This is the last of a three-part series Martha began this morning looking at the relationship between justice and charity and mercy, and how our actions in these ways affect our salvation. So far she has been challenging and encouraging as only Martha can be. Let’s read together and see how she concludes this topic.
And so finally we get near to approaching a point. Up to now, I’ve talked about the corporal works of mercy, but the spiritual works are equally important. It’s a balance, and you can’t have one without the other. Right hand and left hand, or two eyes, or two lungs. The spiritual needs of poverty must be addressed as well as the material needs, and indeed, one may be spiritually poor while materially well-off, and never realise one’s poverty. It is a dangerous imbalance to concentrate on just one component and neglect the other; this leads to the error on the one hand of the misappropriation of social justice teaching, where it is hijacked to mean trendy causes such as the Millennium Development Goals; which, while admirable in themselves, are not the whole of the Law and the Prophets; in 2006, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church declared the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be the top mission priority of the Episcopal Church. Top mission priority? Really? Above preaching the Gospel?
Or the creation of “Environmental Stations of the Cross”; I wish I was joking about that last one, but no: apparently Gaia, not Christ, is being scourged and crucified.
Or the excesses of Liberation Theology, where the “theology” is minimized and the “liberation” is emphasized so that the ensuing politicization led to admonishment by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1984 and 1986 for the inclusion of “Marxist concepts.” Again, the concept is not wrong or erroneous, but the excessive emphasis on ‘this world’ concerns above all else and consequent skewing towards radical political action and the importance of the State tipped certain proponents into error.
The blunder on the other hand leads to what the late Michael Spencer characterized as “wretched urgency,” where souls are treated as notches on the (Bible) belt and salvation becomes a matter of shoehorning the question of “are you saved?” into every possible human interaction, having neatly-encapsulated points and killer verses to use in order to browbeat an admission of sinfulness out of the potential convert, a slick recital of a “Sinner’s Prayer” with or without “walking the aisle” and perhaps a dunking, before you move on to the next victim.
Or the attitude described in the Epistle of James: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” If your fear of “works righteousness” holds you back, then you are lacking.
Okay, I can hear you faintly murmur “Luther” and yes, you’re correct. He was correct –to a degree – in his condemnations. The works of mercy are not a check-list by which we tick off the boxes of almsgiving in order to Tippex over our sins and faults, bribing our way into Heaven. The Scrovegni Chapel is a tiny jewel of the finest 13th century art, with a fresco cycle on the life of the Virgin by Giotto.
And every art reference book or website will not neglect to mention that, to quote Wikipedia:
The chapel was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, whose family fortune was made through banking. At this time charging excess interest when loaning money was considered to be usury , a sin so grave that it resulted in exclusion from the Christian sacraments, and many early bankers were concerned lest their trade jeopardised their souls. It has often been suggested that Enrico built the chapel in penitence for his father’s sin of usury and to obtain absolution for his own. Enrico’s father Reginaldo degli Scrovegni is one of the usurers encountered by Dante in the Seventh Circle of Hell.
Now, recent opinion is moving away from this view, so maybe it’s not totally an example of “cash for souls” but sorry, Reginaldo and Enrico, you can’t buy your way out of this pickle. You cannot be a grasping miser and expect to get off just by donating a pile of money at the point of death to expiate your (or your forefathers) sins. To quote Aquinas again:
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. xxxv, 2): “Give alms from your just labors. For you will not bribe Christ your judge, not to hear you with the poor whom you rob . . . Give not alms from interest and usury: I speak to the faithful to whom we dispense the Body of Christ.
Remember the definitions and distinctions we made above between charity and mercy? Good works on their own do not have any merit.
According to 1 Corinthians 13:3: “If I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor . . . and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
To the saying (Colossians 3:12): “Put ye on . . . as the elect of God . . . the bowels of mercy,”, (he) adds (Colossians 3:14): “Above all things have charity.” Therefore mercy is not the greatest of virtues.
(W)herefore Our Lord says (Luke 14:12): “When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy neighbors who are rich, lest perhaps they also invite thee again.” (In other words, no tit for tat, no ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, no cash for favours, no donations in expectation of favours, no buying salvation).
It must not be forgotten that the works of mercy demand more than a humanitarian basis if they are to serve as instruments in bringing about our eternal salvation. The proper motive is indispensable and this must be one drawn from the supernatural order.
If we do not keep indoctrinating, we lose the vision. And if we lose the vision, we become merely philanthropists, doling out palliatives.
A spiritual work of mercy – instructing the ignorant – ties in with charity, which is (as Aquinas defines it) the work of the Holy Spirit.
Pope Benedict XVI, from his homily on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, 9th January 2012, baptismal Mass:
It is very important for you parents and also for you godfathers and godmothers to believe strongly in the presence and the action of the Holy Spirit, to call upon him and welcome him in you through prayer and the sacraments. He is the one in fact who enlightens the mind, who makes the heart of the educator burn so that he or she knows how to transmit the knowledge of the love of Christ.
But before you get too comfortable and all “Aha! Works avail nothing!” let me conclude with this: yes, they do. There is the mediaeval pious legend about Judas in Hell, where all his body is covered in flames except for his left foot, and when the visionary asked why this was, he was told that in life, Judas had done one good deed, using that foot to push a bundle of hay into the reach of a starving lamb.
Sirach 29:15: “Shut up alms in the heart of the poor, and it shall obtain help for thee from all evil.”
Gregory says (Nom. in Evang. ix): “Let him that hath understanding beware lest he withhold his knowledge; let him that hath abundance of wealth, watch lest he slacken his merciful bounty; let him who is a servant to art be most solicitous to share his skill and profit with his neighbor; let him who has an opportunity of speaking with the wealthy, fear lest he be condemned for retaining his talent, if when he has the chance he plead not with him the cause of the poor.
(A)ccording to Hosea 6:6 “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God more than holocausts” and Matthew 12:7: “And if you knew what this means: I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: you would never have condemned the innocent.”
(A)ccording to Hebrews 13:16: “Do not forget to do good and to impart, for by such sacrifices God’s favor is obtained.” [We can get the favor of God by doing good works? And it’s Paul who says this?? What kind of crazy Catholic Bible was that Aquinas guy reading, anyway???]
The preacher John Mirk (an Augustinan canon of the late 14th century) warned his congregations about the role of the poor at the Day of Judgement:
Thys, good men, ye shull know well that yn the day of dome pore men schull be domes-men wyth Cryst and dome the ryche. (Thus, good men, you shall know well that in the day of doom, poor men shall be dooms-men (judges) with Christ and doom (judge) the rich).
This even applies in cases where we say (with more or less justification) “Oh, but I never give money to beggars on the streets; they would just spend it on drink and I can’t be responsible for aiding someone to harm their health and their soul”. Yes, we have a duty to be prudent with our resources and it is legitimate to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor, and there is a long, grave list of the uses and duties of Church and Social charity in the “Catholic Encylopedia”. It is also that attitude which resulted in the phrase “cold as charity”, which should shame us all, since charity is a roaring furnace of Divine love, hotter than the sun.
Give strong drink to him who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more.
Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are left desolate.
Open your mouth, judging righteously,
maintain the rights of the poor and needy. ~Proverbs 31: 6-9
G.K. Chesterton, from “Heretics” (1905) Chapter XII:
It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them.
Man does not live by bread alone, but we shouldn’t forget the bread either; once more, Aquinas puts it pithily:
(A)s the Philosopher [this means Aristotle] observes (Topic. iii, 2), for a needy man “money is better than philosophy,” although the latter is better simply.