Why even bother being good?

Just before Advent, Donald Schell and Amber Evans sent us some reflections from their preaching group. We publish the first of these today, and will publish the second on Saturday.

By Amber Evans and Donald Schell

Donald: For the past three years we’ve met monthly to talk and think together about the work of preaching. We’ve been four or five priests, and two lay preachers. I guess I’m the oldest in the group. The youngest, Amber Evans, was in seminary with my son.

Sometimes we read or listen to a sermon one of us has preached. Sometimes we talk about a reading that’s coming up or someone will raise an issue in mission or Christian formation and wonder how to explore it in preaching. I love the give and take of the group, the way we work to hold one another accountable for real, honest experience, the way we keep asking how we’re hearing Good News ourselves even when texts are difficult.

Recently the lectionary had us, like a lot of preachers, struggling with some of Jesus’ most challenging parables, difficult parables like the corrupt steward and the unjust judge. Our passionate, energetic conversations kept taking us deeper into uneasiness and uncertainty. And we kept preaching and reporting back to the group what we were learning.

I’d nearly completed a piece on those parables for the Café when I read Amber describing some powerful discoveries she’d made about these parables in her work with kids. Amber and I traded our explorations back and forth, both intrigued at how our discoveries flowed from recent conversations in the group and, beyond that, from ways the group has shaped us both over some years now. What each of us was beginning to see interpreted and enlarged the other’s discoveries.

We’re offering both of our voices here, Amber’s first, and mine in the piece that follows. We hope that preachers and anyone listening to this recent string of difficult parables will be inspired to join us wrestling with these parables. Do comment and speak up!

Amber asks the question these parables leave hanging, “Why even bother being good?” My piece that follows wonders why Jesus evidently enjoyed telling stories about such unsavory characters and whether he really wants good people like us for friends.

Here’s Amber – – –

As chaplain in an Episcopal Day School, I’m responsible for teaching religion to Preschoolers through Eighth graders. Right now I’m teaching parables with my fourth grade class, and they are really bothered by the injustice of God’s love and mercy. It makes them crazy to contemplate that even though they try to be good, God loves someone bad just as much. Fairness is the highest value to kids that age, and to imagine that God isn’t fair—that’s just too much. They begin to wonder, “why even bother being good?”

Teachers who applied parable-style justice in a classroom or parents to a conflict between siblings would have mutiny on their hands. It makes sense to us that our children’s world is structured around consistency, fairness, and incentives to be good, because we hope that they will learn through that structure to want to be good, that it’s its own reward. But fourth grade is a good age to pierce the bubble a little bit. Some of them have thoroughly embraced a “good guys/bad guys” view of the universe. And maybe that has to happen before they can consider the complex idea that though they try to be good, they still make mistakes, so if they want God’s mercy, mercy must also be available to people who have made even more mistakes.

Jesus uses the parables to shock and challenge US out of good guys/bad guys thinking—especially out of our presumption that we are the good guys. Through his parables, Jesus is revealing a deeper structure to the world than the provisional one we create for children (and ourselves). As adults we know how inconsistent and unfair the world can be, and we don’t expect to see good behavior rewarded. Through his parables, Jesus shows us this is actually good news: The world God made is not divided up between good and evil. Before there was ever good and evil, there was God’s unconditional love for all of creation.

With my first graders, I have been using Godly Play to teach the first stories in the Bible. Godly Play is a Montessori-style Sunday School curriculum created by Jerome Berryman. Teachers tell a bible story they’ve memorized by heart, using beautiful, tactile figures to illustrate the story. We’ve done the Seven Days of Creation; Adam, Eve and The Snake; Noah’s Ark and last week we did the Tower of Babel. Now the students are very proud that they know all the stories at the beginning of the Bible. Even though the youngest can’t read, they can look at the Bibles in the classroom and recognize the story through the pictures.

The children are fascinated by the darkness and the gravity of the stories. These are stories about the beginning of everything, why the world is the way it is, human disobedience of God and it’s consequences. It’s serious stuff and the kids feel taken seriously when you talk about it with them.

The Godly Play story about Adam and Eve is a new story and it’s not actually recommended for kids as young as first grade. That’s probably because you could do a Ph.D. dissertation analyzing the postmodern influences in this narrative. I think Jacques Derrida, the great French deconstructionist, might have secretly written this story before he died. The Godly Play version reveals some of the deep theology to the story and I think my first graders get it, or at least, like us, they partly get it.

There are two trees in the Garden of Eden. There is the Forever Tree, whose fruit holds eternal life. And there is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or as the Godly Play story says, “The Tree of Differences.” The sneaky snake tricks Eve and Adam into eating fruit from that tree. At first, everything in the garden was unified—people, and God and creation were all together without differences. But when they eat the fruit, suddenly it all comes apart at the seams, creation falls apart.

Then Adam and Eve know they are different from God and they feel ashamed, and they hide and cover themselves up. And then they’ve left the garden to live in a world where there is good and evil. And so do we… They can’t go back, and they have to find a new way of living and a new way of being with God.

It makes me wonder…what was the world like before there was good and evil?

The Godly Play story describes a kind of unity and intimacy between God and creation. I imagine, not that nothing bad ever happened, but that when it did, it was a matter of grief rather than moral judgment. Death, loss and sadness still happened, but were experienced in a context of total, universal love.

In the hardest times, when we face frightening obstacles, impossible decisions, suffering that feels like it won’t end, when we are reminded that the world is not really the world we create for children …we sometimes get a glimpse of the world that is deeper than good and evil. I have, haven’t you? I’ve been consoled by the image of the Garden of Eden, of an intimate love of God that precedes good and evil. God’s love in that unity isn’t lost to us, just harder to see because now that we know about good and evil; we can’t help but see divisions everywhere, we can’t help but compare ourselves and measure our goodness, and wonder if we somehow deserve the bad things that happen to us.

The parables we’ve been hearing read and preached on in church for many weeks are the antidote to the falling apart in Eden, they’re the remedy that Jesus offers to help us see deeper than good and evil. They tell the story of God’s universal love, they tell us that God loves the righteous and unrighteous, that God loves the good and the bad alike, and there is no reason to hide from God no matter how naked we feel.

God loves the tax collector as much as the faithful observer of the law, the Prodigal Son as much as the responsible son, The Good Shepherd knows all his sheep by name and would give his life to protect any of the sheep (not just the good ones). The parables are good news for bad guys and good guys alike, although if we are too invested in our goodness, they don’t really feel like good news.

Seminary was kind of a competitive place. We’d been told jobs were scarce, so we eyed each other trying to measure up who was smart, who was charismatic, and who was good. Not exactly the Garden of Eden! When I went to work as a priest at The Church of the Epiphany, Gail, the rector, mentored me in a way that freed me from the need to prove myself. She never compared herself to me, but just supported me when my work went well and when I screwed up. Pastorally, she felt love and compassion for the most difficult people in the parish perhaps more than the easy ones—although she could be firm if she needed to be. In three short years of working with Gail, I was practically cured of my competitiveness (at least at work—my husband still won’t play board games with me). Now I am free to do my best, without worrying “is it good enough?”

Parables don’t tell us not to bother being good, they just tell us it doesn’t make us more lovable than others. It’s still true what we teach children: Being Good is it’s own reward. But deeper than that—We can live guided by God’s universal love. Love that doesn’t judge us and doesn’t judge others. We don’t have to compare ourselves to others. And when we face something difficult–frightening obstacles, impossible decisions, suffering that feels like it won’t end– we are freer if we remember that deeper than good and evil, deeper than “good guys and bad guys” is the love God feels for all of creation without judgment.

The Rev. Amber Evans is a priest serving as Chaplain at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Day School in San Mateo, California.

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