Good and plenty: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 10:17–30:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments:

You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”

He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” Peter began to say to him, “We have given up everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.”

What does it mean to be “good,” anyway? When we were kids, we knew the term pretty well. It meant “don’t annoy Mom and Dad.” Either we did what we were told, or we didn’t do it but in a way that didn’t attract their attention. Being good was the ultimate test of our Santa Claus worthiness, although honestly, we only worried about that after Thanksgiving. Later on, being good got us the car keys for the evening; not being good meant only getting the car to run errands for your parents or your younger sibling(s).

In other words, “good” was a commodity more than a way of life. If you were good, so too was life in the house. If you weren’t good, your negotiating position deteriorated. Rapidly, in some cases, and on occasion, you’d find yourself in home detention, otherwise known as “being grounded.”

Today’s readings and especially the Gospel raise the stakes on “good.” As Jesus makes clear, the essence of goodness isn’t only limited to actions, but to formation. Goodness isn’t a commodity or a means to an end, but is the end itself. In today’s Gospel, good is the attainment of sainthood — of being one with the Lord in His goodness.

How do we form ourselves in “goodness”? Both of our other readings today address that question.  In Wisdom, the prophet instructs that we should pray for, well, wisdom. The emphasis here is not on our actions, but how we form our hearts through the Holy Spirit:

I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. I preferred her to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her, nor did I liken any priceless gem to her; because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand, and before her, silver is to be accounted mire. Beyond health and comeliness I loved her, and I chose to have her rather than the light, because the splendor of her never yields to sleep. Yet all good things together came to me in her company, and countless riches at her hands.

In the context of scripture, wisdom is the word of the Lord — scriptures themselves. Paul emphasizes this in his letter to the Hebrews. “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective,” Paul writes, “able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” In both readings, the emphasis is on internalizing good rather than externalizing it. Neither passage advises on specific actions except to open our hearts to the goodness of God through His word.

Jesus also hints at this in his response to the wealthy man. At first, He recites most of the Ten Commandments to the man, who assures Jesus that he follows the law faithfully. Jesus, however, says that he’s “lacking in one thing”: how the man has formed himself internally. While taking care to follow the law, the man has oriented himself for material gain, not for the Lord.

In other words, it’s a bit like the game we play with our parents, testing them out and seeking out the boundaries of “goodness.” This is a natural human impulse, one that turns even the best kids into practicing attorneys at times. (I thought I was a master at this until I had my own son. That, too, is the way of the world.) It is in our fallen human nature to plumb all of the nuances and possibilities of goodness, or lawfulness, or other such concepts — in order to do the minimum necessary for our sakes while being able to get away with the maximum possible otherwise.

The Israelites did this as well with the law. God wanted to have them be a nation of prophets to teach the world about His goodness, but the Israelites wanted to be a worldly nation and power instead. They followed the law — sometimes — but only occasionally allowed it to fully form their hearts. Much of the Gospels are taken up by lessons from Jesus to the Pharisees and Sadducees about what we’d call legalism or scrupulosity today — worshiping the law as an idol rather than forming hearts toward God through the law. Some were just misguided; others used this legalism and scrupulosity to amass wealth and power.

That doesn’t make the law faulty, though; it just shows the frailty of fallen humanity, and the easy way in which we distract ourselves from true formation to God’s goodness. Jesus makes this point explicit in his “eye of the needle” metaphor, the one that prompted the disciples to utter in despair, “Then who can be saved?”

And how does Jesus answer? “All things are possible with God.” The Lord sent His only Son to serve as teacher and sacrifice to show us the way, and to pay for our inability to bridge that gap on our own. It becomes the ultimate expression of God’s goodness and love for us, and His fervent desire for us to choose Him. The Holy Spirit becomes that bridge between our fallen nature and the desire to be good for God’s sake rather than our own.

This is why true goodness can never be transactional. If it serves our own purposes, then it’s at least somewhat of an exploitation. It might be beneficial in some ways, but until we form our hearts and desires on the Lord, we’re still trying to game the system and hope the Father doesn’t notice our misbehavior. We’re not going to get the keys to the kingdom that way, not even for an evening out with a few friends that we swear won’t last past curfew. But the Lord is patient and kind, waiting for us to make the right choice … almost like the time I glided the car into the driveway with the engine off an hour after curfew, only to find Dad had waited up.

Well … perhaps a bit more patient and kind than that. Sorry, Dad.

The front-page image is a detail from “Jesus Christ and the Rich Young Ruler,” Heinrich Hoffman, 1889. On display at Riverside Church in New York. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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