It isn’t about being good


A sermon preached on October 11, 2009 based upon Hebrews 4:12 – 15 and Mark 10:17 – 28.

We began our service with these verses from the letter to the Hebrews:  “… the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (4:12 -15)

The motivations that come into play in every action we take tends to be multi-layered.  We may be sincerely trying to do the right thing, while simultaneously we are also trying to make a good impression, or maybe create some indebtedness in another person.   We easily deceive ourselves about our motivations.  The verse from Hebrews reminds us that there is no deception before God. 

In our Gospel reading, the rich man comes to Jesus, why?  We don’t know for sure.   On some level there is probably a sincere inquiry for guidance in regard to his spiritual life.   But perhaps there is something else as well; a desire to be praised by someone whose praise who seem to count for a lot, particularly in the company of others.  

I am an aspiring writer.  If I were given the opportunity to take a poem I’d written to a Nobel laureate poet for a critique, perhaps what I really would be looking for is to have the Nobel laureate tell me that the poem is good; I don’t really want a critique on how the poem falters in its images and could be improved.

Oftentimes the compliments we make of others reveals much about how we want others to view ourselves; we praise somebody for being honest, or good looking, or for how much they have done towards a common goal, and maybe what we’re really hoping is that they will say, “Oh, but you’re the one who is honest, or good looking, or you’re the one who has done so much.”

Jesus seems to recognize immediately that “being good” is a major preoccupation for the rich man, revealed at least in part by the way the man addresses him: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  

Surprisingly, Jesus rebuffs the word “good” used to address himself,   saying, “Why do you call me good.  No one is good but God alone.”  This surprises us because our reaction is, “Of course Jesus is good.  Of all people, he has the right to be called ‘good.’”   

But Jesus says no.   “No one is good but God alone.” 

Some commentators suggest Jesus is being coy here, as though he were saying, “If God alone is good and you say I’m “good”, than I must be God, right?” 

But no, Jesus is not being coy.    Goodness belongs to God.  If there is goodness expressed in my life, it is the goodness of God moving through me.  It isn’t me as such.  To locate the goodness in me or in any person for that matter is to be about setting up an idol to worship. 

It can be so deeply ingrained in us to think in terms of there being good people and bad people, and in turn, to be anxious about finding ourselves included in the ranks of the good. 

But what if, as Jesus is suggesting here, there are no good people, or for that matter bad people, per se?  What if all there is are human beings who at a given moment are giving expression to goodness or evil, and that in the very act of locating the goodness in ourselves, we are putting up an obstacle that will block the flow of goodness through us.

You may remember the story of the two thieves who Luke describes dying on crosses beside Jesus.  They’ve both done plenty of bad stuff in the course of their life time.  For all we know, they’ve also done some good stuff.  Who knows?   Only God.

We know how the story plays out.   One thief confesses his sin and defends Jesus.  Jesus says he will be with him this day in paradise.  

The other, stuck in himself — in the bitterness of his life – mocks Jesus.   All we can really say is that at this moment, the light is able to shine through the life of the one thief, and it is being blocked in the life of the other. 

Back to our story of the rich man who came to Jesus:   After rebuffing the term “good,” Jesus refers the man back to the ten commandments — actually to the ones that are most concrete:  Did you murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, cheat, and respect your parents?

This is where the man likes the discussion to take place, because he’s been successful here. “Yes, I’ve kept the commandments, ever since I was a little boy.”  Perhaps he thinks he’s going to get the praise he’s been hungering for, the assurance that he is a good man, destined for eternal life. 

The Gospel writer includes the little detail that Jesus looked at the man, and loved him.   What’s that about?  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Jesus knows this man better than the man knows himself.  To his neighbors, this man seems to have it all together:   he’s got an impeccable reputation, he’s got money.   He seems to have it all. 

But Jesus sees far deeper.  He knows how, despite the man’s appearance of having it all together, deep down he’s still that little boy desperate for approval — desperate to be told that he is, in fact, good enough.  Jesus sees the pain of this little boy — his eternal longing for approval.

Well, if this is the case, why doesn’t Jesus just go ahead an give him what he wants:   Praise him for being good enough, tell him he is, after all, a good man, and don’t worry, you will inherit eternal life?

Perhaps it is because if Jesus were to say this to the man, he knows the man would use it to help prop up the idol he habitually makes out of himself:  “I knew it!  I really am a good person!   Perhaps the best person in this county.  Better, certainly than these others I live among.”    And that idol would promptly block the flow of goodness/God’s love from flowing through him. 

Jesus loves this man, and really wants him to find God’s peace – the real deal — and so he says to the man, “You lack one thing: Go, sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.”

Now this is deeply perplexing not only to the man, but to the disciples as well.   The tradition teaches that there is nothing wrong with wealth per se, in fact, that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing – of God’s favor.                                                                        

The tradition certainly addresses the misuse of wealth – of the sin of oppressing the poor – naming such injustice on the part of the wealthy as sin.  But the tradition never implied wealth itself was a problem.  It’s a blessing — one that can and should be used to do good. 

So it stuns the man and the disciples when Jesus implies that the man must forsake wealth and become poor himself in his quest for eternal life. 

The man is shocked, and can’t do it; he goes away sorrowfully.   He was too attached to his possessions, which, I believe, most of us can surely relate to.

Jesus  adds to the shock when he goes further:  “How hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

What are we to make of this?

It is important to note that Jesus didn’t tell everyone he met to sell all their possessions and give it to the poor.  He seems to have asked this of some, but by no means of all.  Remember Zacheus, the rich little man who climbed up in the tree to see Jesus.   In his encounter with Jesus, the love he finds inspires him to give away half of his money to the poor, without even being asked to do so.  Jesus doesn’t say anything about the half he keeps.

What’s going on here?  Well, I think there is a clue in that preoccupation with “being good” that Jesus recognized in the man when he originally addressed him as “good teacher.”   The man has made an idol out of the idea of being a “good man.”  As long as he stays attached to that identity, his idol will block the flow of God’s grace in his life. 

And in all likelihood, as long as the man has his money, he will manage to keep hold of this idol.  When you’ve got money, it’s easy to maintain the illusions of your personal goodness.   “I don’t lie, I don’t steal.  I don’t cheat.”  Why not?  Well, I don’t have to.  My money pretty much gets me what I want and need — which in turn allows me to look down my nose at those who are tempted to do so.  I’m good.  They’re bad. 

Try being poor for a while, Jesus is saying, and see what happens to your notions of being good.  If the very real possibility exists that you will have to go hungry, or without things you need and want, or that your family will have to, you’ll see how much harder it become to refrain from breaking the commandments.  

The same thing can be said in various other arenas.  It is easier to think of yourself as a good person when your health is good, and you have lots of energy, and in turn to look down your nose at persons who don’t have your personal vitality and energy.  But what happens to that identity when you are laid low with illness, and you feel tired and sick all the time, and you can’t help but think about yourself all the time.  

Or how much harder is it to do the right thing – to act lovingly when the people around you aren’t praising you, telling you how good you are, but rather are competing with you, criticizing you, fighting with you?

So what exactly is the point here?  Is it, go, live as a poor person (or for that matter a sick person, or in a war zone), and then if you can consistently follow God’s laws and do the right thing, then you have the right to call yourself a “good person”?  Then, and only then, can you enter the kingdom of God?

No.  Jesus looked at the man and loved him and saw the heavy burden his idol had become.  Jesus was inviting the man on a path in which eventually he would find himself humbled.  He would come face to face with the fact that he was quite capable of doing evil.  He would learn what it means to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

In a nutshell, that’s what happened to the disciples on the night of Jesus’ arrest.   They thought they were better than others, but were humbled when their terror evoked the survival instinct.

If the man could willingly follow this path, the humbling he would undergo would teach him compassion — that we really are all in this thing called life together, and that the walls we set up between the good people and the bad people are in the end just idols that block the light of God’s love in our lives. 

The lectionary this Sunday included a reading from the book of Job.  The themes dealt with in Job seemed to be just too enormous for me to address in this sermon, but after I thought about the story of the rich man coming to Jesus, it opened up the book of Job to me in a new way.  You may remember that Job is a righteous man – a “good man” – and the preoccupation of the book is with the fact that this really good man who starts out rich, fat and happy has everything taken from him.   For thirty chapters or so the book debates what this all means.   In the final scene, God appears face to face with Job.   Before the awesome wonder of God, the questions that have preoccupied Job and his so-called friends regarding good and bad people and what they can expect in return, are suddenly revealed to Job to be ultimately irrelevant. 

In Romans, Paul says that the sufferings we endure in this life, which can seem so very overwhelming while we are in them, will seem as nothing in comparison to the glory that is to be revealed to us – the wonder of what Job saw – the awesome splendor of what Russ saw when he breathed his last breath in this life last week.

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