What does it mean to be good?

Matthew 5: 13-20

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Sunday 5 February

©Suzanne Grimmett

What does it mean to be good?

Is it about what we do…or the reasons why we do what we do? Is it good if others are helped…but what if the same action also brings you lots of public attention. Is it still good?

Is goodness natural…or do we have to work at it? Can goodness we equated with observing the laws of the land, or the decrees of a particular religious belief? How do you recognise a truly good action or a truly good person?

The Gospel text today does not talk about goodness, but about righteousness. The terms obviously are connected but are not identical because righteousness brings with it an understanding of an alignment with religious law…in Jewish understanding, Torah- the law of God as revealed to Moses in the first five books of the Bible. Jesus’ words in this second half of the reading might remind us of what we need to keep front and centre in this year where we read Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was a good Jew. Often in interfaith dialogues when Jewish people are asked what they think of Jesus, you will get a wry smile and something along the lines of “we totally get him because he is one of ours”.

Today’s reading from Matthew is from the so-called Sermon on the Mount which is likely not one sermon, but a collection of Rabbi Jesus’ favourite hits[1] – a collection of the teachings that had brought about such a revolution in the hearts of his disciples. Jesus in today’s text says that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. This is not an insult so much as it is a high bar. Jesus is saying that observance of tradition or adherence to law is not enough- our goodness needs to flow from our intimate relationship with the one who is goodness itself.

Jesus also makes clear in this passage that he is not rejecting Torah but reading it and practising it from a different perspective. He also speaks of being its fulfilment, which partly means drawing out its full implications. In discerning what it means to lead lives of goodness and truth, I believe we can follow Rabbi Jesus in this too; if you follow the full implications of what you say you believe, where do you find yourself? Are you more loving or do you find yourself putting your beliefs or traditions before people? Are your beliefs leading you to align yourself with a moral arc that leans toward justice, or are you leaving behind or excluded those whom society has already rejected?

Fulfilment is also found in the person of Jesus. God is doing something new, and it has begun already proclaims Jesus in these words. We are to live as people of God’s kingdom, because God’s kingdom is to be on earth as it is in heaven. The kingdom of heaven is the realm where life is in alignment with God’s will and dream for humanity. The rule of the divine is not yet fully revealed on earth, but we are to pray for it, and live into it. Jesus tells us we are to be salt and light. In practical ways, how are we, as Jesus’ followers and community of faith, to let our light shine? By doing good works- that is, covenantal acts of love, mercy, and justice.

Archbishop William Temple was often quoted as saying, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” In order for the light to be seen, we must be willing to go where the darkness exists, to engage and walk through it, so that, in time, the light can overcome it.[2] I think that is what the church, through its history has, in many places and at many times, done. So much so, that this good work- whether it be in caring for the sick, burying the dead, educating the young, or assisting those who cannot access the needs of life for instance- are things that are now recognised as important in any compassionate society and have been recreated in our society by government services.

However, describing lives as “good” because they are defined by their acts of love, mercy and justice, makes clearer the wisdom of using metaphors like salt and light. Given the tricksy nature of our motivations and how prone we are to masquerading as good when we can be really serving more ego-driven desires, just listing off what actions constitute a good life is clearly not enough.

To be salt and light are metaphors that speak to the way our lives enhance the lives of those around us. To think of goodness in this way is to place it firmly in the territory of relationships. This is why Jesus talks about the fulfilment of the law because the law can only be understood as having at its heart not a list of do’s and don’ts but a covenantal relationship with the God who always moves towards us in steadfast, committed, merciful loving kindness. (And you probably do need at least that many adjectives to describe God’s love for us!)

It is true to remember that what makes us good is ultimately, in a kingdom economy of life, what makes us live most fully and makes us glad as well. But what if goodness were more to do with the way we enable others to live fully? What if you may discern a righteous person not by their acts shining before others, but by the way they make other’s shine?

Light, after all, enables us to see ourselves and others more clearly. It can provide a guide, a waypoint, a spotlight to reveal others shining with the light of Christ- a light that is reflected in an entirely unique way for each person.

Salt can change the flavour of food from bland to full of interest and complexity, drawing out flavours that are in the other ingredients. Instead of drawing attention to itself, salt brings forward tastes that would otherwise be lost and unnoticed next to stronger flavours. My household watches Masterchef and there they make the word “hero” into a verb, asking contestants to “hero” a particular ingredient to bring out its flavour. What if being salt meant that we find ways to “hero” others, bringing forward their unique characteristics to be seen and celebrated. This is why righteousness cannot be separated from justice. When true goodness is found in the way we enable others to flourish, then a life of goodness is found in recognising and responding to the forces, structures and systems that exclude some from opportunities that others take for granted. Truth, as always, is revealed in relationship. As we accept that we are loved, we share that love with others and enable others to be recognised as both beloved and loveable. Perhaps a way to recognise a truly good life is in the way others around that life are allowed and empowered to fully live.

But here’s the thing. We cannot just set out to be that kind of person and expect it to work out. To do that is to participate in nothing more than the self-help project mentality which plagues our culture and leaves us trapped in the same old performance mindset. The only way we can be salt and light in the world is to not only offer dignity to others, but to recognise that we ourselves embody that same dignity because of the one in whose image we are made. Instead of people as bearers of God’s image, our quick judgmental minds flatten the beauty and complexity of both ourselves and others into labels like good or bad. As soon as we allow that kind of totalising thinking, we will be in hiding- seeking to cover up those parts of ourselves we see as shameful, or, worse still, deluding even ourselves into believing that we are pure and upright and it is everyone else who is the problem.

To this trapped self the liberating Jesus speaks with gentleness and compassion. Not just, “I forgive you” – although surely that is weighty enough- but “I choose you, just as you are. I choose you, as you are, to go and shine with your particular light. I celebrate you, as you are now, because you, radiant with your own dignity, can walk with me and together we will help others to shine with their own unique light.”

We can only discern and live in goodness- our own and that of others- as we recognise that righteousness is not something we construct on our own. Neither is it as simple as a list of do’s or don’t or adherence to a code. An infinitely complex world calls from us the richness of a life surrendered to the one who is goodness, following the way of the Christ who makes a dwelling place in us that we may reveal the beauty of the world and enable others to shine with their own, particular light.


[1] Levine, Amy-Jill. Sermon on the Mount . Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (p. 796). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.