Under the Cross: The Morality of Consent
By Mark Buetow
Even though Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, the Lord blessed him in the house of his master, Potiphar, the Egyptian captain of the guard. Joseph pretty much ran the whole household: He was responsible for the finances and groceries and maintenance and the other slaves. When Mrs. Potiphar comes to try and seduce him--"Lie with me!"--well, why not? She's an adult. He's an adult. What would be the harm in it if they are both willing? But Joseph refuses. "How can I do this thing and sin against God?" He also is concerned for his master. Mrs. Potiphar was Potiphar's wife, and Joseph had no right to do that with her. What's ironic is that when Joseph chooses to do the godly thing, he still gets in trouble. She turns him in and he gets thrown into prison. But notice something here: Joseph trusts in the Lord's care, and he refuses to do something wrong even when he knows he could get away with it.
Here's where the world would object. You see, the prevailing moral standard of the day is simply, "consent." If two people are adults, and both consent, then whatever they want to do is okay. No one can tell them they're wrong or say they should not do certain things. But consider this question: Can something be wrong even if everyone is in agreement and there aren't any apparent consequences? The answer depends on whether someone believes in "absolute truth" or "subjective truth." A simple example: Absolute truth says that adultery is wrong. Joseph should not do that with Mrs. Potiphar, because that would be a sin, against God's will. Subjective morality would simply say that if both of them consent, there's really nothing to stop them. Potiphar doesn't own Mrs. Potiphar. She lives her own life.
Backing up a bit, we can look at Joseph's situation from the perspective of the Sixth Commandment. You shall not commit adultery. God says not to lie with someone who isn't your spouse. But there's something beyond that: Love your neighbor as yourself. Joseph knows this, too. He tells Mrs. Potiphar that he is in charge of everything from his master, except her. By saying that, Joseph, even as a slave, shows that he loves his neighbor and doesn't desire to hurt him. Likewise, he doesn't want to sin against God. There are two parts of the Commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. The world says, "If I want to do this thing, and everyone consents, and it makes me happy, then I should do it." As Christians, God's Word teaches us to ask, "Will this thing that I do glorify God or profane Him? Will it help or hurt my neighbor?"
First off, the Law of God should teach us to repent. If you don't ask those two questions about the things you do--if you make choices and take actions solely based on what feels good and satisfies your desires—then you really have turned away from the Lord and His will. To see that and to acknowledge that is our repentance. But fixing it is something else. Sure, if we just asked those two questions every time we decided whether or not to do something, thought about it, and then did the right thing, well, we wouldn't fall into sin, would we? That's the problem. Just knowing what is right or wrong won't make us do right or avoid wrong. That's why the morality of consent is so tempting to buy into. It can't be wrong if everyone is in favor!
So here comes Jesus to sort it out and save us. And the glorious irony is that He consents to His suffering and death! The Sanhedrin (made up of Jewish religious leaders) certainly consented to His death. They wanted Him crucified. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, even though he knew he was condemning an innocent man, even though he knew he was doing wrong, consented to crucifying and killing Jesus. Most of all, though, Jesus Himself consented to His own death. He did not defend Himself against the religious leaders; He didn't defend Himself to Pontius Pilate. Rather, He consented to His own suffering and death, doing the will of the Father. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Not my will but yours be done, Father." Do you see the irony of our salvation? Jesus actually goes along with the wrong choice that everyone else consents to, so that His death on the cross and resurrection will be our salvation.
It's that salvation, that forgiveness, that new life Christ wins for us, delivered and strengthened by His Word, baptismal water, and Body and Blood, that set us apart in this world, free from a horrible "morality of consent." The Spirit has something greater for you when you're faced with the temptation to simply go along because everyone else wants to do something: The confession of the truth of God's Word is that there is a right and wrong, determined by the Lord and not by us. That's a good thing, because it doesn't just mean that God is glorified, but also that our neighbor is truly loved and served. Knowing our morality is rooted in God's Word rescues us from that lame analysis of every action or situation: "Well, what's in it for me?" Put another way, having crucified our sinful flesh with Christ in the waters of Baptism gives us a better perspective on whether we should just consent to something. We instead ask the better question: "Does it glorify God and serve my neighbor?" If not, then let us not sin against God!
The world's morality of consent is a random and messy thing. How old does one have to be to give consent? How do we know if a person consents? The reality is that most people work hard to try to find their way around consent. It's why people try to seduce and scam others all the time, hoping to get what they want while making others think it's what they want. That's a sad and destructive way to live!
Jesus Christ has rescued us from this world's morality. Even if we were to suffer for doing what is truly right in God's sight, we have this assurance and consolation: Jesus works all things out for our good. He forgives our missteps of morality and the messes we make. He gives us His Spirit so that we become a light in the dark and a loving neighbor to those around us. When the world says one thing and actually does another, it is Jesus who lives in you so you can be someone different, someone loving, someone who seeks the good of others as the highest goal. The One who consented to His own death has given you a new life where your every decision isn't based on whether you have permission, but on the freedom of God's love in Christ to love others genuinely.
This article was originally published in the spring 2020 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
Rev. Mark Buetow is the pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in McHenry, Illinois.
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