Distinguishing good from bad – it’s not as easy as you’d think

Pentecost 5 2011

Matthew 13:24-43

Marian Free

 In the name of God who alone knows right from wrong and good from evil, and who alone can see and judge the hearts of humankind. Amen.

Some time ago there was a particularly gruesome movie called 16mm. The plot goes something like this. On the death of her husband, a woman finds a 16mm film in his safe. The film in question is a “snuff” film – a film of someone being killed. Not only is the wife disturbed by the find, she feels that it is important to see that justice is done for the victim in the film. To that end she employs someone to investigate. As the investigator uncovers the story of the young woman and enters the murky and unsavoury world of the filmmaker, he becomes more and more distressed and obsessed with bringing the perpetrator to justice. When the investigator finally catches up with the movie-maker his anger is so intense that he beats the man to death and hides the crime by setting fire to the movie set. The audience is led to assume that this form of summary justice will go largely undetected and therefore unpunished. The viewer has sympathy for the investigator and his action, but at the same time is conscious that the one who was in the right has now placed himself in the wrong.

Earlier this year, members of the United States Army stormed the home of Osama bin Laden, shot him dead and disposed of his body at sea. The news was greeted with jubilation across the world. The Australian newspaper stated: “Today, the US basks in righteous triumph.” However, there were some who questioned the “rightness” or otherwise of this action and asked whether a better course of action would have been to arrest bin Laden and to bring him to trial. The community was divided. There were those who felt that bin Laden’s death was justified as an act of war and others who believed that true justice demands its day in court.

These stories, one fictional and one true, illustrate the difficulty of making moral and or righteous judgements. They serve to remind us that the line between good and evil is not always clear. There is no question that someone who murders people should be brought to justice, but should that justice be administered outside the law? No one would question that the man who made “snuff” films deserved to be punished. The question is what should the punishment be and who should administer it? And what about the investigator – should he be arrested and tried for murder or should he be lauded for killing someone who profits from the death of others?

Is murder not really murder if the one killed is a particularly distasteful or dangerous person? Few in the Western world would have mourned the death of bin Laden. However, did the extent of his crimes justify his being killed in his home before his wife, or should he, like Ratko Mladic, have been arrested and tried before facing capital punishment? How will history judge those who made the decisions to carry out the attack – as saviours or murderers?

The answers to such questions are not always clear or simple, nor do we always find consensus. “Thou shalt not murder” seems to be a straight forward commandment – killing another person is obviously wrong. However, the commandment doesn’t apply to soldiers in a war zone and even our legal system accepts that killing another person is not always murder. A person can be convicted of first degree murder, second degree murder or manslaughter, depending on the level of pre-meditation behind the deed, whether or not it was an accident and so on. Today, victims of domestic violence are often acquitted of murder of a violent spouse. The distinction between good and evil is not clear- cut. “Thou shalt not murder” is obviously open to interpretation.

Zizaniov or darnell– the weed planted by the enemy in today’s parable – looks almost indistinguishable from wheat. There was a real risk that had the householder allowed the slaves to weed the crop, much of the wheat would have been destroyed in the process. For that reason, it was much better to wait until harvest time when the plants could be more easily recognised and therefore separated from each other.

Clearly the point of today’s parable is judgement. However, the central point is not that that the good are rewarded and the not so good are punished. The point is that the good and the bad are often difficult to distinguish. Furthermore, it is not our task but God’s to make the distinction and that at a time of God’s choosing.

Jesus is warning us against the presumption that we are able to see with God’s eyes, or that we have the wisdom to judge rightly. This is a point that he makes elsewhere. When determining right from wrong, most of us have a tendency to use a broad brush and to overlook our own faults. For this reason Jesus shocks us by saying that calling our brother or sister a “fool” is the same as committing murder, that looking at someone with lust in our eyes is the same as committing adultery and so on.

When we judge others, we put ourselves in the place of God and make the assumption that we are able to distinguish clearly between good and evil, right and wrong. Jesus confronts such arrogance and in a variety of ways illustrates the difficulties and dangers that we face when we try to put ourselves in the place of God as judge and jury of our peers.

In human terms, we need to devise laws and to develop ways to administer and interpret the same. To ensure that society runs smoothly and that the majority are safe and free, we need to establish and enforce boundaries and to define acceptable behaviour.  We know however that the law is only as good as those who legislate it and those who apply it – it is good, but it is not perfect.

Only God is perfect and that means that when it comes to eternity, only God can determine who shall inherit the kingdom. Until then, we have to live with the tension of knowing that good and bad are growing together both in the community as a whole, but also in ourselves. We have to accept too, that only God can see the secrets of our hearts and only God can determine what must be weeded out and what can remain forever.


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