Our readings this Sunday begin with a controversial idea: “Share your bread with the hungry.”
Modern politics seems to be split between those who think the hungry probably don’t deserve my bread, and need the stimulus of their hunger to teach them a better work ethic; and those who think the government should take care of them so I don’t have to.
And modern Christianity seems split between those who substitute the so-called “spiritual works of mercy” (counsel the doubtful, etc.) for the Gospel’s somehow inferior “corporal” works of mercy (“I was hungry, and you did not feed me . . . Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”; and those who prefer to ignore all the business about God and Jesus and Truth and Virtue in favor of an entirely material social program.
Oddly enough, the solution to this tangled controversy is in what the old Greek theologians call theosis: divinization. “God became man so that men could become God.”
One place to find the key is in our Gospel. “You are the salt of the earth . . . . You are the light of the world,” says a familiar Gospel. (These are the lines immediately following the Beatitudes, but it happened that this year the Presentation replaced that Gospel, something that only happens on average every twenty-one years.)
No matter where you are on whatever ideological spectrum, these lines are attractive: We all think we should make the world a better place.
But our Gospel ends on an odd note: “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” What is the connection between my good deeds and “glorifying” God in heaven? The first part focuses on me—but the second on God. The first part is very this-worldly—the second part is about worship and heaven.
The Tradition sees it this way: our good deeds are a product of God’s good work in us. The saints are his masterwork. This is parallel to Creation: the world is good because God made it. The things of this world are less good than God, but they really do have a share in his goodness, because he made them, and therefore they are reason to give thanks to God, to “glorify your heavenly Father.” But whereas the world is only his Creation, the saints are his children, really sharing in his life; only a human being can love as God loves.
The flipside is the other odd part of this Gospel: whereasas the second part, about the light of the world, ends with glorifying your heavenly Father, the first part, about the salt of the earth, ends with a threat. “If salt loses its taste . . . It is no longer good for anything but to be throw out and trampled underfoot.”
God created us in image so that, through us, he could show his glory through this material world, just as salt brings out the flavor of food. But if we do not serve that purpose, our lives have failed. That is the real threat of Hell: we can fail to let God work through us.
The Tradition notes an interesting double layer in the various calls to serve the poor. “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless . . . . Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!”
The poor cry to us for help—and we, who are poor, cry to God for help.
Our Psalm says, “Lavishly he gives to the poor.” Who is he? God? Or us? In fact, it’s both. We give, because he gives, and when we give to them, he gives to us. The whole mystery of Christianity is in this chain of giving: “Lavishly he gives to the poor.”
Our reading from First Corinthians adds the key middle ground: Jesus.
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
All of Christianity, it turns out, hinges on Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
He is both the poor man and the generous man, and he teaches us to be both.
“I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,” says Paul, and so he renounces all claim to glory and riches and power. In Christ the poor man, we find that our true riches are not in what we hoard for ourselves, but in our total reliance on the mercy of God, who raises the dead.
And in our love of Christ, we long to poor ourselves out as he did. The corporal works of mercy give flesh to that call to imitate Christ. Yes, of course we should preach the Gospel. But if we turn the corporal demands of the Gospel into merely “spiritual works,” we empty the Gospel of its power, and deny the flesh of Christ.
The world offers a false choice, between God or this world, the spiritual or the material. Christ shows us how the two come together.
Where do you find yourself making that false division?
[Incidentally, my apologies for my absences. Our seventh was born in early December. Relying to much on my own strength, I have often been finding how weak that strength is!]