I read a very interesting article in the newspaper the other day. At first, it gave me a little hope. Given a survey, a full 89% of the young people questioned felt that being a good person was more important than having money. There was one problem, however. It seems that a third of those same young people had stolen from their parents within the year. One fifth had stolen from a store. One fifth admitted stealing from a friend. A full 69% confessed to cheating on a test in school within the month and 90% had admitted lying to a parent about something significant within the last month. I am so glad they think being good is important—not important enough to actually BE good—but important nonetheless. At least they admitted not always living up to their own ideals.
One look at the world of televangelists and GOP homophobes will tell you that there are a lot of people who claim to have certain values and claim to be what they consider good people while all the while doing the same things they condemn other people for doing (try diagramming THAT sentence sometime). But people have always been like that.
And how do you define being good? Are we good because of what we do? Or are we good because of what we don’t do? I could be the most law abiding citizen in the world and still be a rotten person if I am selfish and greedy and cruel.
Being good is easy for some folks. It’s very simple. Just follow the rules. Follow the rules of society. Follow the rules of society. Play the game, that’s all. Just play the game. I once got into an argument with a lawyer about the financial practices of certain financial institutions. I tried to tell the guy that what the banks were doing was immoral. He answered, “No, it’s perfectly legal.”
“No, but it’s WRONG!”
“No, it isn’t! It’s LEGAL!”
He just didn’t get it. As long as a person follows the rules, it was okay in his book. And that’s good and evil for a lot of folks. Evil is against the rules. As long as it doesn’t break the rules, it’s okay. Jesus redefined good and evil for the people of his world and his generation. As we continue to look over his Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel According to Matthew, we can see what he said:
You have heard that it was said to the ones living long ago, "You will not murder," and whoever might murder is subject to the judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother (or sister) is subject to the judgment. And whoever might say to his brother (or sister), "you empty-head," is subject to the Sanhedrin, but whoever might say, "you fool," is subject into the hell-fire. If, then, you might offer your gift upon the altar and there might remember that your brother (or sister) has something against you, leave there your gift before the altar and go first to be reconciled to your brother (or sister) and then come offer your gift. You agree with your adversary quickly, as long as whoever is with him on the way, lest the adversary deliver you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will surely not go out from there until you might give over the last farthing.
You have heard that it was said, "You will not commit adultery." But I say to you that anyone seeing a woman in order to desire her is now committing adultery in his heart. But if your right eye might cause you to stumble, take it out and throw (it) from you, for it is profitable for you that one of your members might perish and not (that) your whole body might be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw (it) from you, for it is profitable for you that one of your members might perish, and not your whole body be gone into hell. But it has been said, whoever might release his wife, let him give her a divorce. But I say to you that anyone releasing his wife, except of word of illicit sex, does adultery to her, and whoever might marry the one released is being adulterous.
Again, you have heard it was said to the ones living long ago, "Do not swear falsely, but you will give to the Lord your oaths." But I say to you, do not swear at all, not by heaven, for it is a throne of God, nor by the earth, for it is a footstool of his feet, nor by Jerusalem, for it is a city of the great king, nor might you swear by your head, for you are not able to make one hair white or black. But let your word be "yes, yes, no, no." But whatever is more than these is out of the evil one. (Matthew, Chapter 5)
Now you have to remember that whoever wrote Matthew (and most scholars are of the opinion that it was not Matthew) was writing for a very specific audience. He was writing the book primarily for Jewish Christians—specifically, Jewish Christians who thought they were better than their gentile Christian brothers and sisters. And being Jewish, and of that culture, the thought was that you were a good person if you followed the laws that Moses gave the people back in the wilderness. So if you didn’t kill, you didn’t steal, you didn’t fool around with the neighbor’s wife, you were pretty much okay with the Lord.
According to the law, I might consider myself a pretty good person, but calling a person stupid, or looking at some sweet thing with desire in my heart? By those standards I am royally screwed. Who the hell can live up to that?
Nobody, that’s who, and that’s the whole point. Ask any addict and you will hear what all addicts know. You cannot begin to get better until you realize you have a problem. You cannot begin to know and understand the creator until you come to understand that you need the creator. The prophet, Isaiah, said, "All our righteousness is like filthy rags." No matter how good we might think we are, we aren’t really very good at all. When the temple official went to the temple, he thanked God he was a better person than the tax collector. The tax collector simply asked God to be merciful to him, a miserable sinner. Jesus said the tax collector was the guy who was in the right. The temple official thought he was a good guy because of the things he wasn’t doing.
All of those laws are based on not doing things. Don’t kill people. Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Jesus told us the way to know God isn’t by what you’re not doing, but by what you do. Do take care of people. Do share what you have. Do forgive. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Trust in your heavenly father/mother.
Many people think that’s all well and fine, but you can’t really live that way. Well, Saint Francis de Assisi lived that way. Gandhi lived that way. The Amish live that way. The Shakers lived that way. There have been people who lived that way. There are people still that live that way. We could all live that way. But it takes work. I am sure that all those young people who think that being good is more important than having money would like to be good. They are just not willing to do the work necessary to be good.
There is a section in the Gospel According to John in which Jesus asks his friend Peter if he loves him. Peter answers that he loves Jesus. But Jesus asks again, and Peter repeats his love for Christ. Then Jesus asks Peter a third time. Peter, now really upset, answers yet again that he loves Jesus.
John was written in Greek. Greek is a very precise language. When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Jesus uses the Greek word “Agapao”, which means to love wholly and completely, with all the heart, the way a parent loves a child. Peter answers using the Greek word “Phileo”, which is the type of love one would have for a friend. Jesus once again asks using “Agapao”. But Peter, do you LOVE me? And Peter again answers with “phileo”. The third time, Jesus asks using the word, “phileo”. Jesus took what Peter had and Peter ended up taking the gospel to Rome, dying on a cross upside-down, not feeling worthy to die in the same way as his Lord.
What this says to me is that God will take whatever we have to give and work with that. Maybe we’re not all ready to be like Saint Francis or Gandhi yet. Okay, God will take what we can give and will work with that. We take baby steps. Little by little we grow in faith. Little by little, we grow in love, one kindness after another. And maybe someday, we might actually grow into pretty decent people. It takes a lot of work, but then faith isn’t for sissies.
And even if you do all those wonderful things, it isn’t the doing of the wonderful things that connects you to God. You’re connected to God by virtue of being a child of God. You are connected to God because of the love of God. And when you share that love with others, the love grows. You won’t always feel so loved. In fact, Jesus tells us that when you follow his teachings you will more than likely be treated pretty crappy, and that’s okay. It’s okay because you know that doing those things is your connection to God. You are being the hands of God on earth. That’s what faith is all about. You do the wonderful things because of that God connection. It’s what you do. It’s what you are compelled to do.
Jesus said we were the salt of the earth. That meant we were valuable. We are valuable by our very existence. It isn’t what we do or don’t do that makes us children of God. We are children of God because we exist. So we shouldn’t think of ourselves as good people because we don’t break the laws. Deep down we’re the same as everybody else. There’s no being superior to anybody else. That’s what Matthew was trying to say. Jesus was telling his followers to completely change their way of thinking. In essence, he’s saying everything you people think you know is wrong.
So maybe those young people weren’t that far off after all. They do realize that being good is important. They just don’t always make it. We are all trying to be good people—well, most of us anyway. But we fail, all of us. We fail, we fall, and then we get up and try again, thankful in the knowledge that it isn’t our goodness that connects us to God. It is the love of the creator.