Monday, September 24, 2012

The futility of minimal goodness

When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken.
—Benjamin Disraeli, Contarini Fleming, Part 6, Chap. 3

Yesterday, of course, was the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B).  The theme running through the readings was of strife, envy and jealousy; the only counter to these problems is to humble oneself and become a servant to those whom one wishes to rule.

However — and this might be grounds for censure — the selected Gospel text (Mk 9:30-37) isn’t the one that occupied my attention at Mass.  Rather, another one floated into mind, a text that has had a lot of personal meaning:

[The Lord said,] “Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’?  Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’?  Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Lk 17:7-10).

It’s worth noting that the Greek word translated in most versions as “servant”, doulos, has the primary meaning “slave”.  In fact, that’s how the New American Bible had it translated when it was originally published.  It was re-translated back to “servant” with the 1986 revision, which is a pity; translating doulos as “slave” brings a lot more to the theological party.[*]

“We are worse than useless slaves, for we have done no more than what was required of us.”  That’s how it went, if my memory doesn’t play me false.  Doing the bare minimum is not a guarantee of a passing grade.

Or, at least, that was the initial impression.


I still think that’s an accurate read of the text.  In April of last year, I wrote a post that touched on the futility of minimal goodness.

I submit that, even from a non-Christian perspective, “good enough” isn’t.  It’s an excuse to slack off, to be “less than we can be”, to hang on to vices and failings — not because we believe they’re not really vices and failings but because we take pleasure in them, and to give them up would be to (ugh) suffer.  Because there’s no objective benchmark for “good enough”, there’s no justification for giving less than 100% ... even if you don’t believe in sainthood.
And if you do ... well, as Patrick Coffin of Catholic Answers Live says in his sign-off: “What else is there?”  Why not the best?

But, in a sense, it’s also Jesus’ way of pointing out the futility of rules.

All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.  For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Rom 2:12-16).

The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37) shows us the law written on the heart, for Jews held Samaritans to be worse than Gentiles — they were apostates, with whom the antipathy was mutual and long-standing (back to the Two Kingdoms period).  The priest and the Levite used the constraints of the Law of Moses to evade an act of mercy, possibly (as Martin L. King, Jr. said) from fear that they too would be robbed and killed: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”[1]  And so the victim remained Someone Else’s Problem.  The Samaritan became the man’s savior because his concern was not the Law of Moses: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?

The mere avoidance of evil, the refusal to do harm to others, is not enough.  Moving beyond the rules means moving beyond one’s self — the demands of pride, ego, appetite and desire that are summed up in that cheerfully brutal catchphrase “looking out for Number One”  — and placing the needs of others first.

This is where the passage from Luke dovetails the passage from Mark in yesterday’s Gospel: to become saints, we must first become servants.  To become servants, we must lose the “all about me” attitude.  We must place our own needs second to others, even when doing so may make our lives uncomfortable or place us at some risk.  Like Terence’s Chremes, we must take the attitude that “nothing that concerns a man do [we] deem a matter of indifference”.[2]

Once we learn to love others more than we love ourselves, then we will be able to move beyond the rules.  We will not need them, for we will do no evil to those whom we love, nor will they be sufficient for the expression of that love.  Only in that purity of love which God alone makes possible will laws finally become useless.


[*] By contrast, when Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35), the Greek word in question is diakonos.  The diakonos is not necessarily a bondsman or a captive, nor is he a person of no social account, but he still carries out commands of his superior.  Diakonos also meant “waiter” or “table servant”, which explains why the original “seven men of good repute” chosen to distribute food became known as diakonoi, or deacons (Acts 6:1-6).


[1] King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1968, April 3). “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”. Speech at Fordham University, Memphis, Tenn.