The Good Men Do
The last time we went to Ireland, we spent a day taking a bus-tour of the Wicklow Mountains (such as they are. North Americans have to laugh a little at what the Irish call “mountains”.). We went through the village of Avoca where the BBC series, Ballykissangel was filmed, and then to the ancient monastic village established by Saint Kevin back in 540 CE called Glendaloch. The Village gets its name from the twin lakes less than a mile or so down the road from the village. Glendaloch is Gaelic for “two lakes”. The buildings there are simple, stone buildings, built to withstand the elements. There is nothing fancy about them. And many of them are still standing to this day, the roofs still water tight. The village was meant as a sort of sanctuary from the wild world outside. And, as beautiful as the country is there, you can see why Kevin thought it to be a holy place. Still, the monastery is broken down and deserted.
And as I think about Glendaloch, I can’t help but think of Imperial Rome. Here was a civilization that lasted a thousand years. And our own culture still carries vestiges of that ancient culture. Our government, our language, our alphabet, owe a great deal to this ancient culture. But the grand buildings that remind us of what was once the majesty of Rome are little more than ruins today. The Coliseum is not much more than a skeleton of what it once was. At one time that empire seemed invincible. They ruled nearly all of the known world. Today, the Italians can’t even make a decent car (if you don’t count the ridiculously expensive custom made jobs like the Ferraris), or a comfortable pair of shoes. Nothing here on earth lasts forever I suppose.
This week the Gospel According to Luke finds Jesus still in Jerusalem. He is in the Temple courtyard and he hears someone commenting on the beautiful stones that adorned the temple and the votive offerings there. And Jesus speaks to the crowds and tells them that the day is coming when there won’t even be one stone left upon another of this grand building. And his followers, no doubt being scared shitless, ask him when this is going to happen. Jesus proceeds to tell them that they should be sure not to be deceived and that a lot of people are going to come along and tell them the end of the world is coming. He then gives them a number of signs to watch for so they will know the time is near. He tells them that they will be persecuted and some will even be put to death, but that they should stand firm in their faith.
Now this is a good time to point out how one Gospel affects another and how the gospel fits in with the events that were happening at the time. We know that Luke and The Acts of the Apostles were both written by the same guy, probably not Luke. Luke was volume one and Acts was volume two (and there was no worm on the shelf, either). We know they were probably written before 60-70 CE, because both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome about this time and Acts does not mention this. Certainly and event so important to the early church would have been mentioned. So we can assume the text was written about this time. Luke borrows heavily from Mark and Matthew, which were written about 60 CE. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. So what Luke has done here is added some prophecy sort of after the fact. In other words, at the time Luke was being distributed, Christians were already going through a great deal of persecution. The Romans may have even already destroyed Jerusalem. Luke has Jesus predicting that this would happen. Whether Jesus actually said these things or not has been open to argument. If you were being persecuted, it would help you stay firm in the faith if you thought your teacher had predicted that would happen. And of course, he might have. But he may not have. That doesn’t really change the lesson of this passage.
Jesus, in the course of his ministry, often talks about the foolishness of building up a great store of riches here on earth only to die and leave it all behind. And that is the whole point. Nobody is going to remember us for the great house we had and the beautiful car we drove. When we shuffle off this mortal coil we will only be remembered for the kind of person we were. The temple in Jerusalem was a marvel of first century architecture. It was beautiful to behold. But the priests and officials were corrupt and Roman collaborators. They were more interested in outward shows of pious behavior, but lacked any true spirit of love and righteousness. And today, all that remains of that beautiful temple is one wall, the Wailing Wall, and on that site stands a beautiful mosque. And that too, will one day be gone. Nothing here lasts forever.
William Randolph Hearst built a beautiful castle here in San Simeon, California. I have toured that castle and it is beautiful, albeit over the top, to be sure. But nobody remembers Hearst for his castle, really. He is remembered for starting the practice of “yellow journalism”, for starting a war in order to sell newspapers, and for his numerous affairs with young actresses. He may even have gotten away with murder. His newspaper, The Herald Examiner, is gone today. Someday, even that castle will be gone. But history will remember William Randolph Hearst.
We spend so much of our time trying to get stuff. We work hard and we want the toys to prove it. We want the new phones and the new cars. And we put a lot of energy into getting all that stuff. But as I look back on my life, there’s not much stuff I had twenty years ago that I still have today. And when I die, I’m not taking any of that stuff with me. How do I want to be remembered? Do I want my kids to think of me as a guy who had a lot of stuff, or do I want them to remember me for being a guy who stood up for what was right, and for a guy who helped make the world a better place? Not that there’s anything wrong with having stuff. Jesus had no problems with rich people. Some of his favorite people were rich. But they weren’t owned by the possessions. They were willing to give them away. Even Zacchaeus said he would give half of all he owned to the poor, and he owned a lot.
But even as Jesus was pointing out the temporary nature of our lives, his followers were fixated upon the events that were going to come to pass. They wanted to know when everything was going to fall apart. And then Jesus reminds them not to be fooled. A lot of people are going to say the end is near. They are not to listen to them. When the end is coming is not important. It is not how the journey ends that matters; it is how we travel. Certainly the end of the world is coming for all of us someday. There is no doubt that we are all going to die one day and when we do, that’s the end of the world for us. What does it matter when the whole shebang comes to a screeching halt? It’s not like there’s anywhere we can go and hide. The end will come when the end will come. The only thing that is certain is that an end WILL come, either an end of everything for everyone, or an end for us. And when that end comes, what sort of temple will we have built for ourselves?
The great, elaborate temples and buildings of the past are all gone, in ruins. Even Saint Kevin’s simple well-built monastic community is in ruins and deserted except for the constant flow of tourists. Jesus knew, and warned us, that it is the good we do while we are here that is our real memorial. This view is not limited to Christianity. The Hindu and Buddhists teach the doctrine of karma. What we do creates our energy, our “soul print” on the sands of time. Do not worry about how your life will end, or when it will end, worry about how you live. And the good we do touches more people that we can possibly imagine, like ripples in a pond. Each act of kindness makes the world a little better in an exponential way.
William Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar that the good men do is oft interred with their bones. The bad men do lives long after. Shakespeare was wrong. All we do lives long after we are gone, the good and the bad, even after people have long forgotten that we ever existed. As a wise man once pointed out to me, we are all on the road to eternity; the only question is which direction we’re going.