John 3.1-17, Romans 4:1-5 &13-17
The Bible has some hard things to say to good people who end up, for whatever reason, being drawn into wrong-doing. Nicodemus recognises that God is present in Jesus and yet he only dares to visit him at night. Is he reluctant to give Jesus the recognition he deserves as a fellow rabbi, or is he afraid of declaring his own allegiance to Jesus? Either way, Jesus feels there may be some cognitive dissonance at work here. Like other rabbis who have come to Jesus seeking answers, Nicodemus is reluctant to acknowledge the truth of what he's hearing so he convinces himself that part of the jigsaw puzzle is still missing. 'How can these things be?' he asks.
'And how can you call yourself a teacher,' Jesus counters, 'And yet claim not to understand these things? I'm telling it how it is, but you're not listening.' How often that happens, doesn't it? Otherwise good people, including ourselves of course, sometimes blank out inconvenient truths or things which challenge our preconceptions.
A little later on Jesus talks about Moses, and only a few weeks ago we heard in the lectionary how Moses once said ‘If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray…, I declare to you today that you shall perish.’ In other words, good people who allow themselves to be deflected from what is true will not flourish in the long run.
However, unlike Moses, Jesus doesn't talk about condemnation; instead, he offers salvation. He has come so that good people might not perish but have everlasting life. And the key to turning things around is trust. If we trust in Jesus, and see in his uncompromising love the antidote to all the ways that good people so easily go wrong, then we too might be saved.
Paul says that Abraham didn't earn God's favour by doing the right thing all of the time. He wasn't good enough to become God's friend and the ancestor of a great faith. Instead, he simply put his trust in God.
The Law of Moses brings wrath or condemnation to those who try to be good by keeping it, not because it is a bad thing in itself but because being good enough to keep the Law is impossible. There’s no escaping human nature and we’re never so much in danger of falling as when we think we’re above reproach. We’ll always have mixed motives and Freudian psychology has demonstrated that some of our behaviour is dictated by our subconscious, so that we’re not even aware of what is really motivating us. That’s why, in the end, we’re dependent on the grace of God, revealed in Jesus who was lifted up to die for us in order to reveal God’s love for us, and who sends us the Holy Spirit to encourage and strengthen us.
Despite John Wesley’s teaching about Christian perfection, we can never be wholly good; we’re bound to be influenced by what Paul elsewhere calls ‘human inclinations’. Even good people are bound to do bad things unintentionally, and sometimes quite deliberately. No wonder then that the Psalmist says, 'Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven.' God in his mercy is prepared to accept us despite our imperfections. In Jesus he offers himself as a solution to our predicament. He shows us that his love can always overcome the bad things that good people end up doing. And through his Spirit working in us we can at least grow towards perfection.
Why are good people tempted to do wrong? Sometimes we just fall from the straight and narrow and do mean, selfish or spiteful things. But sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re still good people even though we’re doing something wrong. But the Bible reminds us that we can only be truly good if we’re radically good. There’s no such thing as pretty good. And if we’re falling short of radical goodness, as we surely must, that simply emphasises our reliance on God’s grace, for the truly good are those who know their need of God’s great goodness.