Toorak Uniting Church

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"Why be Good?"

Rev. David Hodges
18 June 2000

There are two questions that I would like you to consider: the first is in the title - why be good? If we can get to some basic answer to that, and I hope we can, then I would like to go on to ask a second question - how can we be good - how can we achieve goodness?

So - why should I, why should you, be good? The obvious answer may be something like .... because I want to be good .... But then I would have to ask another question ... why do you want to be good and you may well answer .... because I believe in being good. Then at the risk of irritating you, I would ask why you believe in being good.

That answer will bring us nearer to the truth .... and it could be something like ... because I believe in the golden rule ..that I should treat others as I would like to be treated .... and then I would ask: why the golden rule? and you would probably say because I am a Christian and it is at the centre of the teaching and example of our Lord. Why then should I be good? Because Jesus was - his life defined goodness that’s what he taught and I, as his disciple, want to live like him.

But wait a moment. That didn’t get him very far in this world ... and not to put too fine a point on it he was penniless and dead at 33. Is that what you want? Ah! but you say ..that wasn’t the end of it.

Because heaven waited for him and as the book of Revelation has it, it was a place of jewelled palaces and streets of gold to be enjoyed eternally.

Why are we good? Because if we follow his way we are finally those who get their reward.

So we are good because we want to survive. What we believe in is survival.

Is that why Jesus was good? Surely he was good because that was his very nature.

Many of my grandfather’s contemporaries would have said that he was a good man.

Over one hundred years ago, in the middle of the land boom, he bought a very large tract of land, not far from here but beyond the reach of the existing train line. Not long afterwards plans were announced for the extension of that line and the land that lay about it rocketed in value. It looked as though he had some prior knowledge but in fact he had not. He stood to gain handsomely while the man who sold it to him lost the possibility of a fortune. My grandfather was a good man. He would not benefit, ‘if he could avoid it, from another’s loss’ ... and so he sold it back to the vendor at the price he had paid for it. He must have been tempted but his actions were firmly rooted in his beliefs and he would not be moved from them.

When my grandfather was young ... when this congregation was young .... there were many who were good for the sake of goodness. They were not good for any benefit that may accrue from it ..they believed in goodness for itself. That was their belief. It was rooted and grounded in the gospel and the way they understood it.

But they were sitting on a time bomb. Not the Bible and Jesus but another man, and another book, that took the world by storm.

The man was Charles Darwin and the book was "The Origin of the Species". According to the scientific theory that he propounded and one of the central keys to understanding our life was not, that it evolved out of a passion for goodness but a passion for survival .... and not in heaven but here and now. Life was a struggle and it was not the good who triumphed but the strong. In the face of this what do we think about Isaiah's vision of the Saviour

"the wolf shall dwell with the lamb"
"the lion shall eat straw like the ox"
"the child shall put his hand on the adder's den"
"they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain".

What do we think about the way Jesus explained to his disciples the thoughts he had in the wilderness preparing for his ministry? The temptations to use his power, to persuade his world of the truth of his uniqueness: give the people food . . . . demonstrate your power to survive by throwing yourself off a pinnacle of the Temple . . . . take the world as it is and use your power to control it.

He told them what his thoughts were. He told them that he would not use his power to control - to bribe with food - to impress with supernatural tricks - to compromise with the power of the rulers of the world. Then he went about all Galilee preaching the good news of the kingdom of God ... and by his words and his actions using his power to set his people free from all their afflictions. His power was used, not to control the people but to set them free.

This reveals to us the uniqueness of Jesus. He was ABSOLUTELY good. No one of us before him or after him can be absolutely good. The truth that Charles Darwin discovered and published issued a minor challenge to the Biblical literalists, the creationists, . . . . but a major revelation about ourselves. That we are engaged in a struggle for survival and that "in the flesh" we are on the side of the controllers.

But Paul went on to write....... "to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace."

How can we be good? By trying to live in the spirit of our Lord. By knowing, and believing that the only true use of power is to set another free. We know before we start that that is not the way the world works. I don’t need to elaborate on that fact. We even know that it is the way the world must work in order to contain the evils that men do when they are determined to survive. We also know that controlling others is a habit. Husbands and wives and partners have all sorts of subtle strategies. Parents are not always as subtle in the control they exercise over their children. People in institutions are inevitably, it seems, bound in power struggles. People in politics know all about it. And most would claim that they are good ...and what they do is for the others good. But in the absolute terms of the goodness of Jesus they are not good, they are survivors. Finally, back to my grandfather. He believed in honesty and integrity as goodness and though many today would think he was a fool, he would not be moved. But he still believed in control. He used to say that he would never employ a man no matter how suitable he seemed to be in an interview until he looked at the heels of his shoes as he left the room and saw that they were as well polished as the toes. You will understand quite readily that he was a typically Victorian grandfather.

None of us will achieve the goodness of our Lord but in the struggle to use our power, not to control but to set another free we will be able to touch it with the tips of our fingers, to glimpse it in the struggle of our minds, to feel it in the presence of the spirit.

To set another free is the highest expression of love. That’s what has been done for us in the life of Jesus. That’s what we are called to do for one another.

© Rev. David Hodges. 2000

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