John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
The First Reading for Easter Sunday was from Acts 10. It speaks of Peter’s vision at the house of Cornelius, thanks to which he ceases to apply the kosher rules to Gentile converts to Christianity (like Cornelius). Peter affirms, “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (v. 34). He then goes on to discuss Jesus’ ministry and how it culminated in His Passion, Death and Resurrection.
There is one line in Peter’s proclamation that struck me: “He went around doing good and healing all those who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (v. 38).
We perhaps forget the significance that “he went around doing good.”
The first thing we should realize is that the connection between “good” and “God” is a peculiarly Judaeo-Christian thing. The unique contribution of Judaism—later adopted by Christianity—was that God is good. The Greek and Roman gods were not better than man, just bigger. Olympus roiled in vices. Nietzsche deplored Christianity because it presented a weakling who “went around doing good.” Today’s neo-Nazi/white supremacists revive images of Thor, Odin, and other pagan deities for their virility and power “beyond good and evil.”
The Flood story of Genesis has counterparts elsewhere in the ancient Near East, but only in the Bible connects the reason for the deluge with morality: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). The accounts of neighboring peoples attribute the Flood to divine caprice, which almost ends up destroying the gods, too. In Genesis, Noah is saved because he is good: “But Noah found favor with the Lord” (6:8). What saves Noah is not his skills nor boat-building technology nor even fate, but because he was good. The Judaeo-Christian tradition makes a qualitative leap in man’s understanding of God when it associates Him with goodness.
On the other hand, when modern sensibilities read the passage of Jesus going “around doing good,” they might be inclined to see it through a reductionist lens: Jesus the ethical teacher. We do not want to grapple with Jesus’ claims of divinity. (Of course, Jesus’ healings were precisely proofs of whom He was—see Mk 2:1-12, esp. v. 10--not some one-off public health campaign to tackle random leprosy case ancient Israel). So we reduce Jesus to a Semitic Confucius, all-around “good guy” who “did good.” We admire Him for the good (which we should) but won’t admit where admiration of that good should lead us. We are content to leave Jesus to His kind social activism but pull back when it comes to “whom do you say I am?”
Jesus did good “because God was with him,” because He was God. He did good because that is who God is—Goodness Itself—and who Christ is—Goodness Incarnate. Jesus DID good because He IS Good. Indeed, as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it in philosophical language, He is our Summum Bonum, our Highest Good.
Moreover, because the human will is designed to seek the good, it is inherently oriented to God. That is also why, short of God, no partial or contingent good satisfies us.
Indeed, this basic dynamism toward the good is one way in which we are made in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1: 26-28). Just like Jesus, we are called to go “around doing good.”
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is an underappreciated story. In some quarters, it has degenerated into “just” a children’s story or a ghost story. But Dickens wrote for adults, and a close reading of the text provides grownups with plenty of grist for reflection.
One particular line that is often overlooked is in the dialogue between Scrooge and Marley. Indeed, it comes just before Marley’s famous line, “mankind was my business!” The neglected text is Marley speaking about how he wasted his life and how humans have a vocation for doing good.
“Oh! Captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! Such was I!” (emphasis added).
Consider the italicized text. It says a lot. It says a lot about
- Humility: one need not be great to do great things. One only needs to be good, and to apply himself to the opportunities and chances that one’s own station in life affords. Dickens anticipated St. Therese’s “Little Way.”
- The Value of Ordinary Time: the big things in life get done in its little moments. Even Jesus only spent 10 percent of his life in public ministry; 90 percent was working in a little town. Dickens anticipated the spirituality of work found in 20th-century Catholic thinkers as diverse as Stefan Wyszyński and Josemaría Escrivá.
- Superabundance: Good proliferates. Get it going and even a lifetime isn’t enough to exhaust it.
Infinite goodness but finite longevity: a puzzlement. But the text from Acts also answers Dickens’s conundrum. Yes, “mortal life” IS “too short for its vast means” of good. But that is why even the grave could not hold the One who “went around doing good.” That is why GoodFriday is not the end. He is still doing it today, in this Eastertide. And that is why, if we follow Him, neither will our graves be one-way streets.