"Is this situation ethics, or what?"

From: Ken Jobst
Subject: Situation Ethics & the Apostle Paul

Dear Seapadre:

Belated congratulations on the 25th anniversary of your ordination! (OK, so it's over a year late -- sorry!)

A question about the Apostle Paul and Situation Ethics:

In Acts 25, we find the Apostle Paul pleading his case before King Agrippa. Luke makes it a point to mention Bernice's presence. Bernice, according to the footnotes in the New Jerusalem Bible, was Agrippa's sister and wife (ie., Agrippa and Bernice carried on an incestuous relationship).

In Luke 3:19, Luke tells us that John the Baptist landed in prison (and was subsequently executed) because he rebuked Herod the tetrarch concerning Herodias, his brother Phillip's wife. (I guess Herodias was Herod's niece, as well.)

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul addresses the issue of sexual immorality in the Corinthian congregation -- a man has his father's wife -- "such immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles".

See where I'm headed here? John rebukes Herod, and is killed. Paul rebukes the situation in Corinth, where he is in a position of authority; but (to put this delicately and with respect) when Paul's life is on the line, he says nothing to King Agrippa about the incestuous relationship with Bernice. King Agrippa perhaps even comes close to conversion (Acts 26:28), and Paul lets it go.

Is this situation ethics, or what? Lack of nerve on Paul's part? It is my understanding that the relationship between Agrippa and Bernice was common knowledge at the time.

I realize that the Apostle Paul isn't Jesus; that Paul could make mistakes like all of us ( I've always had a little trouble with Galatians 5:12), but could you help shed a little more light on this episode?

Rest assured that you and your parish are in my prayers.


                                Ken Jobst
                                Scottsburg, Indiana


Dear Ken,

Well, it's May and I am finally responding to your email. Ken, you are an acutley observant soul! I would hate to have you in my congregation listening to my homilies - and comparing what them to what I do and say in other circumstances. :) Of course, my life is hardly as coherent as St. Paul's was. It is possible that Paul at times got carried away with his arguments. Gal 5:12 about "wishing the knife would slip" could be an example, although we have to remember what a terrible threat Paul was resisting.

Paul's failure (at least from what is related in Acts) to bring up Agrippa's incestuous relationship with Bernice could be an example of lack of nerve. Paul was accused of being "timid" when face to face, but bold when far away. (2 Cor 10:1) But it also may have been a case of prudence. Remember the song about the gambler - you've got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them... All of us have to think and pray before we speak, especially if it means calling the other person to task.

I don't think this would be an example of situation ethics. Situation ethics usually means that there is no absolute standard of right and wrong, but that it varies according to each circumstance. The good thing about situation ethics is that it recognizes that conflicting values are often present in human circumstances. However, it is also used to justify almost anything - lying, adultery, stealing.

Have you read Hamlet? Like Agrippa, King Claudius was guilty of incest, as well as fratricide. At the end he had to face his crimes:

In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice;
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law; but 'tis not so above;
There is no shuffling;--there the action lies

The fact we sometimes get away with something can make us think that it was no big deal. Nevertheless, there will eventually come a reckoning. The sad thing about Claudius was that he could not bring himself to repent. Hopefully, you and I will do better.

Those are my thoughts, Ken. Prayers.

Fr. Bloom (Seapadre)

P.S. Thanks for the prayers for me and the parish - and the ordination anniversary wishes. Actually I have now complete thirty-one years of priesthood. They have been good to me and I hope I have a few more.


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