The Maybes and the Possibles
God is good
The word ACTS is a helpful way to remember the four classical categories of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. In my prayers of Adoration, I find my self often giving praise to God for being good.
What does it mean that God is good? First think of what it would mean if God were not good? What if we actually believed that God was like Zeus or Apollo – sometimes good, sometimes extravagantly bad; capable of lies, deceit, murder, adultery, pettiness, vengeance, rage, capable of anything a human (with power) is capable of.
If God were not good (or if he were not always good) he could not be depended upon either to do good, or even have goodness his goal for the world. If God were not essentially good, then when he gave a command, we would never know why. We would never know if the command was for our good, or merely a whim – or worse, perhaps simply to enjoy being powerful.
When we say “God is good” we are saying much more than simply that he does good things instead of evil things, we are saying that goodness defines him. Whatever he does in relation to us is good. He wants what is good for us. His commands are good; they are meant to help us, to guide us, to keep us from hurting ourselves or each other, and to help us to become more and more authentically human as he created us to be.
Amos’ passionate plea for goodness
We start with God’s essential goodness and this will help us to understand the emotional wind in Amos’ sail. He observed the standard operating procedures of his day – the evil – and he saw the damage it did to innocent people. He saw judicial corruption; the law courts, or as they said, “the gates,” where justice should be blind to social class or economic level, but the opposite was happening:
10They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. 11Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain… 12you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.
God, who is good, therefore commands them to:
14Seek good and not evil,
Why be good?
You can hear the objections: “Why seek good? Wouldn’t goodness limit our reliable sources of income? Besides, everyone is doing it. This is the real world; poor people are used to being taken advantage of; it’s like bribery in Russia and drugs in Afghanistan – from the president down to the peasant, this is just “normal.”
Why seek good? God’s answer, in the mouth of his prophet Amos is:
that you may live;
Evil is destructive – life-taking; evil kills; it kills both the one who is receiving the evil treatment and the one giving it. Evil rots the soul – even as the proceeds of evil stream in.
God is good; he does good and he wants what is good, and so he commands good commands for our good. Hear the next words of command:
15Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious…
Hate evil and hate the damage done by bribery, corruption, oppression and all forms of evil. Hate it when people suffer. Hate it when they loose their pensions; hate it when they cannot afford health care; hate it when their home owners insurance company cancels them after years without claims.
Love the good. Love it when people are able to be honest, when justice is expected and justice is accomplished. Love it when people are able to work their land, harvest their crops, feed their families, tithe to the temple, and give alms to the poor. This is how it is supposed to be; this is how we thrive; this is how we truly live and enjoy living.
Did you hear that dark, ambiguous, uncertain outcome? “It may be that the Lord… will be gracious…” – but, on the other hand, it may already be too late. In Amos’ day, the evil had rotted the pillars holding up the roof; it was too late. It collapsed.
Jesus and the Goodness of God
God is good; God wants what is good – and this is almost the same thing as saying that God loves us. What is love, if not willing goodness for someone? Goodness and love are directly connected.
There is exactly one story in all of Matthew, Mark and Luke in which we are told that Jesus loves a specific person; only one. This is the one we read today from Mark’s gospel. Let us look at this story for a moment.
The story begins with a man who comes up to Jesus and calls him “good”.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus take the opportunity he has just been given by the use of the word “good” to make the point that goodness is a quality that God alone can lay claim to.
18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
(Let us be clear: after the resurrection you could look back on this conversation and wonder whether Jesus was asserting something about his divinity – God is good, Jesus is good, therefore Jesus is God – but that is not, I believe what is happening in real time.)
Jesus probably knew this man – he was no nameless peasant lost in the crowd: he was a man with “many possessions” – a landowner, an employer, a notable, a man whose reputation was not a secret. Jesus knew this man was about to assert his own goodness, and Jesus wanted to make sure that the bar measuring goodness was set at the proper level: the measure of goodness is God, who defines goodness, and does so uniquely.
But Jesus knows that the standard of goodness this man is accustomed to using is the law of Moses, specifically, the ten commandments. So, Jesus begins with them:
19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”
The 4 commandments, or 5?
Wait; certainly Jesus knew the commandments in order, right? Why didn’t he start with number one? Why did he only cite numbers 6, 7, 8, 9, and 5? and what about the one he slipped in there that is not in the ten commandments, the one about not defrauding? Is he messing with this guy?
Yes he is, I believe, a little; but he was messing with him out of love. Love is goodness in both will and action. Jesus looked at this man who had come to him with an honest question, and loved him. Here he was, a man who had been trying to do the good in his own life – at least up to a point – and we cannot gainsay that point. He had kept the commandments, and hoped that the bar was set right there: at the level of not doing evil.
20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
But this is still along way from Amos’ command to hate evil and love the good. Rule-keeping is not about love. Rule keeping is better than rule-breaking, but the bar for measuring goodness is set by God; loving the good means loving loving. It means willing the good for all people made in God’s image. It means loving goodness in action: justice, mercy, kindness, generosity,
21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
So now the truth is out in plain sight. This man loved his wealth more than he loved the good. He was OK with the status quo. The fact that he was surrounded by suffering was apparently not on his horizon. He was keeping the rules. What did that have to do with poor people?
Jesus did not despise him; he loved him. He saw the tragedy in his mistake. Jesus saw in this man the error that we, inside the community of faith are so easily drawn into; the error of thinking that what God wants most from us is keeping the rules. And yes, it is better for us if we keep the rules than if we break them, but what God wants is not merely that we survive, but that we thrive! He wants us to live! He longs for us to experience the joy life as it was meant to be lived.
“Seek good…that you might live”
But when you have “many possessions” it is hard to keep open hearted. It is hard not to get defensive even bringing up the subject, and we are a lot like those people, who did in fact start getting defensive.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
Love is about willing the good and acting for the good of another. Jesus was not asking people to live lives of misery and poverty, but to live lives of abundance in a community of people who measure their own goodness, not by rule-keeping, but by the standard of love:
29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Hate evil: be horrified at the evil in the world and the damage done. Love the good; seek the good: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God – and let your heart be good enough to see the pain, and to respond with love.
Can people with “many possessions” live for goodness? It would take a miracle. Let us pray for that miracle!