DO YOU KNOW HOW TO BE GOOD?
Genesis 12:1-9, Psalm 33 #5, Matthew 9:9-13
June 5, 2005, Picture Butte
There is a scene in Richard Nash’s play, "Rainmaker." Rainmaker is a smooth talking travelling salesman, who goes around countryside. Rainmaker seduced a lonely, spinster daughter of the family at midnight in a barn. Her outraged brother took out a gun to shoot the Rainmaker. However, the Rainmaker’s action would restore her sense of womanliness and her confidence. The father, a wise old rancher, grabs the gun away from his son, saying, "Noah, you’re so full of what’s right you can’t see what’s good."
When there is a conflict between what is good and what is right, we often think that Christian way is the righteousness not goodness. In this respect, Jesus often surprises us.
Matthew was a tax collector, and knew that nobody liked him. But Jesus not only accepted Matthew”s invitation for a dinner, but also made him a disciple. No wonder the righteous people were scandalized. At the time, Palestine was under the Roman occupation. Administration of taxation was given to some selected Jewish persons on a commission basis. In other words, tax collection was privatized. The tax collectors invented many methods to impose taxes. They were a enterprising lot. Many of them made fortunes took bribes, pounced on the vulnerable people who were often poor and weak. They became not only morally corrupt, but also because of their immoral practices, they were branded as religiously unclean, in the same class as lepers, prostitutes, and thieves. Priests and Pharisees refused them in religious events. As a class, they were not only traitors working for the enemy but also became excommunicated, so-to-speak. They became rich but they had no friends.
I could understand why the category of tax collectors was synonymous with the one for sinners. But what happened to those who were honest. They could be just doing an unpleasant job to earn a living? There is some evidence in the Bible to indicate that there were some less corrupt ones who would have loved to redeem themselves and to be accepted by society. Matthew was one of those people. This is why Matthew had no hesitation to follow Jesus, leaving his job and money behind when he was called to be his disciple. He must have suffered bad conscience about his job, but did not have courage to quit. But the encounter with Jesus gave him currage to get out of a profitable but questionable occupation.
From time to time, we run into a situation where we find ourselves in a bad company but do not have courage to get out. It is a big problem for many of us. But as soon as we acknowledge that we share collective guilt, we are on the way to redemption. Jesus understood the pang of conscience of some tax collectors like Matthew. And when you can feel the pain, Jesus, like a doctor, can help you. But if you don”t feel it, no one can help you. This is why it is so important to admit that there is a problem and to recognize that you are in need of help.
Here was the problem of the righteous people like Pharisees. They did not acknowledge that there was any problem in their lives. They either denied it or did not see it. They were determined to be God fearing and righteous people. In order to achieve their goals, they made for themselves a set of rules and followed them faithfully. Unfortunately, however, in the process of becoming righteous people they forgot to be good people. They forgot to be loving and kind. While they were on the way to be righteous, they became judgmental and lost the core of being Godly, which is being merciful. They became law-abiding but lost their heart. They forgot that laws were instruments of justice and love. Laws that do not achieve justice are empty shells and burden to society. The worst problem, however, for the Pharisees was the fact that many of them did not see any problem in obeying laws faithfully without being compassionate.
Paul described this state of empty piety in his letter to Corinthians, "If I have all knowledge of God”s words, ability to preach wonderful sermons, faith to move mountains, charity to give everything including life itself, but if I don”t have love, I am nothing." What is most important is what is inside of ourselves. If we do not have kindness and mercy in our hearts, any visible signs of righteousness can be an empty shell and even inhuman. We can easily be hypocrites. The tragedy of the righteous Pharisees was that in their eagerness to be acceptable to God, they became legalistic, heartless and judgmental people. Their worst problem, however, was that they did not think there was anything wrong with them. They thought that they were perfectly acceptable to God because they knew that they obeyed the laws to the last iota.
Their ignorance of how they were wanting was the worst illness, worse than that of sins acknowledged and regretted. People who know the pain of guilt have a much better chance of being made whole. If you do not admit that you have a problem, no one can help you. Socrates in the ancient Greece said that the best knowledge was the knowledge of oneself. "Know thyself." , he said. However, he said that the most valuable knowledge is the knowledge of one”s ignorance. When you know that you do not know, you have a whole unknown world open before your eyes. If you think that you know everything you need to know, the world is closed. And you slam the door shut yourself. No one can help you.
This is why Jesus thought that the sinners, who knew that there was something wrong with them, had far better chance of being saved than the righteous people who believed that they needed no help or no lesson to learn. He said, "A healthy person does not need a doctor." The irony of the context was a sick person who did not believe that they were ill had absolutely no chance of getting to the doctor, because they closed the door by themselves. Thank God for occasional pain. Pain itself is not a good thing. Don”t look for it. But it is a signal. Through pain, God tells you that you need to seek help, to change and to grow.