Three atheists climb into a van. Along the way, the driver falls asleep at the wheel. The van goes off the road; they crash and they all die. Imagine their surprise when they find themselves face-to-face with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.
Peter says, “I see you’ve led exemplary lives – giving to the poor and helping the elderly. And your honesty and integrity exceed that of the children of the Kingdom of God.” They say, “Then we get to go to Heaven, don’t we?” “I’m sorry, it doesn’t quite work that way. I’ll tell you what. If one of you can tell me who Jesus Christ is, I’ll let all three of you in.”
The first atheist says, “Jesus Christ. Isn’t he the old fellow who comes down the chimney at Christmas?” “No,” replies Peter!
The second atheist says, “Oh, he’s the one who, when you lose a tooth, gives a quarter under the pillow.” Peter shouts, “Next!”
The third atheist begins, “Why Jesus Christ is the Son of God! Jesus Christ became flesh and was born of a virgin. He was baptized by John the Baptist and healed the sick and raised the dead,” the atheist continues. “In faithfulness to his father, he died for the sins of humankind. He was crucified by Pontius Pilate. They laid his body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Three days later, the stone was rolled away and Jesus Christ stepped out from the tomb in all his glory.” Peter is impressed.
Then the atheist blurts out, “And he saw his shadow and went back in and we had six more weeks of winter.” None of them got into heaven… or did they?
I realize this joke brings up a very, very interesting question of who gets into heaven and who doesn’t but since it’s a joke I don’t feel compelled to comment seriously on it. Perhaps by the end of this teaching, you will get the idea of where I stand in general on this question.
Years ago, I bought one of those lawn fertilizer bags that weeds and feed as well as treats for grubs and chinch bugs. I don’t why but I got into that whole idea that if this amount of fertilizer is good for the lawn then twice as much will be great for the lawn. I went fertilizer happy!
At first, the lawn turned green, and then really green, and strong. But then I noticed the grass started to become thin, discolored, and in some areas it soon browned up and died.
Just so you know, chemical salts are commonly used in commercial fertilizer products. Salt draws moisture out of the air and anything it’s touching. My overdose of fertilizer dried out the roots and crowns of the plants. I over-salted my lawn and killed some of it.
Sometimes too much of a good thing isn’t good.
Thoreau had a very good point when he said: “Do not be too moral…Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.”
I chose this quote as one of my four Incredible Quotes! because it pushes us in the right direction when it comes to understanding what scripture really says about being a good person and a godly person. This quote makes us talk about something I’ve longed thought was one of the most important things to learn as a human being who wants to be a Christian.
If you see the Christian life as first and foremost the attempt to being good and not first and foremost the attempt to being yourself, then you will end up living only a partial life, and not become the person God wants/asks/hopes you become. Being a Christian isn’t really about being a goody-two shoes.
Now the obvious danger of saying this is someone will think I’m saying it’s not important to be good or do right. Of course that’s not true at all and I’m not saying that. So let me say it again: If you limit yourself to trying to be moral or good, the problem is you’ll never get to be yourself, nor find the strength and beauty, the gift of living from your authentic self.
You see, we aren’t born, the Lord doesn’t create us, in order for us to be a rubber stamp, the same as someone else, as someone else as the model of how to be good, and not to become ourselves. Being religious, being Christian, isn’t about copying some image of who we think/hope God likes. Forget that. It’s so tiring and forced. And where is the joy and peace in that?
Don’t be afraid to be your true self first. You’ve got to have enough faith in God that says you can be you and still be God’s.
For sure, being good is something we understand. As parents, what do we want out of our children? We want them “to be good.” Teachers want their students to be good. We want other adults to “be good”—use their turn signal, not swear in front of our children, wash their hands after going to the bathroom. But when it comes to God, being good is more difficult to understand, and it’s been a major source of significant confusion for a long, long time, if not forever.
The easiest thing to do has always been to put God in a box that says God wants me to be perfectly good and then the Lord will have to like me. This is what so much of religion looks like: How to do certain things the right way so that God has to like me. A lot of people use religion to attempt to control God. This was a huge issue in ancient Israel.
You might call this Priests vs. Prophets, and it wasn’t just something Micah talked about either. I’ll give you just two other important passages in the Old Testament that talk about this very battle in the human heart and society. There are many others.
The Book of Isaiah actually starts with this struggle. In the first chapter, verse 12 through 17, it says: “When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Amos 5:21-24 also comments powerfully on the problem with thinking being religiously good is what it’s all about, and ends with “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The prophets were talking about doing good, real good, in a society that sorely needed it. They didn’t care about whether someone was good on Sunday or because he or she gave a really good sacrifice.
We all understand trying to polish oneself up by the prayers and the rituals and religious stuff is something anyone can do on a Sunday morning. A complete jerk can do this. A heartless and soulless person can do this. Someone playing a role of trying to act like a religious person could do this.
The prophets were tired of everything thinking this was what God wanted from them, when their country was crumbling all around them, the poor getting poorer and the rich richer. The word of the Lord said being that type of good, that type of moral, was good for nothing.
The question was and always is whether we do good and are good to others. What God wants are real people, authentic lives that are willing to do
justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. That’s what true religion is about. Always was and always will be.
Now don’t get me wrong, for the most part we’re all pretty good, and that’s really important. If we were grading ourselves on goodness we would rank up there pretty high on the scale. Let’s call ourselves Danny or Debbie Decent. From our perspective, we do most things right. We pay our taxes, pay our bills, pay attention to our family, and pay respect to our superiors. We’re good people, and this is important. But where’s the beef? When do we come to the real issue tugging at our hearts and souls?
That’s the issue the rich young man had in mind when he came to Jesus. He was a good boy. Religious. But nothing more. He kept the rules, imitating what was considered good or religious, keeping up with prescribed rituals and long-set patterns of what makes a Jewish man a good Jewish man.
But it felt like a box to him. He knew deep down that it couldn’t be the whole story. There had to be more to this being Jewish or faithful thing. And that’s why he took a trip to meet up with someone he hoped would have an answer to his problem of not being good enough.
As it turned out, he really wasn’t that upset about this spiritual problem because he wasn’t willing to accept Jesus’ solution: Give away your possessions and go beyond being merely moral or simply good. Jesus wanted him to become good for something!
The truth is scripture is completely filled with examples of real men and women who are authentically themselves. And because of this they were good for something.
Let me put it even stronger: There isn’t a single hero or heroine in the Bible who is merely trying to be good, as if that’s the whole purpose of their life and religion. They’re all incredibly human, flawed, but also faithful individuals, authentic, real people.
Abraham and Sarah were childless and when told they would have a son even though they were in their nineties, what did they do? They laughed at the news. And yet the promise came true.
Joseph was despised by his brothers, thrown into prison, deceived his brothers and father about who he was, and saved them all.
Moses, a Hebrew, grew up in Pharaoh’s house, killed an Egyptian and then ran away. God sent him back to bring his people out of Egypt, and he became his people’s liberator.
And then there’s David, a real man among real men. The youngest of his brothers, his dad forgot about him as a possible king. He wrote poetry and sang but also knew how to strategize for war and kill men. He became king, was loved by his people, killed Bathsheba’s husband, married her, their baby died. His son tried to overthrow and kill him. When he died he left the united kingdom of Israel to his son Solomon.
If there is any biblical model of how to be right before God as a real person, it’s David— the man after God’s own heart.
Being religious, being Christian, isn’t about copying some image of who we think/hope God likes. Forget that. You’ve got to have enough faith in God that says you can be you and still be God’s.
You’ve been given this life, and it’s about you being you, bringing it all, and letting God do something with it. When we try to be someone else, God can’t use who we really are. Find yourself, accept yourself, and your gifts, your heart, your truth. Offer these to the Lord. Be good for something that God needs.