A question was asked in a recent comic strip as one character spoke to another, “Okay, Marcus, you don’t drink or smoke or cuss, but is it the absence of bad behavior that makes someone good, or is it the presence of good behavior?” I was surprised at the depth of the comment, particularly since both characters on that day’s strip are teenagers.
Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. (Luke 18)
All too many of us are like the rich young ruler. We want to inherit eternal life by simply avoiding doing evil things. I hear people in church all the time saying that they do not do this or do not do that, as though that, by itself, is sufficient to ensure eternal life. As the comic strip asks, “… is it the absence of bad behavior that makes someone good …” That does appear to be the way that most who call themselves Christians would answer. Like the rich young ruler, they would say, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
In answering the rich young ruler, Jesus dealt with the question of what it means to be good. In essence, His answer was, “… the presence of good behavior.” If you look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it becomes even more obvious that merely the absence of bad behavior is not sufficient to make one good. Both the priest and the Levite have gone down in history as being bad rather than good. Their failure to take action was interpreted as evidence that they were not good. Their attitude was like that of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4) Neither the priest nor the Levite did anything wrong. They did not beat the traveler. They did not laugh at the traveler. In fact, they simply and deliberately did not get involved with the traveler. This is the perfect example of the absence of evil. I am sure that on the Sabbath, they went to the synagogue or the Temple and stood there in the complete conviction that they had not committed any evil. And, they would have been technically correct.
To use more modern secular terminology, the priest and the Levite would have argued that they only had a negative duty. That is, there was no requirement to become involved, and there might even have been a duty to not become involved so as not to become unclean by touching the blood of a person (see Leviticus). Neither priest nor Levite could have served at the Temple, for a time, if they became ritually unclean, particularly if they handled the blood of someone who soon died. They would have claimed that their only duty was to avoid evil behavior.
But Jesus argued that in order to understand the Law correctly (for both the parable and the encounter were asked and answered in the context of the Law), we have a positive duty towards people. That is, we have an obligation to do an act, to act, on behalf of others. The rich young ruler ended up not being considered good, because he failed to act. The priest and the Levite were not considered good, because they failed to act. Only the Good Samaritan is considered good, because he acted.
This has eternal implications for us. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, our Lord says:
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ …
“Then they [Ed.: the unrighteous] also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
All too many in our churches consider themselves to be complying with the Gospel demands simply because they commit no evil. That may be true, but if they also commit no good, then they are not in compliance with the Gospel, as Jesus preached it. Jesus more than once made it clear that we have a positive duty with eternal implications. This means that we are expected to commit acts of good. Absence of evil is not proof of good. Rather, the presence of good works is the proof of good.
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