Friday, July 10, 2015

A Pastoral Concern -- Words matter; the word "good"

Just this morning in my Bible reading, I read this from Isaiah: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter." (Isaiah 5:20)

In the light of the whole same-sex marriage (SSM) debate, these words have resonated in my mind over and over again.  Unfortunately, both sides of the debate lay claim to them.  Those who are opposed to SSM call it an evil, clearly opposed to God's establishment of marriage as a life-long union between one man and one woman.  Those who are in favor of SSM say that it is good, that people who love each other are good, that expressing such love to whomever you love by the bonds of marriage is good, and that those who oppose such lovely expressions of love and forbid such loving people of their rights are evil.

Some time ago, I had gotten into an online debate (the value of which is questionable) about what is good and what is not good.  It was evident that we were all working with different definitions of the word "good."  For that reason, the Church is obligated to speak in plain and clear terms about what is good.  And, if the Church is going to be faithful in such proclamation, it had better define what is "good" in the terms God himself uses.

For example, many things are neutral.  I am a Green Bay Packers fan.  Is that good?  Most of my parishioners here would say, "No."  They are Detroit Lions fans (and God bless them for such perseverance!).  To them, twice a year, I am the enemy.  But such "good" is only an opinion.  It is on par with what is your favorite color, vacation spot, or flavor of ice cream.  It is a personal preference on neutral things.  God has made no judgment or even comment on such things.  If God is silent on these matters, we can hold any opinion we want.  It is neither good nor evil.  You are no more noble for being a Lions or Packers fan, and no better for favoring French vanilla over mint chocolate chip.  These things are neutral because God is neutral on them.  All can be enjoyed without harm to anyone's faith.

Other things are "good" because they provide benefit to society and your fellowman.  These have to do with the various vocations God has established.  Government is good, even if we disagree with their decisions or if their actions are wasteful.  Even if the government's actions are evil (and the people in government will have to answer for their own actions), the government has been established by God to do good by keeping order and peace in society (Cf. Romans 13:1-7).  Even bad government is better than no government.

Likewise, your own personal vocations are good.  Whether you are a parent, a citizen, a coach, an employee, a soldier, or whatever, you are providing a service to your fellowman by doing faithfully what you are doing.  This is good.  The brain surgeon does tremendous good for the man (and in turn, his family) by removing on his tumor.  The garbage man does good by picking up the trash.  The mother does good by serving her children a meal.  All of these benefit one's fellowman.  They are all regarded as good, whether or not a person is a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, or an atheist.  When people refuse to serve in their vocations, they are a detriment to society.  Such defiance may mark people as jerks, or it may even result in jail time.  The surgeon who butchers people will be convicted for the harm he has done.  The garbage man who refuses to pick up the trash puts his neighbors at risk for rat infestation and disease.   The mother who neglects her children at the very least puts them at risk of turning into undisciplined scoundrels.  These things are not good, and society suffers for them--whether the guilty parties profess to be Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or atheists.

The fulfilling of vocations is good because God has assigned the label of "good" to them.  He has commanded, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:39)  We do this by carrying out our vocations.  Therefore, to serve one's fellowman and to be concerned about his well-being are good.

Those who promote SSM argue that the Church is not looking out for the well-being of those who practice homosexual or lesbian behavior.  They note that the Church rejects SSM and, therefore, is not serving their fellowmen who want to get married.  They say this is evil, not good.  They note that the Church condemns homosexual and lesbian behavior and even the craving for this behavior.  This, in turn, produces guilt in homosexual and lesbian people, even driving some to suicide because of their guilt.  This, again, is declared to be evil, not good.  Is it?  Who gets to decide?

God determines what is good.  God sets the standards.  First of all, note this: "None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." (Romans 3:10-12)  Or this: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins." (Ecclesiastes 7:20) Even as we carry out our vocations and benefit others, that in itself does not make us good in God's sight.  Though your neighbor will believe that your works are good and may also believe that you are good because you are serving him well, God's judgment is based on this standard: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy." (Leviticus. 19:2)  That is the standard of good: Holiness.  Anything short of it is evil.  That is why, according to God's judgment, NO ONE IS GOOD.  For, no one measures up to God's standard of holiness.  (And note: "Nice" is not the same as holy.  Even Hitler was nice to some people.)

Our goodness and righteousness come through Jesus Christ alone.  "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God..." (1 Peter 3:18)  "The blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin." (1 John 1:7)  Jesus alone is good.  He has done all good, and he has done it for us.  He cleanses us of all evil and unrighteousness by the blood he poured out for us at the cross and which he poured upon us through holy baptism.  Jesus, and only Jesus, can render us as good, holy, and blameless.  It is his righteousness that covers our sin; it is his righteousness that creates in us a clean heart and renews in us a right spirit, that is, a spirit which wants to do what is good.

Therefore, as a new creation, we strive to be good and do what is good and right.  We still do not have license to define what is good for ourselves.  God still sets the standard for that.  God urges us, "Let love be genuine.  Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good." (Romans 12:9)  The only way we can assign judgments of what is good and what is evil is if God has assigned that judgment for us.  That which is good, God blesses.  That which is evil, God condemns.  And if we are truly God's people, then we will agree with God's assessment and conform our will accordingly.

Therefore, the Church, if it is to be faithful to the Lord, must condemn SSM, and must call to repent those who defend it, promote it, celebrate it, and certainly those who engage in it.  We cannot call it good; for God has called such behavior evil (Romans 1:24-27, being one clear example of that).  We are to abhor it.  We are to flee from it.  We are to pray for those who are trapped in it and to plead for them to repent of it.  This is true for every act, word, thought, and desire that God has called evil.  So, even though people may be nice, may perform beneficial services to us, and may even be well-mannered and noble, that does not make them "good" in God's eyes--especially if they are willfully and persistently engaging in behavior or attitudes that defy God's word.

Though the American government now calls some sins "rights," the Church must still call them sins.  More and more, we will demonstrate ourselves to be in the world, not of the world.  The Church must call sinners to repent.  The Church shall, by word and deed, preach repentance and flee from what is evil and proclaim that our only hope is to call on Jesus Christ who supplies forgiveness, mercy, and salvation completely and freely to all who believe.  And to believe in Jesus also, then, means to abhor what he calls evil (even if we are guilty of it), and to pursue and to cling to what is good--knowing that Jesus alone is good (holy), that Jesus generously pours out his good (righteous) gifts upon us, and that Jesus alone will make our works good (God-pleasing).