Trying to Be Good

Wednesday, August 14, 2013 — Week of Proper 14, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 978)

Psalms 101, 109:1-4(5-19)20-30 (morning) // 119:121-144 (evening)

2 Samuel 14:21-33

Acts 21:15-26

Mark 10:17-31

How much of your religious and moral life have you spent trying to be good? Our gospel today shows us how our very efforts to be good might be preventing us from entering the kingdom of God. Jesus came to reveal not the goodness of God, but the love of God, which aren’t quite the same thing.

Early in the passage, Jesus resists one man’s effort to see him as a model and master of goodness. Jesus is just setting out on a journey when a man runs up, kneels in front of him, calls him “Good Teacher,” and asks him a question. Jesus refuses the title “Good”: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus also rebuffs the man’s attempts to treat him as an authority figure who can give him all the answers. When the man asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, Jesus first tells him, “You know the commandments.” The man lists the commandments and assures Jesus that he has kept them all “since my youth.”

But Jesus is attempting to short-circuit this man’s lifetime of programming, all of which has focused on striving to be good. His initial question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, begs another question: Can we “do” anything to inherit eternal life?

Before Jesus speaks his own answer, Jesus fills a pause with the only real answer that we need. The gospel tells us that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” The pause before Jesus speaks is itself the gospel: Jesus takes the time to look and to love the person he is speaking to.

The man doesn’t catch Jesus looking on him with love. He only hears more instructions: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor . . . then come, follow me.”

The man also doesn’t stick around long enough to hear the good news. Instead, he is shocked and goes away “grieving, for he had many possessions.” He misses Jesus’ answer when his disciples ask who can be saved. He tells them that salvation is impossible for mortals to achieve, but “for God all things are possible.”

The man is so intent on being good, and so hung up on his failed efforts, that he misses both the love and the grace that Jesus came to offer.

How would our own religious and moral lives change if we shifted our efforts from being good to being loved? What if, instead of trying to be more generous and compassionate, less stingy and unkind, more organized and self-controlled , less self-destructive and unhealthy, we simply saw ourselves as loved? We would treat others with more honesty, and ourselves with more care.

Jesus knows our greatest weaknesses and most tenacious grasp on things that harm others and ourselves. The tragedy, though, is when we cannot let go of the impossible, suffocating, debilitating effort of being good. When we do not experience Jesus looking at us, loving us. When we go away grieving instead of responding to the invitation, “follow me.”

How can we trade being good for feeling beloved today?

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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