Monday, March 5, 2018

Being Good Doesn't Save Us

protestors block gate at ICE facility in San Francisco

Being “good” doesn’t save us.   It is the joy of falling in love that saves us.  Jesus didn’t come to make us good people.  He came to share his joy with us.   Too often, we settle for being merely “good;” when, in fact, conventional morality can be the greatest barrier to love. 

God’s love frees us from sin and the fear of death so that we can live creatively and joyfully.  Obeying the rules because we fear God stifles joy and blocks the flow of divine love that energizes life.  Our willingness to live freely and fully is the surest sign of trust in God.  In the words of Anthony De Mello, “When people are joyful they are always good; whereas the good are seldom joyful.”[1] 

Humans are notorious for following the letter of the law while missing the spirit altogether.  The story is told of a Catholic Bishop who decreed that the priests in his diocese were forbidden to have female housekeepers under the age of 50.  During one of his diocesan visits, the Bishop was shocked to discover a priest who thought he was observing the law by keeping two 25 year-old housekeepers.[2]

Does that mean we should ignore moral rules altogether?  Of course not.  Consider the words God spoke to Moses concerning the people’s covenant obligations toward God and each other.  The initial list of ten commandments recorded in the Book of Exodus are well known to us and rightly considered foundational moral teachings. They invite a transformation of the heart that goes much deeper than checking boxes off a list of do’s and don’ts.

In rabbinic tradition, interpretation of Scripture gives special attention to the first and last items in a series of texts or a list of proscriptions.[3]  Applying this procedure to the Ten Commandments, the interpretive key becomes the first commandment – to have no other god than God – and the tenth – not to covet what belongs to your neighbor.  The embrace of a genuine transcendence that frees us from envious rivalry with our neighbors leads to spiritual transformation. 

When we receive our identity from God’s desire for us, rather than from imitating the desire of our neighbors for what they possess, we experience a spiritual breakthrough in awareness that is much more than moral respectability.   We know ourselves loved by God, and receive the fulfillment of our deepest desire by reciprocating that love and becoming transparent to it in relationship with our neighbors.   We experience a joy that is rooted in something deeper than transient feelings or changing circumstances: including changing moral codes. 

The 1st commandment is expressed elsewhere in the Torah in terms of this love: “Hear, O Israel:  the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all our heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”[4]  The 10th commandment also is stated positively in the Torah as “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] Jesus approvingly quotes these passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus as the summary and greatest of all the commandments.[6]  

Undergirding all the other moral rules is this invitation to imitate God rather than one another; or, at least, to imitate others only to the extent that they are imitating God.  Jesus tell us, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another and I have loved you.”[7]  Morality must be rooted in this passionate desire to love as God loves, and not by fear of punishment.  Such fear only leads to self-righteousness, and a fanatical desire to punish those who break the rules.   The joy of being in love is what makes genuine goodness possible.   

Perhaps ironically, this passionate love will often bring us into conflict with the moral conventions of our culture.  This was certainly Jesus’ experience.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes his first public appearance at a wedding feast in Cana, where he turns water into wine:  specifically, the water used for rites of purification is turned into the wine that makes our hearts glad.  The kingdom of God often is depicted as a wedding feast where we are united with God in love.  The note of joy is hard to miss, overshadowing our preoccupation with moral or ritual purity. 

It is a bit jarring that Jesus moves directly from the wedding in Cana to the Temple in Jerusalem, where he begins to clean house.  Whereas the other Gospel’s place this symbolic action protesting the guardians of conventional morality at the end of Jesus’ ministry, John moves it to the beginning.  Jesus is appalled by the materialism and economic exploitation at the very center of the religious and political life of Israel.  He drives out the cattle and sheep with a makeshift whip of cords, overturns the tables of the currency exchange, and even orders the dove sellers to clear out.  He rejects any attempt to cover over exploitation and injustice with a veneer of religious legitimation. 

Jesus places himself in direct conflict with the sacrificial system of his day, in which moral convention is founded upon structures of sacrifice:  not just of animals, but of women, the poor, the sick, and the alien.  The priests and scribes, the folks buying and selling in the temple, obeyed the law.  They followed the rules.  They were certain that their goodness would save them.  The problem was that there “goodness” was rooted in rivalrous envy and fear, rather than love.  It led to violence and death, rather than joy.    

Too often, the story of the cleansing of the Temple has been used to justify anger and even violence in the service of protecting conventional structures of morality. St. Augustine cited it to justify the torture and killing of schismatics and heretics; reading the text contrary to the previous three hundred years of interpretation, which understood it to be a nonviolent protest.   The Greek text makes it clear that the whips were used to herd the animals; not to punish humans.  There is nothing in the Gospel accounts indicating that Jesus was angry.[8]

It is Jesus’ absolute commitment to love, the joy of the wedding feast, that brings him into conflict with the guardians of conventional morality.  John’s Gospel wants us to understand the meaning of Jesus in terms of this commitment to love that brings us joy, and the risks that we will undertake for the sake of love:  even if it means being “bad” from the perspective of conventional morality.   Rather than legitimate the structures of sacrifice upon which the Temple is built, literally and figuratively, Jesus signifies its end, replacing it with the sacrifice of his body: creative of a new, joyful form of human community based on sacrificial love rather than sacrificial violence.

Hundreds of protestors gathered downtown last Wednesday in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in response to the arrest and detainment of more than 200 undocumented Bay Area immigrants.  I thought about the students at June Jordan High School with whom I met last month, who spoke movingly of the sacrifices their parents made to bring them to this country; risking everything, defying conventional morality, for the sake of the joy of love. 

One of these students, “Jorge,” is a DACA recipient (for now), whose parents are undocumented.  When he became aware of the threat of deportation his parents face, it filled him with great anxiety and sadness.  He felt threatened, outcast and alone.  He bravely attended the protest on Wednesday, accompanied by our sister, Lorena Melgarejo.   When he looked around at the hundreds of people, his eyes widened with inexplicable wonder as he said to her, “They really love us, don’t they?”

In the Letter to the Hebrews we are told that for the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.[9]  Jesus willingly occupied the place of shame in solidarity with the unloved, for the sake of the joy of sharing God’s love with them.  That is what Jorge’s parents did.  That is what the protestors were doing downtown on Wednesday, and those accompanying detainees at their courtroom appearances inside the building.  When morality stands in the way of love, then let us willingly occupy the space of shame for the sake of the joy that is set before us.  As Anthony De Mello laments, “Most people, alas, have enough religion to hate but not enough to love.”[10]   

Being good doesn’t save us.  The joy of falling in love saves us. 

[1] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 92.
[2] De Mello, p. 172.
[3] The following draws from C.K. Barrett’s discussion of covetousness in his A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (p. 141-145) at 
[4] Deuteronomy 6:4-6.
[5] Leviticus 19:18b. 
[6] Mark 12:29-31; cf. Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-28.
[7] John 15:11-12.
[8] See Andy Alexis-Baker, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15,” Biblical Interpretation, v. 20 (2012), pp. 73-96.
[9] Hebrews 12:1-3.
[10] De Mello, p. 80.

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