Saturday, November 19, 2011

Doing Good For The Right Reasons

Matthew 25.31-46
Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince

On one level the parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats is a straight forward story about the rewards of doing the right thing. Like the Happy Prince, the sheep and the goats discover that true happiness lies in serving others not in enjoying ourselves.

However, both the parable and Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince add a further twist to what would otherwise be a simple morality tale. The more deserving the recipients of our help, the more easily they might otherwise be overlooked, the greater will be our reward in reaching out to them.

If we only help those who can return the favour, that is not good enough. We must make sure of helping the people at the back of the queue, the strangers and the marginalised. If anything, these are the people to whom we should give priority.

And yet there are problems with this interpretation. First of all, shouldn’t doing good be its own reward. Why do we need to inherit a kingdom? Isn’t this no different - on a moral level - from singling out for help those who can afford to return the favour one day. The only differences are that the gratification is being postponed - and also greatly enhanced, because it will last for ever. And if we help people solely in order to be chosen and rewarded by God, we are also scarcely any better - at least at the level of personal motivation - than the misguided individuals who blow people up for the same reason?

However, Jesus has - of course - thought of this objection. The sheep didn’t realise they were earning a reward. They just did what seemed to them to be right at the time. They may not even have believed in God, or in eternal rewards. They are surprised, gobsmacked even, to be chosen and rewarded now. And the same is true of the Happy Prince and the swallow. They never expected any reward save that of knowing they were doing what was right.

This means the parable cannot be a template for getting on the right side of God. It isn’t telling us that, by doing A, B and C we will earn our way into the kingdom prepared since the foundation of the world. The only way into that kingdom is to be the kind of person to whom doing the right thing comes as second nature. There can be no calculation in becoming a sheep.

Second, the parable appears to devalue the spiritual life in favour of robust social action. Getting close to God ceases to be about prayer and worship, about opening oneself to God’s grace and mercy, and becomes a matter of doing as much good to as many people in as short a time as possible. But there are other aspects of the Christian story - and the teaching of Jesus - which emphasise that we can never do enough good to deserve to inherit the kingdom. It is always a gift, even to the sheep.

Perhaps in order to become the kind of person who never stops reaching out and giving to others, we first have to recognise our own need of help, of love and forgiveness. Those who are totally absorbed in seeking their own salvation may never find the time and energy to reach out to others, but equally those who don’t feel any need of help themselves are unlikely to help others with the right spirit, or in the right frame of mind.

Isn’t that one of the points of the story about the pharisee and the tax collector? The first couldn’t see that he needed any help at all. The other could only see his total need of grace and help. Which was the more appealing character?

The third difficulty with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is that it talks about helping the members of Jesus’ family. Who are they? Is the kingdom reserved for those who help suffering and persecuted members of the Church? Or is Jesus’ family the whole human race, or those who are disadvantaged, those who - like him - are being crucified?

And this, of course, leads us to the final difficulty. What does Jesus mean when he says that, if we help those in need we shall find we have helped him? Being poor, marginalised or disadvantaged doesn’t make people Christ-like.

Sometimes it frees people from a reliance on material things and makes them genuinely content with little things, the small blessings of daily life, like the children in the Happy Prince who were able to play in the streets and enjoy themselves once they had been fed. But sometimes poverty and lack of opportunity make people disillusioned, bitter, despairing, hopeless and even feckless, and helping them can make them reliant on hand-outs or cynical and greedy for more, like the notorious welfare scroungers beloved of right-wing tabloid newspapers.

Of course, if the people in need in the parable are members of the Church, they are therefore part of the Body of Christ, and helping them means helping him too. But it’s difficult to interpret the story with such a narrow focus. Isn’t Jesus calling us to reach out to others and to try to include them into his family, whether they deserve it or not? In doing his will, are we not serving him?

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