Who can be saved?

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :-

The odd thing about this gospel, (Matthew 7:21-27) is that it appears to criticise those who are doing precisely what God wants, prophesying in his name, casting out demons and working miracles in his name. So these are not the ostensibly bad men who disobeyed God’s law as we see from our reading from Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-8, and 32). Put in strict terms they did fulfil the law and the prophets so we are not talking here in the gospel about the distinction between defilers of the law and fulfillers of it; or are we, so what does Jesus mean?

I think it becomes clearer when we remind ourselves that this passage is all part of the long exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount stretching from chapters 5-7. In this lengthy piece of teaching so akin to Jewish commentary on the law Jesus reminded his followers that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it 5:17-18 and, as we have seen in previous weeks a lot of the instruction we have in these chapters was devoted to an informing of the meaning of the law and of course, reminding the disciples, some of whom at least were devout men, that they did not fulfil the whole law- that was simply an impossibility. The man who does not actually commit adultery yet lusts after women is as much a sinner as the one who does and abusive and judgmental relationships can be as murderous as actually killing a brother. Unenlightened literalism is not enough, it wasn’t for the Jews Jesus addressed and it isn’t for modern Catholics

No, there are no completely good men and even when we manage to do the right thing Jesus says, it is quite possible that our motives are self-serving and wrong. One can work miracles for the public acclaim, not to mention the cash incentives attached as the Vatican saw with the healing ministry of Archbishop Milingo, and the USA is replete with high profile evangelists who are not as good as they should be. As Israel knew to its cost many of its prophets were in the pay of its corrupt kings and did his bidding whereas the mark of a true prophet of Israel seems to have lain precisely in his not being associated with the court and not infrequently persecuted by it as we know from the cases of Elijah, Jeremiah and 1st Isaiah. The true prophet was often hounded to death by the rich and powerful and was acutely aware of the sad burdens of his calling which Jeremiah described as being the harbinger of ‘violence and ruin’.

It is possible however that, rather than being a bringer of doom, Jesus was calling on his listeners to approach their fulfilling of the law with great care, aware of the mixed motives we all have even for our best actions. Good parents can still be possessive control freaks over their children and as much a problem as the fickle and abusive parent and as Chesterton so wisely remarked, ‘one can tell a good-doer by the pain on the faces of their recipients!’ Kindness to friends does of course fulfil our own needs too whilst our charitable acts and giving may make us feel good and allow us to judge those who do not give or who do not think seriously about it; one-upmanship is not simply the preserve of the nouveau-riche, it could as easily be seen in the miser or the devout Catholic! No, we are called to listen to the words of Jesus and obey them, but we do so at our peril. Merely to fulfil the commandments can be fraught with traps for the unwary and we must tread this path circumspectly for, as Jesus remarked, no one is good but God. The very words of God the Son then are not straightforward and need prayerful interpretation.

When St Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome, (Romans 3:21-25, 28), he was tackling the fraught issue of the meaning of the faith for non Jewish, formerly pagan converts to Christianity, those who did not practise the Jewish law. They were living within the Christian community alongside Jewish converts for whom the question of ‘knowing’ God was inextricably tied to Judaism and its practice so that tensions clearly arose between the two sets of believers, tensions which may have threatened the very life of the community. Paul’s answer to this friction was to point out that what both groups shared was their common sinfulness, the Jew by dint of having the law and failing to keep its requirements and the former pagans who were without the guidance of the law and were as a result hopeless sinners. Both then were bound together, Paul said by their dependence upon their faith, faith in the redeeming sacrifice and love of Christ:

Both Jew and pagan sinned and forfeited God’s glory, and both are justified through the free gift of his grace by being redeemed in Christ Jesus who was appointed by God to sacrifice his life so as to win reconciliation through faith.

Of course we must aim to live well, as befits those called to be ‘friends’ of God, but we must never come to believe that this entitles us to salvation, it is as St Thomas would have said, the only appropriate behaviour suited to those redeemed by Christ and we all, always live on that knife-edge of never quite knowing that we have ‘done enough’. It is part of the frisson of being a Christian which keeps us up to speed as far as anything based solely in faith can, for the life of grace is always going to have room for more, much more than we can ever plan for or imagine.

 

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