In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we learn of the aftermath of Peter and John’s healing of the cripple in the Temple. Presumably for years, the cripple had been begging in the Temple, and finally Peter and John freed him from his yoke of disability. One might suppose that the community would be happy now that this man is able to support himself and does not need to rely on his begging.
The authorities, however, are not very pleased at all, and so they haul Peter and John before the courts. The authorities do this, not because they do not appreciate the healing of cripples, but because they see that this healing is attracting too much attention to the Gospel preached by the healers. The first question they ask is not “Did you heal this man?” but rather “By what power or by what name have you done this?” They are not interested in the thing done, but in the reason for which it was done. Peter understands the situation perfectly when he makes his answer:
If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. (Acts 4:9-10)
Peter knows that it is not the good deed that is being rejected, but rather the God who commissioned the deed. Perhaps he was tempted to minimize the Gospel and instead focus on the miracle he worked, supposing it would be conciliatory to say, “Well, we may have some incidental religious disagreement, but we can at least agree that healing cripples is a good thing. Is there anything else helpful that I can do for society?” But, in this case, the authorities wanted to silence the Gospel message and would not have fallen for such a diversion. Peter instead shows that he understands full well the battle that is taking place and stakes his claim in the sight of all by confessing his Savior:
He is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved. (Acts 4:11-12)
This is not to say that we ought not do good deeds and be conciliatory when we can. We do, however, fall short if we use our social currency, earned by performing good deeds, to escape the need to give the world a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pt 3:15). Our good deeds are in fact supposed to be a witness to the Gospel to which we so controversially cling. The Gospel can never be hidden behind a facade of consensus concerning the goodness of good deeds.
There are some in this world who cannot bear to see just how good a good deed done for Christ is, and they may even come to hate the good done in his name. Even St. Teresa of Calcutta was hated by many, in her lifetime and afterwards, because of her fidelity to the Gospel. We could easily find an escape hatch from the world’s searing eye by minimizing the name of Jesus and focusing on all the amazing things the Church has done, such as preserving and advancing civilization after the fall of Rome, diffusing education, standing up for the vulnerable, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, building and staffing schools and hospitals, and providing a place for the forgotten of society. These are certainly good things that the world ought to know, but if we do not preach, as Peter did, Christ crucified and risen from the dead, we, as Pope Francis put it, are nothing more than “a pitiful NGO.” The Gospel must have a central place in our lives and in our witness to the world. Because of this, our good deeds will often be underappreciated, or even opposed, but the good news is too good to keep to ourselves.
Image: Willem Vrelant, Saints Peter and John Baptizing the Samarians