Psalm 19:8-11 and John 2:13-22
Even Jesus couldn’t be good ALL of the time, so he gathered some friends.
Soon after taking up residence in Kaohsiung in 1982 I reported to the Foreign Affairs Police to apply for an Alien Resident Certificate (this duty didn’t switch to the Immigration bureau until late in the 90s). Having submitted the application and paid the fees, I was on my way out of the building when a man at the door engaged me in conversation, using English (which was good, because I didn’t yet speak ANY Taiwanese and what little Mandarin I had was not very useful). He asked what brought me to Taiwan, and I said that I had come to be a missionary. His response was to tell me his opinion of religion in general. It didn’t matter what religion one had, because they are all the same. Their purpose is to “Make People Good”.
In this, he wasn’t wrong. All religions serve, in part, to make people good. If a person wants his or her children to be “good”, one recommendation is to make sure that they get some sort of religious training. The “new” religion out of China about 25 years ago, which is still illegal in China but is just fine to practice in Taiwan, is known as Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong. On their banners, billboards and vests, the slogan “Falun Dafa is Good” predominates. It is intended to attract people who see it to explore the teachings of Falun Dafa.
I’d like to draw your attention to the diagram on the screen, which may challenge some common ideas about religion and goodness. If we sort people into the four types suggested here, we can probably say that we know some folks who are in each of them.
|Have religion||No religion|
|Good||Have religion & is good||No religion & is good|
|Not Good||Have religion & is not good||No religion & is not good|
So, who or what IS good, who or what WAS good, and did that person who we hold up as “good” HAVE a religion or NOT? Were the actions which we say are “good” connected in any way with any religion?
It’s easy to say, “what would Jesus do?”, because we have already decided, just because he was Jesus, that he was good, so everything that came from him was good. Sometimes, though, it helps to take another look, and see things from a different angle.
I JESUS CLEANSING THE TEMPLE (John 2:13-22)
Recently I’ve been reading the Gospel of John devotionally, that is, not to learn from it, but to be inspired and maybe transformed by it. I read a small section every day, from 5 to 20 verses depending on how the stories divide out, and I’ve reached chapter 7. The New Testament story we read today, from chapter 2, caused me to go back and re-think certain things.
The Gospel of John begins with a wonderful and philosophically loaded chapter on the meaning of God in creation and eternity, and firmly links Jesus to all of that. In Chapter 2 we meet Jesus at a wedding, changing water into wine. People do a lot of things with this story to show how Jesus cared about keeping customs, making people happy, and surprising people with GOOD wine. But the next story, the one we read today, finds Jesus in the temple, where he: 1) makes trouble; 2)destroys property; 3) disturbs ordinary business, and 4) causes people to run away. If anyone were to come into any of our classes, churches, or even a birthday party and do something like that, we would say, “This is NOT a good person.”
But, because we have already decided that “Jesus is good”, we’ve really got some work to do. Let’s note that as he is introduced in the Gospel, he is linked to God’s self expression (the word made flesh) and we are told that he came full of grace and truth. In the story we read today, he shows that he was angry because people were misusing the temple, which was to be a place of prayer, by turning it into a marketplace. (In the comment by the gospel writer found in verse 17, we’re given the Bible verse that makes it all “right”). Keeping the places where people come to pray clean and pure so is a good thing to do. Before entering a mosque, one takes off one’s shoes. When in the mosque, people turn off their smart phones. This is considered “good” behavior whether or not one is a Muslim, and whether or not one has entered the Mosque to pray or to deliver a pizza.
So, Jesus’ actions in the temple that day had a good purpose. But, was he good? He disturbed the leaders. He made a scene. Me made noise, which was not joyful noise, and by making and using a whip, he acted, you might say, violently. THIS IS NOT GOOD!
I guess that, if we were his teacher and giving him a grade, he would not get 100 points.
II WHAT MAKES PEOPLE GOOD? Psalm 19:8-11
It’s so easy to say, “become like Jesus and you’ll become good”. You could even print that on a T-shirt. But from the story we read, we can see that not every action he took was necessarily completely good. So, maybe “Jesus only” is not a complete enough response.
We read a few verses from Psalm 19 this afternoon. That psalm, those verses, were written long before Jesus showed up. They were part of the song book used in the places where he prayed and worshipped, and likely were part of whatever religious training he had as he grew from a boy to a man.
|“The laws of the Lord are right, and those who obey them are happy.
The commands of the Lord are just and give understanding to the mind.
Reverence for the Lord is good; it will continue forever.
The judgements of the Lord are just; they are always fair.
They are more desirable than the finest gold; they are sweeter than the purest honey.
They give knowledge to me, your servant; I am rewarded for obeying them.”
If we follow the reasoning found here, it is the existence of a set of standards, “the law, commandments, judgments, etc.) of the Lord that has the potential to make people good, and the knowledge of those things that MAKES people good.
And that’s about where we get left much of the time, informed that a set of standards exist, and the only reason why people are not “good” is because they don’t know the standards; they’re ignorant. When that happens, we encourage people to “come to church” (or the mosque, or the temple, or the monastery) to hear about the standards, come to know them, and then, through that knowledge, to become good. Let’s go back to the diagram for a minute.
|Know about religion||Don’t know about religion|
|Good||Know about religion & is good||Don’t know about religion & is good|
|Not Good||Know about religion & is not good||Doesn’t know religion & is not good|
We can’t but conclude that it doesn’t necessarily work with everyone. Not all “not good” people are IGNORANT, and not all “good people” are INFORMED.
“Knowing” in and of itself doesn’t necessarily influence our “doing”. Having a wonderful example, even one so wonderful as Jesus, doesn’t necessarily help us to imitate. We need each other.
III WE NEED EACH OTHER
It is not enough to live alone with merely a Bible (or any other religious or moral Instruction book) in our hands. We are created for community. Even God, as understood in Christianity, is “3 in 1”, incomplete as a One, unconnected as a 3. God, the one God, requires fellowship internally.
- Each and every one of us needs “an other” to hear what we say, so that we can hear, in the other’s response, when (if you’ll allow a musical example) “off key”.
- Each and every one of us needs “an other” to serve as an example to us of what it means to “do” good, because we will often live “in the most convenient way” if someone else doesn’t give us an example of how to do what is right. Here’s an example. If the traffic light at the corner is red, do you drive your bicycle or motor scooter through it? Sometimes. But if others have stopped and are waiting for the green, does that influence you to stop? We need each other.
- We need “an other” to pray for us, because we are often blind to our weaknesses and defects. That person doesn’t necessarily need to face us down and tell us what’s wrong, but if she or he prays for us, something mysterious and divine, that changes us, may begin to work through our circumstances, something that steers us to the good. At times merely the reminder, “I’ve been praying for you,” might do more than hours of instruction.
If we’re going to be “good” even some of the time, we need: 1) a set of standards (like those we read about in Psalm 19); and we need 2) examples (like Jesus was most of the time). But most of all, we need: 3) “an other” to offer guidance and correction.
Ask yourself, “to whom do I listen for guidance each day?” You may find some of that in quiet time, which might include a religious book, like a Bible. Maybe just the time in quiet will be helpful enough.
Ask yourself, “who is my model for goodness?” We have models whom we imitate in order to be beautiful, popular, manly, womanly, etc. Who is your model for goodness?
Ask yourself, “who prays for me?” Perhaps it’s time to ask someone, “next time you pray, put in a good word for me.”
We are not alone. We need each other, for goodness sake.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN