The Works of Mercy: Introduction

Jesus was a Jew. This does not seem like a news flash until we turn away from observing the obvious and begin to talk about Christian discussions of soteriology. If you aren’t familiar with that three dollar word, it basically has to do with that branch of Christian theology concerned with answering the question “What must we do to be saved?”

For early Christians, the answer was brief and compact with meaning, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ!” What “believe” meant was deeply incarnational: that is, if you believed in Jesus, it was taken for granted that you didn’t simply hold a theory about him; you were called to be a disciple and re-order your entire life in conformity with His. So Paul habitually spoke the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) and James, likewise, said that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:24).

A lot of time passed in the life of the Church where this common sense understanding of faith continued to reign. But eventually, enthusiasts in the 16th Century came up with a definition of faith that was, well, kinda crazy. This definition basically said that “faith alone” saved and that, consequently, it didn’t really matter what you did, just so long as you believed that Jesus would forgive you for doing it. Luther, for instance, famously said: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here in this world we have to sin. This life is not a dwelling place of righteousness” and topped it with “No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day.”

You can sort of see what he’s getting at. Yes, Jesus does say “Forgive seven times seventy” and bind himself implicitly to the promise that he will do as much if we are truly repentant. Yes, the sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation can and have forgiven stupendous crimes. (Reflect on the fact that Hans Frank, Gauleiter of Poland and the murderer of roughly four million men, women and children, sought the sacrament of Reconciliation before he was hanged and was reconciled with Christ and the Church).

But that doesn’t mean “murder four million more and you’ll still be alright.” Luther’s rhetorical flourish may have felt good, but “sin boldly” is counsel specifically rejected by Luther’s hero, Paul, who bluntly declared, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). It is not, however, counsel that was rejected by a great deal of Protestantism in his train.

To be sure, most Evangelical Protestants would not say “Sin boldly!” Rather, they would say that sin is a bad idea and that there will be unspecified bad consequences for the Christian as a result of sin. But the pernicious notion that faith and good deeds have no essential connection remains and so, while Evangelical Christian culture warriors might be quite willing to say that non-Christians are facing damnation, they will often tend to assume that Christians who sin gravely still have “assurance of salvation”. What matters, in this scenario is, as they say, “accepting Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior”. Do not perform that magic ritual and no “good works” mean the slightest thing, according to the Evangelical formula. Perform that magic ritual and nothing can keep you out of Heaven.

As a Catholic, I sometimes encounter Evangelicals eager to save me. Many have drunk deep of the notion that we Catholics are all about “salvation by works” and many Catholics, to whom this chatter about “accepting Jesus” is foreign lingo often fan the flames of Evangelical fear by saying, “But I go to Mass!” or “I help out at the soup kitchen” or some other variation on what Evangelicals invariably call “works righteousness”. So the conversation devolves into two monologues in two different Christian dialects as the Evangelical sits in judgment of the hell-bound Catholic and the Catholic becomes increasingly mystified at the Evangelical jargon.

My approach to Evangelicals who ask, “If you died tonight, why would God let you into heaven” is a bit different. I don’t point to the good works thing, I just tell them that I’d be happy to ask Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior (again). Then I tell my Evangelical friend I will go to Mass and say a word of thanks to Mary for this happy conversation.

Bam! Suddenly, I’m told—by the Evangelical!—that it’s not once saved, always saved after all. I have to (according to my Evangelical friend) do a good work pronto. Namely, I have to stop going to Mass and I especially have to stop talking to and about Mary. In fact, I am often informed that, as a Catholic, I don’t really have faith at all because of my Bad Work of belonging to the wrong Church, etc. So much for sinning boldly and believing more boldly still. The beautiful irony of all this, of course, is that it shows that the notion of “faith alone” is not believed even by its adherents. Everybody knows that if you really believe something, that belief has to be expressed in actions or it’s just a fantasy or a theory. In this case, the good work I am expected to do is “renounce the Catholic Church”. That particular course of proposed Faith in Action is, of course, all wet. But the idea of Faith in Action itself is as sound as a bell.

Jesus the Jew is the first person in our tradition to point that out—which is why neither he nor his apostles ever talk about salvation through “faith alone” (except James, who condemns the idea as preposterous). Instead, on multiple occasions Jesus speaks of salvation in precisely the way that his disciple John speaks of him: as Word Made Flesh. When Zacchaeus the tax collector has an encounter with Jesus and pledges to pay back fourfold all he has stolen, Jesus does not rebuke him for trying to buy salvation with his filthy works righteousness, he commends him as a true son of Abraham and tells him that salvation has come to his house (Luke 19:1-10). And when he talks about the salvation of the Nations in Matthew 25, he doesn’t spout some theory about faith alone but instead talks about what Catholic tradition will later call the Corporal Works of Mercy:

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36”

Note how unamenable this passage is to the neat Evangelical categories of the Saved and the Lost. The Saved Sheep had no idea it was Christ they were serving. They seem never to so much as heard of Jesus, much less asked him into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior. Nor (pace Traditionalist enthusiasts for the theory that only visible members of the Catholic Church are saved) do they indicate the slightest familiarity with baptism or the sacraments. They were members of “the nations” (that is, the Gentiles, the goyim, the outsiders). Their baffled reply is, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, etc.” They had no idea it was Jesus they were serving in the poor, the dispossessed, the naked, the wretched. They just thought they were doing the decent thing. And yet, to them, the King speaks not a word of rebuke or reproach for their “works salvation”. He says not a syllable about their righteousness being like filthy rags or their disgusting failure to have faith in Jesus and stop trusting in their own good works. He says nothing about their lack of baptism or the Eucharist. None of this is according to the standard Evangelical (or Feeneyite) playbook.

Likewise, with the goats in the parable, what is remarkably absent is the commentary an Evangelical or Feeneyite would expect about making a good profession of faith in the Trinity or the saving work of Christ on the cross. No personal decision for Jesus. Not a word about baptism or any other sacrament. In the parable, what was make or break for the goats as well as the sheep was how they treated the least of these.

Now, as Catholics, we are free to note that the parable of the sheep and the goats is not the only thing Jesus has to say on the subject of salvation. So we don’t have to pretend that the parable is fatal to the sacramental vision. The same Jesus who gives us the parable of the sheep and the goats also tells us, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5) and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). But then, the Feeneyite must also remember that this would be the same Jesus who then tells the unbaptized and Eucharist-deprived Good Thief, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Clearly, we are dealing with a Savior who doesn’t fit into our little systems of order too well. How do we put it all together?

I think we put it all together with the simple recollection of St. John of the Cross, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”

The point of the parable of the sheep and the goats is not, “You don’t need faith in Jesus in order to be saved.” Nor is it, “Everybody cut off from the sacraments is most assuredly doomed.” The point is that, in Hopkins’ words:

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces

We are bound by the sacraments, but God is not bound. Jesus does not sit on his hands and refuse to work in our lives till we ask him to be our personal Savior any more than he finds himself helpless to help us until and unless we are baptized. Our very ability to seek his salvation is already fruit of his grace. God works through sacraments, most assuredly. But sacraments are given as sure encounters with grace, not as reducing valves designed to exclude as many people as possible from an encounter with the living God. He also comes to us through innumerable sacramentals since all of creation is sacramental. And one of the sacramentals that brings us his grace is our neighbor—especially the least of our neighbors. For the stunning truth of the Faith is that Christ is present in every suffering person you meet. The way you treat them is the way you treat him. And the way you treat them is not simply “spiritually” (i.e. with attention to their souls but with no attention to their stomachs or wardrobe or housing situation). A plumber who uses his skill to fix a single mom’s sink at no charge is doing as much a work of Christ (and for Christ) as the priest who hears her confession or gives her Eucharist. This means that you are Christ’s feet and hands in the world and a gift of grace to your neighbor (if you cooperate with grace). Likewise, they are God’s gifts to you: means by which Christ was allowed in to work in your soul.

That’s why the parable of the Sheep and the Goat does not, in the slightest, constitute a challenge to the Catholic sacramental vision. Saying that God comes to us in the person of a beggar is not saying God does not come to us in the Sacrament of the Altar. It is, however, quite an emphatic denial of the claim that God saves us by faith alone. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver summed up the Church’s attitude toward this notion quite succinctly a few years ago when a told a roomful of believing Christians tersely, “If you neglect the poor you will go to hell.” Faith alone won’t cut it if you send a starving waif back out in the snow say, “Be warm and well fed.”

That’s breathtaking and blunt, but that does appear to be the gist of the parable of the sheep and the goats. The shocked sheep, like the shocked goats may or may not have had all sorts of theological theories about salvation by faith alone or “once saved, always saved” or the efficacy of the sacraments. What they found, however, was that the discussion with the King centered around more practical matters: “Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

That is a tonic reminder of the need for Catholics to remember (and those who hold theories of “once saved, always saved” to learn) about the Church’s ancient tradition of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. The Corporal Works of Mercy pertain to the deeds mentioned in the parable as well as a couple of other aspects of Jewish and Christian civility and goodness done in the love of God. They are:

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbor the harborless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

The Spiritual Works of Mercy are, while not mentioned in the parable, nonetheless reflect the love of God for our wretched race and are the mother of all the hospitals, all the schools, all the acts of sheer kindness that the Church has birthed over the centuries. They are:

  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

The Spiritual Works of Mercy are ordered toward the fact that merely relieving human wretchedness, while itself a very good thing, is not enough, because we are human beings. One of the basic mistakes of Communism (and Capitalism in an increasingly de-Christianized culture) is to think of the human person as a creature primarily or even solely motivated by the same sorts of instincts that motivate a cow. The idea is that since both cows and people need to eat, breathe, work, excrete and have sex, then a civilization that makes these activities the highest goals is a civilization that has all the bases covered. It is a simple mistake remedied by a simple observation. Namely, that cows and all other animals, in the absence of biological opportunity, go to sleep whereas humans get bored and restless. Why? Because our spirits cry out within us for more than eating, breathing, working, excreting and having sex. We are not beasts. We are rational creatures made in the image of God that long for union with the living God. The Spiritual Works of Mercy are ordered to that fact. They know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

In the coming weeks in this space, we will therefore take a look at the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in order to see how it is that we are to incarnate our faith in works of love for God and neighbor, so that we may, as 2 Peter 1:10 says, make our calling and election sure. Stay tuned.

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


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