Friday, June 18, 2010

The Inferiority Of Goodness

Our Old Testament lesson about Elijah cursing Ahab
is gratifying in the same way a Die Hard movie is gratifying.
We like to see the bad guy get his comeuppance.

But theologically, it is a real problem.
It says that if we commit sin we will suffer misfortune
for it here in this earthly life as punishment.
The implied corrolary is that if we suffer misfortune,
it’s a punishment for our sins.
God gives us cancer or wipes out our savings
and may even afflict our children just to punish us.

It did not take the Jewish people long
to recognize that things don’t really work that way.
The world is not that rational or that fair.
Good people suffer hardships while bad people often flourish.
The idea of God punishing sin with suffering
fell apart and was rejected in the Hebrew Scriptures
long before the birth of Jesus.
Jesus said his Father caused the sun to shine
and the rain to fall on good and evil alike.

God is not in the business of retribution.
But sin nonetheless has its weight and its consequences.
There is a moral order to the universe.
Great philosophers like Kant proved it through logic.
Even atheists like Greg Epstein insist that there is
a moral order we need to obey.

We may argue about whether some things are right or wrong.
But we all know there is such a thing as right and wrong.
Otherwise we couldn’t be having the argument.

When we violate that moral order,
we put ourselves out of step, out of synch.
Something gets twisted inside us
and in our relationships with others.
God may not be lurking around to zap us with a disease
or an accident if we do something wrong.
But the very nature of things gives sin a consequence.

Buddhists call it karma.
Secularists say “what goes around comes around.”
If nothing else, we suffer a wound in ourselves.
We want to think we are good people.
When we do wrong, one of two things happens:
Our self-respect is broken; or
We preserve our self-respect by lying to ourselves,
or devising false justifications.
So we cut ourselves off from the truth.

You know what I miss about being young?
It isn’t so much being stronger, better looking,
and having more hair.
It isn’t even having so much life to look forward to.
It’s that I was so sure of my own righteousness.
I miss being morally sure of myself.

Just one example from many possible examples:
Before I was a parent, I saw what a lousy job
most parents were doing and knew how much better
I would be.
When my children were born, I set out to be so much better
a father than my father had been.
But I was not.

Knowing there were worse fathers doesn’t help much.
Sometimes I was too angry. Sometimes I was too neglectful.
Other times I was too attentive in an anxious unhelpful way.
Often I was too ready to push my children
to succeed at what I wanted so they’d make me proud.
I was in short, pretty bad at parenting.
It is only by the grace of God my children came out
to be the good people they are today.

With the passing years, moral and spiritual failures add up.
Regrets add up.
They add up in every relationship and in every part of our lives.

For those who are comfortable in their righteousness,
the gospel of Jesus Christ may not have much appeal.
They have constructed a self that they are proud of.
They may not feel the need of Jesus.
When I was a recycling vegetarian politically correct young man
I didn’t feel the need of Jesus either.

But I don’t honestly believe we can live without guilt.
I don’t believe even the strongest and best of us can do that
for two reasons.
First, we have to live in human society
and the structures of society are unjust.
The greatest American theologian of the 20th Century,
Reinhold Niebuhr, taught us that we cannot be moral people
in an immoral society.
For example, if the whole world were given the chance
to consume what North America and Western Europe consume,
it would take 5 planets with the earth’s resources
to meet the demand.
How can we justify that?

The second reason we can’t dodge guilt
is that life is morally complicated.
Often the choices we face are not between right and wrong,
but between wrong and worse.
Even if we do our best in those situations,
we come out with a moral remainder.
I don’t know how we can get through life with clean hands.
So a lot of us live with regret.

For us, the gospel is not just good news
– it’s the best news we can imagine.
That brings us to our lesson about the sinner woman
and Simon the Pharisee.
The woman is a forgiven sinner who loves Jesus more than her own life.
Simon is a righteous man, sure enough of himself
to judge the woman as sinner and Jesus as a false prophet.
– sneering at them both from his morally superior seat.

So Jesus tells Simon the parable of the two debtors,
which concludes that he, who has been forgiven much, loves much.
He, who has been forgiven little, loves little.

Jesus does not say Simon has sinned.
He does not accuse Simon of being morally numb to his own failings.
He lets Simon’s self-assessment stand. So we must do the same.
Simon is innocent.
But because he is innocent, he has only his pride to keep him warm.
He has been forgiven little; and so he loves little.

The sinner woman has lost her pride but gained her Savior.
Contrition has broken her heart open to Jesus.
Being forgiven has healed her wounds and more:
It has given her with the capacity to love.
So what is life about anyway – a zero defects score
on some spiritual foreman’s clipboard?
William Blake said “we are put on earth a little space
that we might learn to bear the beams of love.”
That’s what life is about.

We “bear the beams of love” when we can endure them,
when we accept the love of Christ who does not set standards
we have to meet to win his approval
but rather loves us as we are.
We “bear the beams of love” when we carry them
to each other as merciful compassion.

That’s what happens when we give up measuring our worth
by our righteousness.
We stop living in pride and start living in love.

The love of Jesus is better than being blameless,
better than moral confidence.
The point of the gospel is just this:
It is better to be forgiven than innocent.

Every time we come to the communion rail,
we surrender our claims to righteousness
and accept his mercy.
God open our hearts to receive his grace
that it may flower in us as the love of Christ.
God grant us the gift to forgive as we have been forgiven
and love each other as we have been loved.