Over the last few years a number of comic book superheroes have made the leap from the glossy page to the silver screen. Out of all of these movies the one I have enjoyed the most has been Spiderman, not that I was ever a great addict for the comic, but because the 2 movies have grappled with the important question of, is it worth being and doing good in a world where you just get knocked down for it and receive no reward or recognition? It dares to ask the question of what is the point of doing good?
If you have seen especially the second Spiderman movie I am sure you will remember if not empathize with the slightly nerdish Peter Parker who, in both his personal and superhero lives always tries to do the right and decent thing but somehow his life is worse for this rather than better. Regardless of the fact that he has plucked a child from a burning building and saved countless other lives, he is still repromanded by his tutor with that most terrible condemnation of his work as disappointing. He loses his job because of his unreliability and must give up the girl he loves because of his concern that he may put her in danger. Even his life as a superhero comes in for criticism as the national press relish in portraying him as the masked menace in order to increase sales. It seems that doing the right thing, even bending down to pick up your books which someone has knocked from your hands leads to you being smacked in the face by other people’s bags, it seems that being good just doesn’t pay.
In his very astute way, Diarmird McCullough, on In Our Time last week, which was on Luthur, commented that this is the small problem the Protestant Church is left with if it follows the doctrine that salvation is by faith alone. For, if we are justified by faith and faith alone then what is the point of doing good or more worrying, what is the point in not doing bad. If our actions have no bearing on our salvation then what is the incentive to do the right thing or not to do the bad?
This is certainly not the situation we find in our first reading this evening, taken from that most troubling of books, Joshua. Here we see that doing the right thing really does pay and pays very well as Caleb comes to Joshua and asks for the land which Moses promised him as a reward for “wholeheartedly following the Lord”. However difficult we amy find it to hear a story of territorial ancestry at this time of war and suffering in the Middle East over dispossession, it is clear that for the writer of this section of the book, the Lord not only rewarded those who followed him but rewarded them in a very tangible and visible way, namely victory and the riches of land.
I often feel rather sorry for the Pharisees and the bad press they have had down the ages, probably because I suspect that if I had been around at the time of Jesus I would have been one of them. In our reading from Matthew it seems to me that, from their point of view, the Pharisees were trying very hard to do the right thing. The law was their path to salvation and to keep it wholeheartedly was to be good in the sight of the Lord, and the reward for this was to be in that right relationship with him, like Caleb. For them, goodness is about keeping a set of laws or rules but these are not just any old human laws, they are God’s laws and so have a divine as well as a moral precept to them. Given this, it is therefore not very surprising that, the Pharisees, the real specialists in the law, are annoyed by Jesus and his disciples. For them Jesus is not just doing something naughty, like standing on the main quod grass when he shouldn’t, he is breaking God’s divine law, he is, metaphorically, sticking two fingers up at God, is doing wrong, he is being bad and therefore should be punished.
I think there is something deep within us that yearns for Christianity to be a simple set of rules which we can follow, knowing that we are good and will be rewarded when we keep them and bad when we don’t. But we must fight this urge within us for this is not the freedom, the salvation which Christ brings. In a sense what Christ offers is much more difficult. He does not give us a rulebook which is held over us to show when we are good or bad. There are no laws which we can tick off. We cannot win God’s favour by our deeds of goodness but neither can we lose God’s love by our sins. the free gift of salvation through Christ cuts through all our commercial bargaining with God. We often speak of ourselves as children of God, and rightly so for that is what we are, but here it seems to me we are confronted by the most adult of relationships, one not based on getting rewards for being a good little girl or a bad little boy but one based on responsibility.
The only thing that keeps Peter Parker going through all the sacrifices and troubles which doing the right thing brings are the words his uncle says to him in a dream, “with great power comes great responsibility”. From this he choose that to do good outweighs everything else even his own happiness. And Jesus says to us “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” Luke 12:48. I do not think we can wriggle out of this and say that his words only apply to leaders ot clergy, they apply to all of us, who call ourselves Christian. For I do not believe that God wants us simply to be followers of Christ but to be his hands, his feet, his presence in this world, and we can only do this if we realise the great gift of salvation that has been given to us, that there is nothing we can do which will make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.
Christ, in our reading this evening, does not change the rules, he does not give us a new set to abide by but he cuts through them s one who does not obey God as a child but as one who is in a loving, responsible relationship with him. It is this relationship that he makes possible for us.
To realise that this is our relationship with God is simply overwhelming because it not only strips us of our bargaining tools but also makes us realise our absolute inability to fulfil our responsibility of doing good. Of living up to the love and trust God gives to us. Our response can therefore be only one of repentance, we can no longer be like the Pharisees, for our bargaining tools have been taken from our hands. We can instead only cry out in wonder and repentance in response to God’s love for us. The more we open ourselves to God in all humility, the more he can use us, his broken tools, as vehicles of his goodness, his grace and his love in the world. His work through us is not for our glory or our reward, for us who know that ours is the liberating yet uncomfortable place of standing before God, for us are the words of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I have chose, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.”
22nd October 2006