Delivered on 29 August,2010
By Rev Dr John Evans
Today I wish to consider “the good life”. What is it – how do we get it?
The good life could be described in many ways – a fulfilled life; perhaps a life lived with meaning and purpose; scripture speaks of eternal life or the fullness of life. Even a happy life is in a sense “a good life”. The point is this purpose of living- is indeed to live well; and then doesn’t our faith have something to do with that life lived well?
Last week I considered the ministry of the prophets, in particular the ministry of Jeremiah. In a real sense this also was Jeremiah’s concern – the Children of Israel, the Jewish people, were not living a good life . . . and they would soon suffer for this. They had forsaken the covenant, that covenant – the law of Moses – the way of Yahweh offered a fulfilled life. Moses much earlier had put to the Children of Israel a choice – certainly as they were about to cross into the promised land:
“See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances then you shall live and the Lord will bless you…” Deuteronomy 30:15 ff
Indeed earlier, when the second version of the law is given, Moses again had said
“So now O Israel what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, with all your heart and with all your soul and keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well being.” Deuteronomy 10:12 ff
Jeremiah and the prophets simply sought to remind the people of this understanding of the ‘good life’. They had forgotten and forsaken the way to such a life.
During the week I read this poem by Wendell Berry, which could readily apply to Jeremiah and even to ourselves, as we face our own time of political limbo
The nation is a boat.
to ride it drifting
down the flow from the old
high vision of dignity, freedom
….and then he goes on about the falling away from such a vision
To save yourself….
go back upstream.
Now of course our Prime Minister has said “moving forward” is the way to go. Don’t look back – move forward. And generally forward is the best direction to be heading. However, when we speak of “the good life” – and as Jeremiah and indeed all the prophets constantly reminded their hearers – “back upstream” was indeed the source of that good life – and they had forsaken this simple fact, or forgotten it – or determinedly avoided this simple understanding of a good life. Loving God and serving others.
The last chapter of the book of Hebrews is also a simple reminder of the good life – some wise sayings and instructions about life – so that you too may have the “fullness of life”. Simple things – perhaps obvious things. Certainly the sort of things you might have got on an old desk calendar, now the sort of thing that a friend might send to you electronically
Let mutual love continue
Don’t forget prisoners
Look out for victims of abuse as if what happened to them happened to you
Honour marriage and the preciousness of sexual intimacy
Don’t be obsessed with material things – be relaxed with what you have
And so on.
Throughout scripture there are collections of such advice – both in the old and the new testaments. And it was also a feature of the surrounding culture at the time. Indeed much of Greek philosophy was consumed with this question of what in fact is a “good life”. But then the thing about common sense, I guess, is that it is not all that common. We need to “go back upstream” every so often and indeed re-examine the source of this good life. . . and how we might live it. Because however we might see and envisage this good life, we are aware it does not take much to destroy such a life.
At the top of the list I guess is selfishness. . . . a curving in on oneself. Simply just worrying about number one. In recent Sundays we have had the story of the rich fool and his belief that he could determine and guarantee his own future – with the tearing down a perfectly good barn and building seven more. A selfishness that has no regard for others and for God . Martin Luther, the great reformer, indeed used to define sin as a person who was incurvatus se, a person curved in upon themselves. So our list of “good life instructions” usually at this point has, for example, teaching about money – more particularly the love of money, or teachings about fidelity in relationships and in particularly just going after one’s own sexual pleasure without the thought of others, or about being aware of the needs of others – like prisoners; or in old testament prophet terms – the needs of the widow, the orphan or the alien – the most marginal members of that society. Selfishness can derail the good life.
So in pursuit of the good life one is encouraged to not just think of oneself – but live out the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
However, today in both the teaching from the book of Hebrews, and from the teaching of Jesus himself, there is a surprising, and I would say challenging, extension to all of this. It rests in an understanding of hospitality.
Our Hebrews passage begins with the instruction “let mutual love continue”. The word here is “philadelphia” – which once used to be translated as “brotherly love”. Today we would say “mutual love” – a reciprocated love; a caring sort of love. Let this love continue. This sounds all very noble, well and good. It however, is immediately followed with a sort of ticking off. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers”. As if this sort of behaviour can run counter to “mutual love”. It would seem hospitality can be a corrective to, too much mutual love. And indeed perhaps it is. Mutual love can have a tendency to look inward – to think of just only of one’s own kind, one’s own family and relations, one’s own church. There are many churches which show amazing mutual love – philadelphia, however, are totally self absorbed, inward looking and have no outward focus in all those acts of love and kindness. The author of Hebrews even offers an incentive to think beyond just continuing this mutual love – “for by showing hospitality to strangers some have entertained angels without knowing it.” There is the incentive to think beyond one’s mutual obligation – one might be entertaining an angel unawares! Surely, then, that would be a recipe for the good life.
Or another way of saying this – loyalty to one’s own kind does not necessarily lead to the fullness of life Jesus envisages.
Jesus even more radically opens up this dynamic within hospitality. He tells a couple of stories while he himself is being entertained by a leader of the Pharisees. The first is just a little moral tale of not thinking too highly of oneself, and then being disappointed when someone else is given the guest of honour position. This story may work in some cultures – but in Australia in which we have any natural suspicion about tall poppies and people who are full of themselves, I don’t think it really works. Jesus’ next story or instruction is however, telling.
‘When you give lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” (Luke 14:12 ff)
Duty, obligation and the whole culture of reciprocity, drives our society.
Who of you have not pondered the question of the Christmas card or gift list on the basis a particular person should be axed from your generosity, because they had not given you a card or a present last year?
Jesus urges a social system without reciprocity. . . without the exercise of power through the implication of obligation. In Jesus’ story, the marginalised people listed are no longer outside the circle of power – d they are treated in a different light. They too, join as a fellow human being, in God’s great feast.
At the second Carlton Conversations@The Clare a couple of weeks ago, our guest Rhonda Galbally, spoke about being a disabled person and being the subject of sympathy, or of pity, or of charity. The help, the concession, the acknowledgement, what ever it was that was being offered to her – it might have been toys as a child for crippled children – was given from a position of power that the giver possessed. She was beholden to them – she was not free. She felt diminished. She felt she was not seen as a full person; a person who rightfully could share in the fullness of life with others who just happened to be able bodied. Or as Olivia Ball would remind us – there was not a rights’ based approach shown to all to, say share in this Messianic banquet and feast with Christ.
Jesus here breaks down the power of obligation and reciprocity. He opens his kingdom to all and calls on us to even go beyond mutual love. In the great discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essene Community down towards the Dead Sea, there was a scroll called “The Messianic Rule”. Within this there was actually an invitation list for that great banquet – “All the wise men of the congregation, the learned and the intelligent, men whose way is perfect and men of ability … the men of renown” were to be invited. Apart from the fact it was limited to men, one is taken aback as to who would come. The scroll went on:
“No man smitten in his flesh, or paralysed in his feet, or hands, or lame, or blind, or deaf, or dumb, or smitten in his flesh with a visible blemish, no old and tottery man unable to stay still in the midst of the congregation, none of these shall come. ” Jesus overturn the thinking of this Jewish sect.
Remember I started with thinking about the good life. Yes there are things we can do – rules we can follow. Thinking beyond oneself is a thing we can do. However, how far do we go? Hospitality is important – however, we know as Jesus suggests, that to invite just the ones we know sets up mutual obligations, and predictable responses. Mutual love, it should be said, is not necessarily bad in itself – but it fails to understand the nature of grace, and love which is not limited to mutual obligation and obligation. A love which is as wide as God’s grace shown on the cross of Christ.
Perhaps at the end of the day all people are angels.