Once, according to Mark, a man ran up to Jesus in the road and begged: Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus began by objecting to the name, Good. Or at least, by trying to figure out what the fellow meant.
Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone, exclaimed Jesus. And most of us check the We are all miserable sinners box, as an explanation. As it turns out, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word ‘Good’ has its roots in a Gothic word meaning belonging together, a Proto Indo-European word meaning to unite, to be associated, suitable, and an Old English word meaning to gather, to take up together. Over time, this evolved into meanings familiar to us, and it seems, to the man in the road: am I good enough? how much better do I need to be, and what do I need to do?
And the English word ‘God’ has quite different roots: from words for call, invoke, and pour, as in to pour a libation, and to pour earth, a reference to burial. The Dictionary notes that the words God and good are not related in their roots, and that in the root cultures, goodness was not a necessary component of gods.
Whether the Aramean and street Greek words of Mark have the same roots I don’t know, but if not, then uncannily Jesus evokes these meanings in his answer to the man seeking to be good: have you not been, but done good, he asks, invoking the law of Moses. And when the man assures him he has done all this, Jesus, Mark tells us, loves him, and bids him to begin outpouring himself – outpouring all he has – on the poor. In Jesus’ eyes, this would be loving God, and loving like God loves.
Kim Davis has been amassing her piety points by obeying another law, one for which I can find no biblical warrant, but her own religious tradition does: repudiating same-sex love. She repudiates this, piously, by denying same-sex marriage licenses in her county clerk’s office. She has spent a brief five days in a county jail for her obstructionism. And she has announced to the press that the Pope personally honored her for this in a private meeting, where he presented her and her fourth husband rosaries and bid her to ‘stay strong.’
The Vatican has admitted the meeting but denied the meaning she has taken – no blessing was given to her actions or to her cause, the Vatican said, merely to her person. No blessing for her doing, but a blessing for her longing to be close to God. A blessing that was one of more than twenty the Pope gave in rapid succession, during the time he was officially ‘resting’. And the Vatican has cited an audience the Pope had with a former student, gay and in a long, loving relationship, whom the Pope personally phoned before arriving, and clearly loves.
The Pope came to the US (and Cuba) to preach the kind of outpouring love Jesus recommended to the pious man he met in the road. To all of us, the Pope preached an outpouring of love for immigrants and the poor, and for the earth itself, in this time of climate crisis. Somehow Kim Davis sees her withholding actions as a virtuous outpouring of Godliness, and so she identified with the Pope’s words. And it boggles my mind that she does. That she drinks in the unbridled publicity which she in fact is seeking. And that she believes what she is doing makes her holy.
But I have to acknowledge the Pope has been dancing a Texas two-step here, embracing gays without altering the theology of his church, embracing generosity of spirit towards the poor and towards immigrants, when the Vatican bank, by all accounts the richest in the world, does not open its coffers to ameliorate the suffering of refugees on Europe’s borders, or in his own homeland, Argentina. According to the New York Times, the bulk of the Pope’s private meetings were with wealthy American donors.
So the questions, What Road Are We On? What’s Going on Here? apply to our global march toward war despite our public protestations for peace, our industrial march toward climate destruction despite our longing for environmental protection, and our social conflict, in which religion as righteousness contends with our faith that God is invokes our outpourings that make us good by bringing us together. And Kim Davis, who refuses to give away what she has in her power to give, to those who need and long for it and to whom it is now due by law, and who does not want to be brought together with the likes of those whom she despises, has enough religious and financial supporters to raise a cloud of confusion and a degree of division in America.
The aftermath of Jesus’ conversation in the road is that the disciples question the need to give away everything, saying they have already given up so much, their jobs, families, friends, homes. And Jesus answers confoundingly, saying that in this lifetime, those who have sacrificed anything for him will be given all of it again and a hundredfold, including, and this is the part I don’t like to hear, including opportunities for persecution. And eternal life. But – the upsetting of the social order will happen, in all of this, and many who are first will be last.
I believe the Pope will continue to be first among the religious leaders of this world, and join in the joy over his visit. Kim Davis, though, in the years ahead, when the cameras have left her and she is still just plain Kim in Kentucky, will have a lot to reflect on about the last becoming first and the first becoming last, about her moments with the Pope and her moments with her neighbors, as America evolves into a country comfortable with the outpouring of many kinds of love.
1.Words Can’t Feed the Hungry, Michael Pawlicki, Poland, 2012. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Bread of Life. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
3. Pope Francis Waving. Free Images of Pope Francis, Google Images.
4 Arnolfini Wedding, detail. Jan van Eyck. 1434. National Gallery of Art, Great Britain. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
5. The Yellow Brick Road, from the Wizard of Oz. Tumbler Image on Google.
6. Peace, Be Still. by He Qi. Nanjing, China. 2001. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.