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.