Mark 10:17–19 (NRSV)
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ”
Ephesians 1:15–20 (NRSV)
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.
In the first episode of NBC’s hit comedy The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up one day only to find out that she died in a tragic shopping cart accident. She finds herself in what her host Michael calls “The Good Place.” Now Eleanor wasn’t very religious, but Michael informs her that the world’s religions were only partially right—in this fictional universe it’s pretty simple. Good people, those whose lives resulted in a significant net positive of good for the world, end up in the Good Place, while those whose lives resulted in a negative score are sent to the Bad Place. The Good Place is a land where everyone finds their true “soulmate” and is able to live in a neighborhood perfectly to their liking, while in the Bad Place… lets just say there’s plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Quite frankly, the way the Good Place is presented is how it seems most people view life after death. If you’re a relatively good person (letting people merge in traffic, caring about other people, and donating blood) you go up. If you’re not, (talking or texting on your phone at the movie theater or being rude to waitresses), you go down.
Eleanor Shellstrop, the show’s protagonist, is initially pleasantly surprised that she ended up in the Good Place. Quite frankly, she thought of herself as a “medium person.” She never did anything awful, but she also didn’t give up her life for others.
But as her host, Michael, goes on about Eleanor’s life, she realizes that something is terribly wrong. The Eleanor he describes was a humanitarian of the highest order. She fought against the death penalty and rescued people from conflict zones.
It’s in that moment when Eleanor’s heart sinks into the pit of her stomach. There’s been a big mistake! The powers that be have gotten their math wrong. Eleanor doesn’t belong in the Good Place after all.
As the first season of the show progresses, we find out that Eleanor worked for a telesales company specializing in selling fake nutritional supplements to the sick and elderly. In one flashback, we see Eleanor telling her boyfriend, “There’s bad stuff everywhere. It’s impossible to avoid! Why would we try to live like good people when it’s so much harder to live like that? It’s not like anyone’s keeping score.”
Well, surprise, it turns out that they are keeping score. So Eleanor begins in “The Good Place,” living in fear that she will be found out as an imposter in the afterlife.
I think the show reveals some of our underlying assumptions about the ultimate end of human life. We too, believe that there are good people and bad people. Some people will go to heaven because we somehow deserve it, while others will be punished for eternity because they failed to meet a certain standard.
But life’s a bit more complicated than that, isn’t it?
A human life can’t be evaluated with any easy metric of good deeds and bad deeds. We find ourselves, as Paul says, doing the things that we hate.
Even the great saints of the world are often felled in public opinion when we find a skeleton in their closet. We find a glaring blind-spot in how they interacted with the world.
And, inversely, we often find ourselves empathizing with bad people. We begin to understand the burdens they carried, the experiences that shaped their life, and even some good things they did in their lives. And so, we have a hard time saying that they’re just “bad” people. Especially, because as Christians, we know that (the hymn says) “the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
Look, if we take Jesus at his word in his conversation with the rich man in Mark 10, “no one is good but God alone,” then we should justifiably stumble over the labels “good people” and “bad people.” No one is good, our Lord says, but God alone.
All we’re left with is to say that God is good and people… well, they’re complicated!
Now, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some good in human beings. God’s goodness permeates all creation! But because of sin, our lives and the lives of everyone in our world are tainted. We fail to adequately reflect the goodness of our God. We corrupt that innate goodness with our faults.
What we often want to do as Christians is to label people in the church “good” and people outside the church as “bad.” The problem is, all you have to do to refute such a statement is look at the Church. Examine the statistics on any human shortcoming and you’ll find people in the church sin just about as much as people outside the church. People who lead and participate in the church are often difficult to be around! We complain, we lament, we criticize, and at our worst we can suck all the hope and joy out of a room!
Let’s be honest, if there is one human being who deserves to go to “The Good Place,” it’s not any of us. “No one is good but God alone.” The only human who has the qualifications for being labeled good is Jesus the Christ.
Nowhere is this complex nature of the Christian life more apparent than in the theology of the Apostle Paul. Do you ever notice how Paul beings his letters? He heaps praise on his hearers: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks.” But he recognizes that his hearers are still “coming to know” Jesus. And so, Paul calls even these “saints” out for the ways that they fail to live into the model of life set by Christ.
Many centuries later, the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther taught about this by saying that Christians are “at once both righteous and a sinner.” We are, as Luther sees it, both saints and sinners. We’re both good people and bad people, in the more imprecise common vocabulary.
The biggest pit we fall in as Christians is overestimating our righteousness, stressing our saintliness at the expense of being blind to our errors.
When we go through life proudly wearing the “good person” label, we forget that it is God alone who is good and supplies us with goodness.
This week I stumbled across a teaching from an 18th century Polish Rabbi, of whom it was said that he carried two slips of paper with him at all times, one in each pocket. On the one he wrote “for my sake the world was created.” And on the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” At various points in the day he would pull out one of these slips of paper as a reminder. Life in between these two extremes is the life of a Christian. When we feel like the worst of all sinners, when we are down in the dumps of insignificance, God reminds us, “for your sake the world was created.” When we’re convinced of our own righteousness, sure that we can do no wrong, God reminds us “you are but dust and ashes.”
To be a Christian isn’t to try to wear the label “good.” It just doesn’t fit us all the time. To be a Christian is to be a person who follows the humble way of Christ, a person who submits themselves to Jesus’s teachings. To be Christian is to understand our baggage, our bad habits, our stumbling blocks and to openly confess our faults, seeking to live in peace with God and each other. instead striving to be people who openly confess their faults and seek to live in peace with God and each other.
That’s why we confess our sins in worship, often week after week. It’s not because we’re terrible people who need more reasons to feel worse about ourselves. It’s because we’re a work in progress. We need constant reminders that we are dust and ashes even as we are reminded that God loves us so much that forgiveness is always in reach, that Jesus Christ died for each of us!
We need a reminder of where our hope should be placed. Not in human agency. When we place our hope in humanity, we become disappointed cynics. But when we hope in the Lord, God will renew our strength. “Our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”
The good news is not that our good deeds will merit us residency in a place flowing with milk and honey. No, the good news is that the grace of God abounds even in the midst of our limitations as human beings. The good news is that in spite of ourselves, God will declare to us after our final breath, “well done, good and faithful servant.” The good news is that we will be redeemed in the end, faults and all. For this we give thanks:
God is Good!
All the Time.
All the Time?
God is good!
Thanks be to God. Aen.