What does it mean to live a good life?

David Finnegan-Hosey
Kay Spiritual Life Center
October 25, 2015
Ecclesiastes 9:1-10, Mark 10:17-31

Audio available here.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-10 • So I considered all of this carefully, examining all of it: The righteous and the wise and their deeds are in God’s hand, along with both love and hate. People don’t know anything that’s ahead of them. Everything is the same for everyone. The same fate awaits the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the pure and the impure, those who sacrifice and those who don’t sacrifice. The good person is like the wrongdoer; the same holds for those who make solemn pledges and those who are afraid to swear. This is the sad thing about all that happens under the sun: the same fate awaits everyone. Moreover, the human heart is full of evil; people’s minds are full of madness while they are alive, and afterward they die. Whoever is among the living can be certain about this. A living dog is definitely better off than a dead lion, because the living know that they will die. But the dead know nothing at all. There is no more reward for them; even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate, as well as their zeal, are already long gone. They will never again have a stake in all that happens under the sun. Go, eat your food joyfully and drink your wine happily because God has already accepted what you do. Let your garments always be white; don’t run short of oil for your head. Enjoy life with your dearly loved spouse all the days of your pointless life that God gives you under the sun—all the days of your pointless life!—because that’s your part to play in this life and in your hard work under the sun. Whatever you are capable of doing, do with all your might because there’s no work, thought, knowledge, or wisdom in the grave, which is where you are headed.

Mark 10:17-31 • As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?” Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.” “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions. Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.” Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”

I. Mixed Messages
Make sure you get a good education, but stay out of debt. Become your own person, but don’t be selfish. Travel the world and broaden your horizons, but shop local. Go to a liberal arts school, but be a super-specialist. Don’t judge other peoples’ lives, but speak out for what is right. Do what you love, but make sure it’s got a retirement plan. Plan for your future, but remember YOLO and carpe diem.
There is a never-ending supply of messages out there about how to live well, many of them contradictory and all of it somewhat overwhelming. An endless succession of internet memes and Facebook posts remind us to live life to the fullest and offer us a dizzying array of suggestions for how to do so. And in the midst of this advice overload, mental health issues soar, debt skyrockets, and we are left with the bewildered wondering:

What does it mean, really, to live a good life?

I purposefully picked out two scripture passages tonight that seem, at least at first glance, to be entirely contradictory, to match the conflicting guidance on the good life that seems to me to be ubiquitous in our culture. The Teacher who narrates the book of Ecclesiastes is famous for saying, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” – in our translation tonight, the word “vanity” is rendered “pointless,” which is somehow even more pessimistic, but the word actually means “vapor” or “breath.” Everything is vapor; everything will pass away, anyway, the Teacher seems to say; but in the meantime eat and drink and be joyful, make sure you’ve got good drink and a good life partner – you’re going to die, and so is everyone else, so live it up now. Read this way, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes comes off as the patron saint of bad freshman dorm decisions.

And then we have Jesus, in the gospel passage, whose advice for a rich man who comes to him asking how to inherit eternal life is to sell everything that he owns and give the money to the poor. Sell the nice clean clothes and the fine wine suggested by the Wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes, give it all away, and then you’ll live a good life.

The man goes away sad. Perhaps we would, too.

Live it up, you’re going to die anyway. No, sell everything you have and give to the poor. Make enough money to be satisfied and happy. No, money can’t buy you happiness. Live simply and in solidarity with those who don’t have anything. Well, money might not be able to buy you happiness, but it can buy you a puppy, so that’s something.

Contradictory messages. Conflicting advice. What does it mean to live a good life?

II. A Sacred Ambivalence
If we take a closer look, the two scripture passages we heard tonight do more than simply tell us that ancient people struggled with mixed messaging as much as we do. They reveal a deep, and I would say even a sacred, ambivalence about how to live a good life.

Take the Wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes. They set out on a journey to figure out what’s good, and end up face-to-face with the absurdities and contradictions of life. They see good people suffer and wicked people get away with murder. They start feeling like everything is vapor and breath, but want to encourage us to live life fully, anyway. From beginning to end, the book of Ecclesiastes uncovers the difficulty in wrestling meaning and morality out of an existence that sometimes seems void of either. The author doesn’t give us a final answer to the question of the good life. Rather, they seek to look deeply at life through the lens of the question, refusing to succumb to numbness or easy answers. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes lives into the question and finds themself in a deep unknowing, committed nevertheless to life in its midst.

And then we have the rich man of Mark’s gospel, who is perhaps on a similar quest to the Wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes. Desperate to find meaning in the midst of a confusing life, the rich man finds his way to Jesus, who apparently has been gaining some fame and respect as a Wise Teacher in his own right. And he asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life.

Now, there are a couple of underlying dynamics here. First, the guy is rich, so it makes sense that he thinks he can obtain or inherit eternal life. The word in the original Greek is literally the same word as one would use to talk about inheriting a fortune. Jesus is used to folks who don’t expect to inherit much of anything, but this guy wants to inherit eternal life the way he’s inherited his estate.[i]

Second, “eternal life,” no matter what modern Christianity has tried to do with the phrase, doesn’t mean “life in heaven after death.” It means a certain quality or depth of life, which cannot be defeated simply by death. So the man doesn’t say, “How can I get to heaven after I die,” he asks, “How can I inherit a good life, a life of meaning, of purpose, of depth?”

And third, Jesus loves him. Jesus doesn’t respond to the guy out of a sense of judgment or a desire to put him in his place. The gospel writer tells us, “Jesus looked at him carefully, and loved him.” And then he responds: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.”

Jesus looked at him carefully.

He really saw him.

And then he gave an answer that challenged the rich man’s assumptions and desires.

I think this is important. Doug Pagitt, the pastor of a church called Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, puts it this way:
“Jesus,” he writes, “practiced a first-name faith, a particular faith that was directed specifically at whomever he was talking to at the moment. The Jesus we find in the Gospels never gives the same answer twice.”[ii]

Jesus doesn’t give the same answer twice.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people come to Jesus, asking him different forms of the same question. How do I inherit eternal life? How do I get into the kingdom? Can we sit at your left hand and your right hand when you take charge over the kingdom? How can I be reborn? How can I be your disciple? How can I be set free? How can I live a good life?

And Jesus gives different answers. Sell what you have and give to the poor. Tell everyone that you’ve been healed. No, don’t tell anyone that you’ve been healed. Come and follow me. No, don’t follow me – go home and tell the people in your village what has happened.

If we took any of these sayings of Jesus in isolation, as rules for us to follow or as rock-solid life advice, we would be a confused mess. But Jesus isn’t offering laws or rules for living. Jesus is looking carefully at each person, and loving them, and speaking a word into their life situation that leads them to question their assumptions and reevaluate their priorities.

One could imagine the rich man selling everything he has, and giving to the poor, and following Jesus – and still wondering, “Is this it? Is this eternal life?” And perhaps Jesus would give a different answer if the man were to ask again. Certainly Peter seems concerned, saying to Jesus – “Look! Jesus! We have left everything! We have followed you.” “Many who are first will be last, but many who are last will be first,” Jesus says. “You’ll receive more, but it will come with persecutions.” Jesus’ responses can seem bewildering. But life can seem bewildering, too.

And that, I think, is the point. Whenever someone offers a simple answer to the question of what life is about, of what it means to live well, it ought to raise our eyebrows and our suspicions. Life is bewildering, and if there were simple answers, we’d all know them by now. The Wise Teacher of Ecclesiastes seems to end up in a similar place. Questioning their own wisdom and insight, they finally can only point to God, who is ultimately the only judge of good and evil, wrong and right. It’s fascinating to notice that in the passage from Mark’s gospel, perhaps to the shock and amazement of us good Christians, even Jesus is a bit skeptical of the rich man calling him good. Don’t assume I’ve got all the answers, Jesus seems to be saying – or at least, don’t assume that I can simply hand you answers in a way that will make sense for you. It’s not that easy. But still, come, follow me. Give this way of life a try.

III. Life, Anyway
If Jesus is a bit hesitant to be called good, how much more so should I hesitate to offer you any guidance on the good life! What do I know of the good life? Only what I’ve learned from the saints, I suppose.

A few years ago, I was asked to speak to a congregation that was doing a study based on the three “General Rules” of John Wesley’s early Methodist Societies. The General Rules were the basic guidelines for what it mean to be a Methodist, back when it was a fledgling movement and not a denomination or an institution unto itself. The rules, as articulated by Wesley, were “Do no harm. Do good. Attend to the ordinances of God.”

I was asked to speak about the rule, “Do good.” And as I wrote my reflection, Microsoft Word kept doing exactly what it was doing as I wrote this part of tonight’s message. It kept underlying “Do good” with that little green squiggle, the one that suggests that your grammar is not quite right.

Microsoft Word wanted me to correct “Do Good” to “Do Well.” More grammatically elegant, I suppose.

But Wesley didn’t say, “Do well.” He said, “Do good.”

To “do well” at life is to get ahead, to advance, to succeed, to win. You can look back at a paper or a job or competition and say, “Yeah, I did well back there.”

But doing good?

That’s a charge that starts anew each morning, each moment. Each day we live, we have a chance to give it another try, to try to live with love as our guiding principle. And there’s no way to succeed at it, to finally say, “Yes, that’s how to do good.” It’s a question we live into, day by day.

Another wise teacher put it this way, in a letter to one of the early churches. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like these.” (Gal 5:22-23).

There is no law against love. No law against joy. No law against peace. Just the daily, often mundane work of living life, in all its complexity and challenge. Sometimes, we won’t know how to love. Sometimes, we will do something that we think is loving, and end up hurting someone. Sometimes we will make bad decisions, or do things that end up causing harm, and we will feel shame and be tempted to lash out or to defend ourselves with the armor of cynicism. And then, we will have to go back to our life’s drawing board, and start over. To take a deep breath, and remind ourselves of compassion and grace, and try again. And it will be difficult. And there is no easy way out. No other thing to do other than to turn to God in prayer, and turn back to our life and try again.

What does it mean to live a good life?

What do I know of goodness?

Let’s give this life a try, anyway.


Notes:

[i] Ched Myers, “The Call of the Rich Man as a Text of Terror,” Radical Discipleship, 8 Oct 2015, available online: http://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/10/08/the-call-of-the-rich-man-as-a-text-of-terror

[ii] Doug Pagitt, Evangelism in the Inventive Age (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 42.