Monday, April 9, 2012

Good for Nothing

Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. (Matthew 6.2)

The Good Life

Walt and a group of friends were discussing various life philosophies, and one of them said, “Mine is simple. I try to be good for nothing.” Eyebrows shot up and heads tilted. He explained that he looks for opportunities to do something good without anyone knowing it. “I want to leave things better for the next guy,” he said. “I pick up litter when I see it. I give a little extra to homeless people—not so much for them as for someone who might not have it to give. If I see an open gate, I close it, because people lose pets that way.” Someone in the group likened it to the “pay it forward” concept. “Not really,” he said. “There’s no payment back or forward. It’s all for nothing.” So they’re just random acts of kindness? “It’s not random at all,” he countered. “I go looking for ways I can be good for nothing.”

Ever since Walt brought the idea home, we’ve talked about what a liberating notion it is—to do good with no strings attached, no names, no plans, no credit, none of that awkward business of being thanked or praised for thoughtfulness that springs out of one’s heart. To be good for nothing. Living lives of kindness in motion. Leaving jet streams of compassion and generosity and harm prevention wherever we go without any indication of where they came from. And to make that our purpose, going beyond the odd moments when it dawns on us to do what’s good, kind, and just. To go looking for ways we can be good for nothing. This is precisely the life Jesus calls for in Matthew 6.2: “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” This is the life in which goodness is its own reward, the life of goodness that seeks no reward. This is the good life.

The Discipline of Being Good

The more I think about this simple plan for living the good life the more I wonder how the discipline of being good for nothing plays out in relationships and situations where we’re inescapably present and known. How do we practice drive-by goodness there? Jesus shows us how in His admonition about what not to do. “Do nothing to draw attention to yourself,” He says. “Don’t get all holy and self-righteous about goodness you convey.” Doing what’s good to prove we’re as good—or, more often, better—than those who benefit from it proves nothing. Their gratitude and onlookers’ praise become the prize. If that’s all we want—to be seen doing good—we won’t be disappointed, because that’s what we’ll get. But in going that way, we should also be aware that’s all we’ll get. Jesus promises something much greater than looking good will come of our goodness when we divorce it from any hopes or intentions of being noticed. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you.” (v3-4) Many translations attach “openly” to the end of verse 4, underscoring the implication that being good for nothing ultimately results in rewards that openly attest to goodness in us—goodness that need not wave flags and sound trumpets, goodness that is simply, irrevocably, obviously there.

This is a hugely important lesson for all of us. And it’s especially vital for those of us who’ve been disparaged as “good for nothing.” Learning Jesus’s way of being good for nothing restores and reaffirms our dignity and worth. When kindness in motion becomes a way of life, it transforms every situation into a good-for-nothing opportunity. Jet streams of compassion, generosity, and harm prevention smoke out the hornet’s nests and purify atmospheres of hatred and degradation. Seeking no reward for good relieves the burden of hoping our intentions will be appreciated. Others’ responses don’t affect our decision to do good, because we do it for nothing. If they get it, that’s great. If they don’t, so be it.

For the Better

As we listen to Jesus talk about doing good for nothing, we bear in mind He’s addressing a culture of disempowerment, speaking to an oppressed people who’ve lapsed into a perpetual reactionary state. In many ways, His listeners resemble post-traumatic patients. They’ve witnessed, experienced, and absorbed so much suffering that they’re naturally reluctant to extend themselves to others without some guarantee of repayment. They’ve already lost so much that asking what’s in it for me is their first line of defense against future losses and greater suffering. And so it is with us. We too live in a culture of disempowerment, where belittlement and demoralization are handy tools for anyone seeking to control who we are, how we behave, and what we believe. Before we do anything good, we’re apt to weigh potential risks and rewards. When we’re unsure that doing good will result in something better for us, we hesitate.

Given the suffering we’ve endured and absorbed, we have no reason to condemn ourselves for thinking that way. Yet Jesus challenges us to think again—to realize abuses that befall us grow out of a climate starved for goodness, a world where oppression, demoralization, and hatred are clothed as moral and religious righteousness. “What’s in it for me” strips the good from goodness and replaces it with hypocrisy and deceit. Whatever we may reap from rewards-based goodness benefits no one—not even us—because all we’re doing is counterbalancing evil with good, rather than increasing goodness by foregoing any desire of repayment. To be good for nothing is to participate in an additive process that fills the gaping void of goodness in our world. It changes our relationships, situations, culture, climate, and, yes, us for the better. This is goodness that God rewards. This is the good life. So the next time anyone dares to say you’re good for nothing, dare to smile, nod in agreement, and thank them for the compliment!

Doing good without seeking reward invites us to participate in an additive process that fills the gaping void of goodness in our world.

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