Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Orthocuban: "What does it mean to be good?" a rumination on the parable of the Good Samaritan and the distinction between negative and positive duty in Christian ethics

Some Reformed sorts link to or quote from Chesterton.  Wenatchee The Hatchet has done that intermittently, but if Wenatchee the Hatchet weren't so thoroughly a Protestant of a Presbyterian variety, well, anyway, sometimes we link here to Orthocuban.
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.

A while back a certain megachurch pastor went so far as to assert that even if you tell the truth but you do it with the intent of harming someone's reputation that is gossip.  Paradoxically being honest becomes gossip in such a system.  Obregon continues:

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.

Over the years people have come by to Wenatchee The Hatchet with questions like, "What is your mission?" or "What are you trying to accomplish?" Wenatchee The Hatchet has no particular obligation to answer that question but to the extent that this blog has featured historical and theological discussions of things connected to the history of Mars Hill the answer would be:

Leviticus 5:1 (NIV)
“‘If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible."

For those that would try to say that relying on an Old Testament verse doesn't seem very much like something Jesus might do go back to the temptation narratives in the Synoptics and slice out the invocations of the Torah. 

No comments: