To be sure, morally or otherwise, no one is good in the sense of perfect. We are usually only good in a relative sense. We are not perfect but we do not think we are awful either. Our day was fine but it was not amazing. The best tennis player in the world would probably not tell you he was good at tennis. He would focus on his need to be better. At heart, Jesus knows that no one will completely achieve the goal he has set out. As he says “No one is good—except God alone.” (Luke 18:19). Goodness is something we strive for but know we will not achieve on this earth.
Goodness Has its Roots in Repentance
Being a good Catholic requires first of all sincerely trying. This trying must take place on a deep level. God rejects the lukewarm that have become self-satisfied. Paradoxically, goodness on this earth starts with the recognition of our fallen and sinful nature. Christ says “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (5:32). As we are all sinners, Jesus has come to call us all to repentance. To illustrate this, Christ tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his breast, saying God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” ( Luke; 18:9-14)
The tax collector is not an unstained character, but Christ says he is “justified” through his humility. While the tax collector almost puts himself on par with God by making himself a judge of others, the tax collector acknowledges his need for mercy through his prayer and his attitude before God and does not dare to judge anyone. Our justification has its roots in repentance and openness to God’s grace. When we judge others, we cut ourselves off from God and his power.
Two Uses of the Word Good
I was reminded of the different uses of the word good recently because I watched The Wizard of Oz. The wizard in this film plays with the word good when he defends himself before Dorothy who has accused him of being very wicked and duplicitous. “Oh, no my dear,” he contradicts her, “I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.” In the sense that he calls himself a good man, the wizard is speaking morally, but when he speaks of himself as a wizard, he is referring to good in light of skills and abilities. His self-defense could be paraphrased thus: get to know me, my dear, and you will see that I am a nice person who just happens to lack skills in wizardry.
At this moment, Dorothy’s desire to find the perfectly good and knowing man is frustrated. Perhaps, this desire is forgivable in a world like Oz, but even there it leads to bitter disappointment. Dorothy finds that the answer to her longing was with her all along. Her ruby slippers provide her with a way back to Kansas. Dorothy’s realization points to the reality that many of the answers we seek in life lie closer to us than we think. At the beginning of the movie, she wants to find a place of happiness and self-realization somewhere over a rainbow, but, by the end, she seems to realize that the things she wanted were right in Kansas all along. Also, Dorothy looked for a link to a power beyond her abilities in the wizard when such a power lay literally at her feet. In our case, this power lies in our prayer lives and our fulfillment often lies in the simple life before us. For us, it is difficult to realize that Christ is right there with us. We go off to find the answer when the true source of goodness and the answer to our longing is before us.
Be on Your Guard Against False Goodness
Like Dorothy, we have to be careful of shams. Christ makes clear that any good that is not rooted in action is false. He warns of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Going on, he compares us to fruit trees. “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? So every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit” (Matt 7:16-17). These words remind us of the importance not only of professing our faith but also of acting on it.
However, our goodness must go beyond even our words and actions since the goodness of a fruit bearing tree lies in its very being. Indeed, the good that we do out of a heart turned towards ourselves is in some way invalid. “How can you speak of good things, when you are evil?” Christ cries, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matt 12:34-35). If we recall, that Christ’s image of the Good Shepherd is the Savior who lays down his life, we begin to see that the goodness Christ speaks of and the leadership he demands are both based on sacrifice. Sacrifice forces goodness to become something no longer selfish and self-serving—not true goodness.
Striving For Goodness While Falling Short
Like the wizard, perhaps, many of us have used theatrics to hide our perceived inadequacies. Indeed, we may have relied on outward signs of faith rather than fostering true Christian virtue in part because of our fear that a genuine faith is beyond us. Of course, the better solution lies in humbly accepting our limitations as Christians. In Oz, the Great and Powerful, another much later interpretation of the Oz stories, the wizard is forced into taking his role and decides to feign magical powers through the construction of an elaborate machine. The wizard may prefer to be a porter, another role we see him play in The Wizard of Oz, but has to be a wizard for some mysterious greater good. Catholics may also feel forced into a role that they feel inadequate to perform. Some may have said in self-defense, “Oh, no my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad Catholic.” By saying this, they try to separate their Catholicism from what they might call their normal side as if Catholicism were a skill such as tennis. As Catholics, we need Christ’s help to perform our role and to bring us towards His goodness. We also know that our Catholicism should infuse every aspect of our lives.
It is clear that goodness as a skill will always be relative. Goodness in the way Christ describes it is also beyond us. Goodness requires first of all humility and repentance on a daily level. Then it requires a heart that is turned towards God. Goodness will lead to sacrifice and the cross, the laying down of our lives for others. It takes the Christian far away from the safe and the predictable. We misunderstand ourselves as followers of Christ when we see our goodness as Catholics as a mere skill. Because of the fickleness of men, human goodness will remain somewhat temporary, yet in the Gospel, Christ promises to bring justification to those who open themselves to grace.