The Flaw in the Law(2) – The Good, the Righteous, and the Overwhelmed

(continued from The Flaw in the Law(1) – The Golden Rule and the Good Samaritan)

The Golden Rule and One Who is Too Righteous

For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; although perhaps for a good man one would even dare to die.  [Romans 5:7]

When it comes to the Golden Rule, too easily we can see ourselves in the excuses that the priest and the Levite could bring up.  And then we discover that our neighbor could even be one we might justifiably consider as an enemy.  But what is St Paul saying here??  One would think that a “righteous” man, one who is “right with God” would be the easiest person for us to step forward to help, even when the ultimate may be required of us.  But Paul says we would rather choose a “good” man over the “righteous” man if our lives were at stake.  Why?  And what is the difference?

Probably we all have experienced a “sickening” “goody-two-shoes,” an excessively virtuous person, a do-gooder.  This is a  person who may be very godly and humble, is not necessarily annoying about their faith, and yet we are annoyed with them.  Consider the description of such a standard of virtue:

… of someone being described as ‘a goody-goody’ comes from 1911 – in the Wisconsin newspaper The Racine Daily Journal, July 1911, in a piece with the heading A Goody-Goody:
“Philadelphia Press: Senator Lorimer according to his friends, is such a paragon of innocence and true goodness that what seems to be needed is a place where he can retire, safe from the world – and the world safe from him.”    [ (italics mine)]

What is so annoying about such a person is that he is indeed a “standard of virtue,” against which we can compare poorly – without such intent, still they show us up.  We may giggle at the italicized line in the quote, but we also nod our head in recognition.  From a previous post [“The Righteous Man” vs “the Good Man” – Doing What is Right]:

There seems to be something about “a righteous man” that just rubs us against the grain … the person who actually made everyone else look bad because he was just such an always good and responsible person.  It was not necessarily that he was being obnoxious, in fact, he probably was simply doing and being what the Lord wanted us to do and to be.  And we just could not stand him.

Yet we could not find that much with which to really fault him – not that we did not try to come up with all kinds of reasons why he was a fool and a jerk, that he was just so naïve and innocent – but basically it boiled down to the fact that he was the way we just did not want to be.  He was “too religious,” “too holy,” and what not else, even though the person may not have been “flaunting” his faith as much as we were rejecting it.

And the likelihood is that we made life a hell for that person, often with a giggle and even a crusader’s sense to show just how stupid he really was.  We really were not that far away from the attitude that the Chief Priest and the rest of the leaders had when they condemned Jesus – but, of course, we will never admit it.

Now, on the other hand, there is the “good man” – perhaps not quite as far as “a good ol’ boy” but not that far away from it either.  Here is someone who would not mind having “a little fun” now and then, although perhaps not as radically as we were having.  Yet he was a decent sort of chap that was thoughtful and dependable, who was there when you needed someone with both feet on the ground.

Now he would be one that I might die for, but “goody-two-shoes”?  Naw, it would be a “tragedy” if the Lord were to take him, but then, it’s OK because we’re glad to give him back to the Lord, after all, that is where he belongs …

So a problem that the Golden Rule can have is not just with an enemy, there is also a problem with someone who is just too good.

“Blameless” – a Major Flaw in the Law

In a parallel account, Matthew 19:16-20, a young man asks what good thing he could to do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus replies with a list of commandments culminating in the Golden Rule.  The young man replies that he has kept them all from his youth.  With this statement, many of us have the red lights and bells and whistles go off – how can anybody (except Jesus) say that?!  That seems very arrogant!  Yet there a few others that have a curious claim made about them.  When Paul lists his pedigree in Philippians 3:4-6, he caps it off with, “concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” – now this is right after he says, “concerning zeal, persecuting the church,” where he brought suffering and death to the early believers, so how could he say that was “blameless” in regard to the law??

Other people are called “blameless”: John the Baptist’s parents, Zachariah and Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” [Luke 1:5-6];  and Jehovah Himself calls Job “blameless and upright” [Job 1:8].  How can this be?
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Our problem is that we equate “blameless” with “sinless,” but that is not a valid equation.  God had commanded, “Thou shalt not kill.”  The sixteenth century reformer, Martin Luther, for one, said that it means that “We should fear and love God, that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body…”  Consider the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan parable [see last post listed above] – they could look back on their day and truly say that they were blameless in regard to the man left for dead, according to this command.  They did not kill him, and, even to satisfy Luther, neither did they hurt nor harm him.  They just did nothing.

This then is a “Flaw in the Law”: one can be “blameless” and still not godly.  Luther goes on to interpret the commandment from the aspect of love: “but help and befriend him in every bodily need” – which is what the Samaritan did.  As Jesus Himself put it in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you, love your enemies” [Matthew 5:44], a principle that He showed in Person on the cross.


Although the likelihood would be very remote, imagine for the moment that after the Samaritan leaves the innkeeper and resumes his journey, that around the next bend is another man left for dead.  Would the Samaritan also care for him?  Suppose he does.  And now as he leaves the inn and resumes his journey, again he encounters a man left for dead.  Is there a point where the Samaritan runs out of resources and simply cannot carry out the Golden Rule, where he also must “walk on by”?  Even to support his acts of mercy, he will need to have income – he must conduct some sort of business.  Will he ever see his family again?

The problem is that once we take the step of love and then really look around at the vast number of “injured” people, quite possibly we find that we also have to “walk on by” some who are in need.  We can’t answer every appeal for help, even when the call comes from a legitimate source.  So we become selective:

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Jehovah.   [Leviticus 19:18]


“Where he saith, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, he excepts all Gentiles, for they are not our neighbours, but those only that are of our own nation and religion.”    [Rabbinic commentary]

The rabbi does indeed reflect the passage: God is talking about “the children of your people” – he is indeed “blameless,” and thereby restricting the scope of the Golden Rule to a much narrower subset of people, meanwhile righteously excluding all others.

The problem with that interpretation, though, comes five verses later:

If a stranger dwells with you in your land, … you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am Jehovah your God.  [vv 33-34]

On one hand, the need is overwhelming and our resources, even ourselves, are so limited – we cannot service every need.  Yet on the other hand, we would like to have permission to exclude others, not so much because we cannot help them, but rather so that we do not have bother.  The line between the two can be set with an enormous load of guilt.

Indeed, as truly worthwhile as the Golden Rule is, and as it should be used more frequently in regard to the way we act toward others, still there are some places where the Golden Rule leaves us helpless and guilty.

It gets worse before it gets better.

(Continued in The Flaw in the Law(3) – God Enters the Picture)

2 thoughts on “The Flaw in the Law(2) – The Good, the Righteous, and the Overwhelmed”

  1. Jim, you ask: ” Is there a point where the Samaritan runs out of resources and simply cannot carry out the Golden Rule, where he also must “walk on by”?” I’ve often asked that same question regarding the rich man in Matt 19:16-20, and also the so-called mendicant orders, who take the vow of poverty. They may sell or give away all, but doesn’t that make them forever dependent on the generosity of others even for survival? Are they not very limited in helping others if they no longer have any resources to share with others?

    As for the passages from Leviticus, I’d say that the ancient Israelites lived with a tension between being a closed “chosen people” and a “hospitable” people who were to be “a light to the nations.” It’s a prevailing motif in Israel’s history and plays itself out over and again. That very dynamic, I think, is still being played out in the Holy Land today.

    1. Again, Hi Garth (Dim Lamp)!

      Again, good points!

      It seems that when we think we are doing something holy and good, how often have we “shot ourselves in the foot” and actually created a situation that decreases rather than increases our “Christ-likeness.” It’s the echo of Romans 7 where we really wanted to do good, we thought we were going good, we perhaps did do some good, and yet in the final analysis we ended up with a mess.

      Of course, the danger is that we give up trying at all “because we are going to fail anyway.” There is a redemption of even our woefully limited efforts, where we can rejoice with St Paul’s “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” [Romans 7:25-8:1]. It is the environment for Luther’s comment to Melanchthon, “Sin boldly!” – that is, “Go ahead and make mistakes, go ahead and sometimes fail” – “but believe even more boldly in Christ, and rejoice!”

      I know that you are way ahead of me on this topic (I’m not saying anything you don’t already know), but it is still worth mentioning. Sometimes, in looking (for instance) at your example of the mendicant orders, it is comforting what the Lord can do through us even in spite of ourselves – how He can redeem what later might seem foolish efforts and bring blessings from them anyway.

      I agree with your remark about the tension in regard to Israel’s, and now Jewish, history. I was just thinking that perhaps that is one of the reasons why many people are confused with what, how, why and whether the Jewish state of today should be supported. At times the two identities really send out conflicting messages.

      Again thanks for writing!


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