Why Be Good?
Sunday Homily for September 28, 2008
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (26A)
By Fr. John Foley, S. J.
In the early Old Testament there was an ongoing belief. We hang on to it sometimes today. The belief? That good people are rewarded and sinners are punished even unto death.
When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if he . . . does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life (First Reading).
There is so much good sense in this reading. Sin really does mess up your life, letting it come apart at the seams. And those who have lives of virtue usually are edging toward integration and freedom.
The Psalm for Sunday is a straightforward request that God include the Psalmist as part of the favored good people, the ones whose lives are preserved.
But an opposing and terrible observation gradually arose in the Old Testament. People noticed that good people do in fact suffer and lose their lives while scoundrels often have a fine time of it.
They grappled with this fact. Many Psalms are filled lament. The Book of Job is an ancient and puzzling repetition of the same question.
Why do bad things happen to good people? The answer to this question leads, over time, to Jesus. To see why, we need to think about bad and good.
A childlike, over-simple belief says, “If I am good I will get the good things I want, but if I am bad I will get a consequence (bad).”
Adults, on the other hand, learn how mixed human reality is. Each of us has a jumble of weeds within us as well as healthy plants.
That is what the Gospel for Sunday is about. Remember the story? When a father asks his second son to go work in the fields, the son says “yes, of course I will do that for you, father.” He must be the good one. He should be rewarded. But notice what he does. Nothing.
The other son says something like this, “No. I will not go out in the heat and pull your damned weeds. Why should I? I have things of my own to do.” Yet of course, he does go out and work all day. He is the good man, at the end of the day, though he had been mean at the beginning. Both men are puzzle of mixed motives.
So much for the theory that you have to be sinless in order to avoid punishment. This theory provides good motivation for children and for a more primitive people (as in the First Reading), but the real goal of life is not to collect the rewards and to avoid being punished.
This understanding of life came to fulfillment in the ultimate good man, Jesus, suffering on the cross. The Second Reading puts it this way:
Though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death.
Jesus was perfectly blameless, but he took upon himself the mixed nature of human beings. He showed once and for all the mysterious reason why good people suffer.
Because love is willing to suffer for others.