Simon's Ears (and our sins of omission)

DB Ryen

Our failure to act when we see evil happening is just as much a sin as the evil itself.

[Keywords: bullying, social justice, omission, commission, sin, Christianity, Bible, faith, boyhood]

Length: Medium, 1316 words

Whoever knows the right thing to do but doesn’t do it, to him it’s sin.

James 4:17

Simon was a boy in my neighborhood when I was a kid. There were five of us boys - all about the same age - who regularly chummed around together. We climbed trees, built forts, played street hockey, and traded hockey cards. Simon was in there like a dirty shirt - one of the boys. He constantly had a toothy smile on his face. His family had immigrated from Hungary, so he talked a bit funny, but that didn’t bother us much. In fact, the only thing that stood out about Simon was his hearing aids. That didn't both us much either.


Until one day, it did.

The other boys thought it’d be funny to tease him about his hearing aids. No reason, just because they were different. I'll never forget the confused, hurt look on his face as he tried to explain again and again how they help him hear. Nonetheless, the teasing continued. Those incessant, cruel voices still echo in my memory, “What are those things in your ears?! What are those things in your ears?! Haha!”


The whole time, I did nothing to stop it, knowing full well what the other boys were doing wasn’t right. It made me uncomfortable to witness, but, to my shame, I kept silent. Eventually, when he could bear it no longer, Simon ran home with tears in his eyes. 

Later that afternoon, there was a knock on our door. It was Simon’s mom. She was irate - understandably so - and angrily told my mom everything that had happened. We were all in big trouble. 

“But Mom!” I pleaded, “I didn’t do anything wrong! It was the others! I didn’t make fun of him, promise!”

“Yes, but you were there.”

My backside still hurts from the punishment I received that night. I deserved it, just as much as the others. It was a painful lesson about bullying. 

And also about sins of omission.

You see, there are two broad categories of sin: sins of commission and sins of omission. Sins of commission are doing the wrong thing - actively breaking God’s law. These sinful behaviors get the majority of the focus in our moral lives, and also lots of attention in the Bible. Cain murdered Abel, David slept with Bathsheba, Judas betrayed Jesus, and so on. We perceive these evil actions very clearly as sins, and such deeds are condemned regularly in church and in society as a whole. Indeed, they're what most laws are based on: punishment for committing crimes.

However, sins of omission get much less focus. These are sinful absences of good behavior, that is, the right things we should do but don’t. In a legal system, it's virtually impossible to enforce this: how do you punish someone for not doing something? However, both committing wrong and not committing right make the world a worse place. Paul hints at these two types of sin being equally detrimental: “I don’t practice what I want to do, and I do practice what I hate” (Rom 7:15). But unlike committed sins, sins of omission are much easier for us to sweep under the rug. After all, we didn’t do anything wrong.

Or did we?


Sins of omission are much more subtle than those of commission. However, looking closely at the Bible, we see them all over the place. In the Old Testament, Moses instructed Israel that if you see your neighbor’s ox wandering away, you must return it; or if his donkey is stuck in a ditch, you must help get it out (Deut 22:1-4). It’s not good enough to just watch disaster or misfortune happen and not do anything about it. Elsewhere, Proverbs states that it’s wrong to feign ignorance when others are facing disaster; God will judge your heart and actions (or lack of action) (Pr 24:11-12). Even refusing to lend to the poor is considered sin (Deut 15:7-9).

The same theme occurs in the New Testament. Jesus taught that eternal punishment awaited those who failed to do good for those in need. “As much as you didn’t do for the least of them, you didn’t do for me" (Mt 25:45). Later, Paul criticized those who didn’t care for members of their own household, stating they have “denied the faith and [are] worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). Strong words!


Or take the parable of the Good Samaritan as another example (Lk 10:30-37). The focus tends to be about the mercy and generosity of the Samaritan, but there’s an equally important lesson with regards to the Priest and the Levite who did nothing for the wounded man on the side of the road. As much as we disapprove of their inaction, we need take it one step further and recognize that such inaction is sin in itself. Their inaction wasn’t neutral – it revealed their wicked hearts. 


Also, there is biblical precedent for lack of action being action itself. In the patriarchal world of the Old Testament, Moses instructed Israel about keeping vows, specifically that a woman could have her oath cancelled by her father (if she lived at home) or her husband (if she was married). However, he had to speak up on the day it was made or the oath would stand.

Now if her husband makes no response whatever to her from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or all the agreements that bind her; he confirms them because he made no response to her on the day that he heard them. (Num 30:14, NASB)

To witness and not speak up is equivalent to supporting what you saw. In the same way, we can be guilty of others' sin when we see it and do nothing. Our silence supports their behavior.

Evidence of our rampant sins of omission was brought to light with the Black Lives Matter movement. Racism is a glaring example of our tolerance of evil in our society. It’s not good enough for people to simply not be racist, we must systematically oppose racism when we witness it. People are at fault (i.e. sinful) when they allow racism to continue and not speak out against it. This inaction is sin, just like when I didn’t speak out when Simon was being bullied. Such tolerance of injustice and inequality has been a great sin in our world for ages. I’m certainly guilty of it. All around us, evil thrives when good men and women do nothing. There’s no turning a blind eye to injustice, no sticking our heads in the sand. God knows all our sin – the evil we commit and the good we fail to commit.

Sometimes a well-worded question is enough to oppose the sin you see occurring: “Do you think what you did could be seen as ____?” Fill in the blank: bullying, racism, sexism, greed, lying, pride, and so on. It brings dark deeds to light. Also, just the simple act of speaking up can mean the world to the person being oppressed. It certainly would have to Simon.

Part of loving our neighbor means not doing nothing when their house is on fire – we must act! In the same way, we all have the ability to be heroes in little ways every day by doing good and actively opposing evil. Only when we turn from our sins of commission and omission will we see God’s kingdom established here on earth.

© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, May 2021.