What does it mean to be good?

Maintaining

I like the comic above because it reminds me of Jesus talking to the rich young ruler.

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.”

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 above says, “… 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. There is, of course, a problem here in that if this is true, then there would be many people who would not need Jesus.

Protestants/Evangelicals try to solve this by over-emphasizing the evil that is in all of us. Thus, there are sermons that go into great lengths to show how all that we do is tainted by sin. Actually, at times Evangelicals place themselves in the dangerous position of arguing intentions. I say dangerous because utilitarian philosophers do the same thing. They will look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan and argue that the Samaritan must have derived pleasure out of helping the traveler, and thus this is not a truly selfless act.

In the same way, all too many Evangelicals go so deep into psychological/utilitarian arguments to prove that all our actions are tainted and useless, that they effectually destroy the concept of good works. It is not uncommon to hear someone say that a work is good only because God accepts it, and God will only accept a work from one of his children because he sees his child through the blood of Christ. This, of course, is a way of invalidating any and every work and making a good work nothing more than a pat on the head from a Heavenly Father who simply overlooks that it is not a good work, out of his love for Jesus Christ whose blood you now wear. But, when one reads Scripture that is certainly not the way in which the concept is handled.

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?” 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 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 requirement 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 if they became ritually unclean, particularly if they handled the blood of someone who soon died. 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. It seems odd to me that Jesus appears to consider this a good work, and never argues in his ministry that we cannot do a good work. Rather, he seems to consistently encourage deliberate acts of love, deliberate good works. I would argue that Saint Paul’s statements on works need to be evaluated in the light of Jesus’ statements about works and practice of works. This is why Saint James issues the warning in his epistle to not depreciate works.

But, the bottom line is that 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. 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.

Oratorical Festivals and important saints to know

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An edited version of this post was submitted to another website This is a more direct version.

I was privileged to be present at an Oratorical Festival yesterday. Listening to the junior and senior grade divisions I was impressed with the amount of work that they had put into their verbal deliveries. But, more than that, I was impressed by the research that the youth had to back up their oratory. One particular presentation, about Saint Philothea of Athens (or the Monastic, or the Martyr), reminded me that the Orthodox Church is often called back to the straight and narrow by her saints, and that her saints also keep us on the straight and narrow if only we would read about their example, and then ask for their intercession.

Some basic facts on Saint Philothea. She was born in Athens in 1522 and was named Revoula. During this time, Athens was under the cruel occupation of the Turks. (Yes, the same ones who claim to have committed no Armenian genocide.) When she was 12 years old, she was given away in marriage. Unfortunately, her husband was an abusive husband who beat and abused her to the point that Revoula would pray that God would bring him to his senses and spare her. Three years later he died—which quite frankly is a scary reminder of how God sometimes chooses to listen to his saints and answer their prayer. She was 15.

She decided to lead a life of vigil, prayer, and fasting. This is not surprising given the treatment that she received. She moved back in with her parents and lived with them for 10 years until they had both died. After their death, she built a monastery dedicated to Saint Andrew, and took on the name Philothea (Philothei) as its first nun. But, this is where her story differs from that of many other saints. She does not retreat to her convent, nor does she merely engage in acts of charity. Rather, she becomes a rather strong advocate for women. She begins a rescue mission for abused women. Again, this is not surprising, given her horrific experience at the hands of her husband.

For the rest of her life Saint Philothea devotes herself to those who are abused and ignored. She founded schools. But, more importantly, she begins to ransom her fellow countrymen from servitude and slavery. She gives refuge to women who run away from their masters and abused women who run away from their husbands. Contrary to what all too many would have said back then, Saint Philothea stands for the rights of women during a time in which even some in the Church would have agreed with the abusive husband and the rights of property of the Turkish invaders.

Not surprisingly, Saint Philothea faced death at the hands of the Turkish authorities. The first time, she was saved by her fellow Christians, who assembled in mass and pacified the Turkish judges. She founds a second monastery in a suburb of Athens, and continues her work. But finally, years later, the Turks tire of her work. One night, as she goes about her rescue duties, she is grabbed, tortured, and beaten until she is left for dead. She is taken out and thrown on the ground and left for dead. Her sisters rescue her, but she dies on 19 February 1589. Saint Philothea, pray for us.

Saint Philothea is not a liberal. She cannot be. She existed before the days of the modern liberal/conservative debates. But, she speaks clearly to our century and reminds us that human rights are an Orthodox belief. More important, the support of human rights is a godly activity, and representative of the finest part of Orthodox social consciousness. When Archbishop Demetrios marched with Martin Luther King in Selma back in 1965, he was standing in the shoes of Saint Philothea. He did not make a mistake. He was not taken in by liberals. Rather, he was speaking to all of us with the voice of Saint Philothea who called us to support human rights, even to the point of being beaten, being fire hosed, having dogs set upon us, and even unto death itself.

In this century in America, in the midst of our cultural debates, it is the voice of Saint Philothea of Holy Tradition that can guide us to appropriate stances. Human rights is not an option, but an Orthodox necessity. Any stance that does not clearly support human rights to the point of death is not an Orthodox stance.

But, notice that Saint Philothea, along with Archbishop Demetrius, clearly calls us to a radical involvement with the poor, with the oppressed, with abused women, with those who are enslaved. That also is part of the role of the Orthodox Church in this society. I commend those who are involved in the pro-life movement. But, the Church must be involved in more pro-life activities than only being against abortion. Both Saint Philothea and Archbishop Demetrius point us to other arenas of fruitful involvement in which our witness as a Church is an important part of our life.

More than that, I will argue that to use the Church as an excuse for demanding that the government not be involved in the care of the poor and the defense of the oppressed is inappropriate. My experience is that those who most argue that it is the Church’s job to take care of these social matters are the ones who are least likely to give sacrificially to Church works that do take care of those matters. If you force the government to not be involved, but then argue that no one should have to give to the Church for the carrying out of her social work, then you are no different than those whom the Lord castigated when he said in the Gospels that the Pharisees declare something Korban in order to not have to take care of their parents. Either way, you stand rebuked by the Lord.

Saint Philothea, pray of us.