Dr. Chris White October 27, 2013
I’ll never forget the day I was in a standoff of good deeds. A man entered my office one afternoon and mentioned that he was traveling home and needed help. All he wanted, he said, was a hotel room, a tank of gas, and a meal. It turned out he was only a handful of hours from home and actually still had gas. I suggested that I get him a meal and top off his tank and he continue on. He suggested that he take the package. After I mentioned my limited resources, he said that, were he helping someone like him, he would give all that he suggested I give him. And then he stared at me. I suppose he was trying to shame me into giving him the weekend package. I was offering good, but it wasn’t good enough. And his promise of good was hammering my good. I held my ground, and he was so put off that he rejected every-thing and left with nothing. What I remember is that his “good” did not look good at all. In fact, it was a man using his good to get what he wanted and make me look bad. A parable from Jesus tells the same story and raises an important question: Is it possible that good can sometimes be bad?
Luke 18:9-14 gives us one of the more challenging parables of Jesus. It reads, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and a give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbled himself will be exalted.’”
Let’s keep in mind that we’re dealing here with a small piece of fiction. In fact, what works in the parable is that no one in Jesus’ time would have believed that something like this could happen. The Pharisees are considered by many in Jesus’ time the brightest of the bright. They are both a Jewish sect and a political party, and they are the good guys among the common people. They were considered the most schooled in Jewish law, and so when Jesus mentions that the disciples’ righteousness must surpass the Pharisees, they take note. The apostle Paul, whose seriousness in faith could not be questioned, boasted of being a Pharisee before his conversion. The tax collector, on the other hand, made his way in the world by collecting taxes for the Romans. Bad enough. But he collected these taxes from his own people. Every Jewish tax collector was considered a failed Jew.
The parable offers a scene in the temple when two men pray to God. The Pharisee prays about himself. He is depicted as a law-keeper and do-gooder. Then there is the tax collector. His shame before God is so great he cannot even look in God’s direction. He is not a law-keeper, and some would have said he had no right to even be in the temple. Yet the tax collector went away justified, or in right standing before God. More important, the one who did good is not considered good. Despite all his good works he only comes across as bad. So is it possible that doing good is not always good?
Yes, it’s very possible. And we who take doing good seriously, which I trust we all do, should pay close attention to the parable.
First, good is not good when good is our God. The Pharisee prays about himself—all his goodness and discipline and faithfulness. The parable wants us to believe that this is the man you want to move in next door. He does not rob, do evil, or break promises. This is the guy you want to pray for you because he fasts twice a week—double what Pharisees called for. And this is the guy you want in your church because he tithes a tenth of all he gets. But do you notice how the good doesn’t sound so good coming from his lips? The deeds don’t sound good because they’re not about good or God. The good is really about him. His pride in his goodness—his work, his faithfulness to the Scriptures, his standing above sinners—is really at the heart of his faith. His religion is really about his goodness, not God. And so Jesus will utter the “woes” of Matthew 25 because, as he says, they tithe but neglect the more important matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Make no mistake, good should mark our lives. (*Dad quitting job to attend baseball game with son). But people can make a God of a good deed—hanging on to when they shined morally above others, like a Medal of Honor winner wearing his medal everywhere. Or they get in the language of what they’ve Never done: never smoked, never doped, never cheated, never needed. And so people build these stories until they are as tall as mountains and no one can criticize or compete. And like the Pharisee, God does not have to come up in this religion of good. (Paul: Phil. 3:4-8)
Second, good is not good when good is a weapon. The tax collector cannot compete with the Pharisees’ goodness, and the Pharisee is about to run up the score. The good deeds of the tax collector are like a club coming down over and over. It’s not a matter of what the Pharisee does as much as it exposes what the tax collector does not do. That is the problem with good deeds, by the way. When we truly do good, we run the risk of thinking that we are better and different from the people around us who are not doing good like our good. But the point of doing good is not to punish people with our good deeds. Our true goodness should not be used to make people feel bad. This is an important idea for the church, by the way. It is common for people outside church to feel judged by those in church, as if we are so full of good deeds that we know nothing about bad deeds or the people who commit them. If all we’re doing is standing up saying that we’re good and not like these other people, then these people have every right to believe that they will never make a home with Christians in a church. And they will never make the first step toward a church. (Yancey, prostitute) Our good deeds should be evidence of God’s goodness, not ours. Jesus says in Matthew 5:16, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Our good deeds serve as a window on what God can do in a human life. But never are good deeds to be a weapon to humiliate others.
Third, good is not good when it does not humble. This is the core of the parable, of course. The Pharisee exalts himself, and so he does not walk away justified, or right, before God. His pride brings him low. The tax collector offers a humble prayer for help. He walks away justified. Now, it’s not that tax collector ways are good and fasting and tithing are bad, but it is true that humility can clean a cloudy heart and pride can poison a faithful follower. Goodness and good deeds should grow in our lives, but they are not heels that make us taller than our neighbors.
Good deeds are not a sign that we are inherently good; in fact, we might be doing good for any number of wrong reasons. Our good deeds should reveal God’s goodness in that He is making inroads into our lives. Good deeds are not confirmation of our goodness but evidence of God’s growing grace. We should celebrate goodness and good deeds, but we celebrate the work of God. We of all people know what we are capable of doing.