Then someone came to him and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" He said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments.... -- Matthew 19:16-17
This passage is odd. Someone asks Jesus about good deeds and Jesus says that only one being or person is good (implying God). But why does Jesus switch the topic from good deeds to good persons or beings? There's a disconnect here which is hard to understand. Luke has a similar version of this event, but Luke's is slightly different, and it's that difference that provides food for thought, especially in light of recent events. In Luke's version the passage reads,
A certain ruler 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...." Luke 18:18
In Luke's version, Jesus's response makes sense. The person calls Jesus good, and Jesus says only God is good.
I can't help but think that Matthew changed the words of the actual story. But why?
In Luke's version, Jesus is saying that even he should not be called "good." Really? Does that mean that Jesus was not without sin? According to Luke's version, that is the implication. And that is not easy to swallow.
Yesterday I heard on the news that Pope Francis recently said something very similar. He said, "... the Church is all too evidently made up of sinners. Sinful men, women, priests, nuns, Bishops, Cardinals, Popes. All of them." It was somewhat shocking. Even the Pope is not without sin? How can that be?
Many of us have a problem with sin. For some it's even a hard word to say aloud. The multiple versions of The Lord's Prayer attest to this difficulty. In the Bible, there are two versions of The Lord's Prayer, one in Matthew and one in Luke. Matthew uses the word "debt" and Luke uses the word "sin." The traditional version of the prayer that is said in church services uses the word "trespasses." Now, to me, the words "debts" and "trespasses" imply mistakes. We all make mistakes. No one is perfect. Now let's move on.
But sin... that's more serious.
There is an important difference between making a mistake and committing a sin. Making a mistake implies that we did something wrong, but it doesn't convey the sense that we actually intended to hurt someone. Sin is different. Sin implies that we did something or failed to do something even though we knew it was going to hurt someone.
I experienced this difference for myself, recently.
Mistake: I forgot to communicate with a couple of people about a recent ministry fair I was helping to organize. As a result, they felt a little excluded.
Sin: I spoke critically to a friend even though I knew what I was going to say was going to hurt her. I did not even try to figure out how to say what I felt I needed to say in a less hurtful way. As a result, she felt like I had punched her in the gut.
Now, both of these transgressions require apologies. But the mistake was unintentional. The sin was not. I had no idea I had made the mistake until after the fact. I knew I was going to hurt my friend and I did it anyway.
People who murder, who commit adultery, who lie, cheat and steal, etc., know they are doing something wrong. And they do it anyway. That's the difference between a sin and a mistake.
Do we all sin? Do we all do things that we know we shouldn't do, things that are harmful to us or to other people? Yes, I believe we do.
Is there anything we can do about it?
Well, we can beat ourselves up, but that's not very helpful.
There is only one thing I know that actually improves our lives and the lives of those around us, and that is to rely completely on God.
Now, I'm not talking about forgiveness, about relying on God to forgive me for my sins. I'm talking about relying on God to lead me, to be my guide in all things.
Left to my own devices, I would be a heapful of vices. But when I let God be my guide in all things, I make better choices. I am a better human being.
The morning before I hurt my friend's feelings, I thought about seeking God's advice. But I was pressed for time. I thought I knew best. So I didn't bother to seek God's advice. In hindsight, I wish I had. For I know that God would have guided me to do things differently. As God is guiding me now in the aftermath, helping me to understand what I did and to put my friend's needs before my own.
Recognizing our sin is the key to changing our lives, and the lives of others, for the better. Recognizing my sin forced me to see how much I still need to rely on God.
And that is why I value Pope Francis's words. "Holiness does not consist in doing extraordinary things," he said, but in leaving it to God, stressing that "the meeting of our weakness with the strength of his grace, is to have confidence in his active service to others." (from "Pope Francis: Do not be afraid of holiness," by Elise Harris, Catholic News Agency)
At the end of the passage above in Matthew, the disciples ask Jesus, "Then who can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."
Amen to that. God will show you a better way if you listen.
May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you