A Most Challenging Command
To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17).
How do we define a “good, moral person”? Much of the time, a “good, moral person” is defined more by what they are not doing than what they are doing. “Good, moral people” do not get drunk, do not kill other people, do not steal (at least that much), do not lie, and avoid many other sins. They are “good neighbors” because they mostly keep to themselves and do not bother “us.”
In the New Testament, priests and Levites would, by common confession, be considered “good, moral people.” In fact, in the eyes of many, they were quite holy: they worked for God, perhaps even in the Temple. They worked quite diligently to avoid contracting any form of uncleanness.
Yet, when Jesus tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the priest and the Levite in the story do not turn out to be that “good.” They are the ones who saw the man beaten up by robbers but did nothing to help him. In so doing, they failed to prove to be “neighbors” to that man, and thus violated the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (cf. Leviticus 19:10, Luke 10:27).
But the priest and the Levite were “good, moral people!” They would surely have been morally outraged had they seen the robbers beating up the man. They might even have complained about how terrible times were– you cannot even go from Jerusalem to Jericho in peace! Nevertheless, as unpalatable as it may be, the priest and Levite are just as condemned as those robbers who beat up the man in the first place. Sure, the priest and the Levite did not actively hurt the man– yet, when presented with the opportunity to do good to him, they failed to do so. Instead, the “dirty half-breed” Samaritan proved to be more righteous than they!
The New Testament makes it clear that for those who wish to serve Jesus Christ, it is not sufficient to just avoid evil: we must also do what is right. It is not enough to “abhor evil”; we must also “cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). We are incomplete if we only avoid the works of the flesh; we must also develop and manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:17-24). James 4:17 goes so far as to declare it sin to fail to do what is good. Since the New Testament never provides any indication that there is a hierarchy of sin, failure to do what is good is just as bad as actively doing what is wrong!
What, then, are these “good things” that we should be doing? We need to be praying for all men (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We need to show love, mercy, and compassion to all people, even those who hate us and who stand against us (Luke 6:27-36, 1 John 4:7-21). As we have been forgiven, we must forgive others (Ephesians 4:32). As we have opportunity, we ought to do good for all people, especially those in the household of faith: we may do so through financial benevolence, giving of our time, and/or using our talents for their benefit (Galatians 6:10, James 1:27). In all things we must imitate our Master, and be willing to serve and be a blessing for others, even without reward (1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:6).
This is a most challenging command for even “mature” believers. It would be much easier if all we had to do was avoid committing acts of sin! Nevertheless, we have all been called to die to self and live for Christ (Galatians 2:20): that requires us to take on the mind of Christ and to serve others as much as it requires us to renounce self and the desires of sin. Let us not prove disobedient to this charge, but instead to do good whenever we have opportunity!
Ethan R. Longhenry