Mike’s Meditations: Good Catholic, Bad Catholic

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by Mike Van Vranken

There is an interesting story where an official asked Jesus: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke 18:18. Jesus peculiarly responds: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” Luke 18:19.

Many times I’ve read that statement and thought, “Yes, Amen, God is good,” and then just moved on. But, I’ve realized Jesus is teaching us here about being human. We can worry too much about being a “good” Catholic/Christian, and forget our goal is to love and serve God. We can fall into idolatry by allowing our desire to “be good” to become our focus – our reason for living. I’ll use the next few verses of this story as an example.

We remember that Jesus lists the 10 commandments to this man as the ways to heaven, and proudly, the man responds that he’s kept them all from his earliest days. In other words, this man is saying: “Hey, I’m a good Jew. I’ve kept all the commandments. I’m saved!” Rather than reviewing how his life has been lived in love and service to God, this man seems only interested in himself; in saving his own soul. Can you see the nuance in this? We are created to praise, love and serve God. In the process, we plan to be in His holy presence for eternity. And surely we want that. But when we make “being good” or keeping the commandments our only purpose, life becomes all about us and not about God. In St. Paul’s words, we become prisoners or slaves to the law.

When we are young, we are sometimes motivated by a reward/punishment system: Clean your room, you get a cookie. Don’t clean your room, no cookie. But when we mature, we realize we clean our room to avoid living in filth – not to get a cookie.

Likewise, when we mature in our faith, we also begin to understand that we keep the commandments, not because they are some rule or law to get us to heaven, but because we praise, love and serve God with our entire being. That’s it. “Being good” does not earn our salvation. God who loves us, who alone is “good,” mercifully grants us our salvation.

Continuing the story may help. Jesus tells the official there is one more thing he can do. Another rule? I don’t think so. Instead, Jesus is saying that when we live a life that is attached to worldly things, we are not free to really love God and our neighbor. The attachment takes all our attention and distracts us from God. Like we can do with the rules themselves, we become prisoners to the worldly attachments. So, Jesus tells the man to give all of his possessions away. Jesus passionately wants this man to experience true freedom. The freedom that results when all of our focus is on loving God and loving everyone else; the freedom to live without the shiny, glittery distractions of all we acquire. Again, I don’t believe Jesus is saying we have to give everything away to “be good.” He’s already told us that God alone is good. In his book: The Good News According to Luke, Fr. Richard Rohr puts it this way: “Live it (the gospel) as best you can and leave the problem of salvation up to God.”

Later on, the apostles ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Luke 18:26. He tells them that even for what is impossible for humans, for God all things are possible. A good reminder that our salvation comes from God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And ironically, it’s when we fall madly, passionately and intimately in love with God, that keeping the commandments becomes our lifestyle. Not that we will do it perfectly, because we won’t. We will make mistakes. But, when we love God with our whole hearts, whole being and whole strength, and when we love our neighbor as ourselves, keeping the commandments is not something we do. It’s who we are.

Whenever we think thoughts like “Good Catholic/Bad Catholic,” change your language to “Love God/Love Neighbor.” Be free of the reward/punishment mentality and allow God to be good – all the time.

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