“The righteous perishes, and no one takes it to heart” (Isaiah 57:1 NKJV).
It was just another story in the local newspaper. A schoolgirl accused her principal of sexual abuse. Shortly afterward she was set on fire and after struggling for life for a few days lost that battle too. There was a brief outrage in the community which soon settled down so that the incident became just one more of many. The principal of course denied any involvement with the girl or her death.
One of the many charges which the prophet Isaiah made against the people of Israel was just this kind of indifference to evil. Those of influence and power oppressed the poor, robbing and enslaving them. And no one spoke up on behalf of the victims – no one seemed to care.
The proverb is well known: “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” For every rapist, murderer and thief in our communities, there are multiple others who do not perform or defend such actions. But unfortunately too many are unwilling to get involved. Some look on without interference. Others turn their backs and walk away. And the vast majority read about it in the paper, or see a segment on the newscast and think, “That is terrible!” but soon dismiss it and think of other things.
In his scathing condemnation of the religious leaders of his day Jesus included this:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23).
Religious rituals like tithing (giving our money to good works) are no substitute for the pursuit of justice, mercy, and faith. When we attend worship assemblies of our churches and participate in prayer, singing, Bible study, or other religious activity, that is good. We ought to do that. But if that is all we do, if our religious practices are not backed up by godly character, they are of no value.
James’ observation applies to this discussion. “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). We tend to think this means that we should observe the required rituals. We should go to church, pray, give, help the poor, etc. But James does not qualify or limit his principle. When a Christian sees a need, he has an obligation to meet that need if able. And when a Christian sees evil, he or she has an obligation to oppose it.
In virtually every list of desired spiritual characteristics one will find brotherly kindness or love (2 Peter 1:7; Galatians 5:22). To love one’s neighbor as oneself is the second greatest commandment of the Law, closely akin to loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:27-40). Those who follow Christ must care when the righteous are abused.
In his powerful story about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), Jesus condemned the Priest and Levite for passing by on the other side of the road, ignoring a man who was gravely injured. In contrast, the Samaritan showed compassion for him. He cared about a fellow traveler, even though he certainly recognized him as a Jew who would not willingly have had anything to do with the one who helped him.
Those who should have cared did not; the one whom we would not expect to care about a wounded Jew did. The question leaps out at us: which one of those positions are we in? Do we show compassion even for strangers? Or are we among the many who see the righteous perish, and do not care?