." And in the meantime, if any of you has wisdom on my little conundrums, you know where to reach me.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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