Friday, October 26, 2018

When Being Good is not Enough

 Am I a Good Person?

This is the question that people ask in times of crisis.  One can ask it when they are going through a difficult ordeal and wonder if the difficulty is deserved.   One can also ask this when they see that there is much in the world that seems evil, and ruminate if he or she is part of the problem or part of the solution.  It is also the question that most people have asked when considering if they are worthy of eternal life.   The story of the rich man which is found in Mark chapter 10 deals with this question in a unique way.

This wealthy man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. (Mark 10:17) He is wondering because his answer to the question "am I a good person?" is by the cultural standards of the day a resounding yes.   When Jesus refers the  man to find the answer in scripture, he gives the reply “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” (Mark 10:20 NRSV).  So the man is saying "yeah, I am good person."  Yet this man came to Jesus with a longing in his heart that there was something more important than being a good person in the eyes of God.

 Give It All Away to the Poor?

Jesus tells him straight out what is missing.   In order to inherit the kingdom of God he must do two things.   The first is a tall order: sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.   Jesus asks him to do this to show love for those he came to serve.  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:  "For the follower of Jesus there can be no limit as to who is his neighbor except as his Lord decides." Dietrich Bonhoeffer- The Cost of Discipleship   Additionally selling his possessions will remove any attachments that the man may have which may be keeping him from doing the second more important thing which the man lacks for inheriting the kingdom. 

Follow Me

The second thing Jesus asks is even a taller order.  The simple truth is, that the most important thing this man and anyone else can do for that matter, is to follow Jesus.   The selling and giving to the poor is the prelude to the following.  The following is the harder of the two things that Jesus asks the man to do.  Often when reading this passage, we get so caught up in the enormity of selling all one's possessions that we miss how hard it actually is to follow Jesus.   The truth is that the selling of  all one's possessions to help the poor only leads one to the kingdom if one follows God during the process.  Bonhoeffer explains this perfectly:  "Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power.  If for instance, we give away all of our possessions, that act is in itself is not the obedience he demands... In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might be choosing a way of life for ourselves.. (one) is not set free from his own self, but still more enslaved to himself."  Dietrich Bonhoeffer- The Cost of Discipleship.  St. Paul was thinking along the same lines in 1 Corinthians 13, when he lists a whole bunch of spiritual and moral gymnastics that he can put himself through and concludes that without love these are worthless.

The fact is that there are plenty of "good people"  who have excellent personal morality, have great manners, and follow the cultural appropriate virtues who never become part of God's work for the world.  I meet wonderfully moral and upright people of every persuasion in my neighborhood.  They can be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic atheist or whatever.   Some of these people will at times live more morally than those of us who belong to the church.  The question Jesus is asking us to consider is not whether or not I am a good person, the question is: do I love God, my neighbor and our world?

The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that through the cross God has shown love to the world.  Through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, God reaches across the chasm that exists between human beings and God.  When Jesus replied to the rich man to follow him, he was inviting him to be part of that work. 

The Radical Gospel 

I have observed two poles where contemporary American Christianity can get off track.   One pole reduces the Gospel to a personal morality code.  I see this often in books written for young Christians.  It is as if the Gospel is reduced to method to program the youth to be a part of someone's idea of respectable society.   This is quite common in churches that preach a "prosperity gospel."  If one follows the rules, the quid pro quo is not only admission to heaven, but worldly wealth as well.  This leaves one permanently in the condition of the rich young man as he approached Jesus.  The person is trapped in a bondage to the self.  I think Jesus died for you for something more than this.

The opposite pole is that if we only fix society than all will be good and everything will be in balance.  Utopia will be at hand.  People are only bad because the structures of society are bad, this reasoning goes.   This reduces the dignity of the person into just being a cog in some machine.   If it is only the culture or society responsible for our actions, than we have lost agency, and are something less than human.  I can not see how the cross makes sense if this is all there is.

God did not send his son to die so that we could live in a prison of self-absorption.  Neither was he crucified to create some hive mind where one's individuality no longer matters.   Christ came as love for love.  Whether we are good enough to be loved is not the point, the point is that we are loved.   I hope this is good news for you. It is good news for me because I am good and bad all mixed up and at times struggle to follow the path Christ has set for me.  To me the choice has never been between good and bad, but between love and apathy.  So Christ lays this choice before us, just as he did for the rich young man.  How will we choose?