Last month’s article, Love and the Productive Power of Not, took a look at how most of the Ten Commandments are “negative” or in other words, focused on things we should not to do, rather than things we should. I examined the great value and productivity of certain forms of “negation.” This month, I examine the flip side of this same coin: The need to actively do something “positive” with the gifts we’ve been given in natural life and in baptism in order to secure eternal life. To, as Peter puts it, “confirm our call and our election” (1 Peter 3:5)
To be very clear, this isn’t about “buying” salvation. We’re saved by accepting God’s grace into our lives and inviting it to transform us, not by “doing enough good stuff to earn Heaven.” Heaven can’t be “earned” (CCC 2007), it can only be received from God and grown into.
But, as scripture teaches us, we must indeed grow! We’re not saved as an end unto itself. We’re saved for a purpose. And that purpose is good works. (cf. Ephesians 2:10) Or – put differently, and this is key – to multiply God’s presence – love – on the Earth. Failing to use the Spirit we’ve been given in baptism to put love into concrete action will result in taking up residence in permanent, painful darkness just as much as the commission of a deadly sin will. Let’s not forget that in addition to doing things that we shouldn’t, we can also sin by not doing things that we should, or in other words by omission.
“WHAT MUST I DO?”
On the one hand, when the rich young man in Matthew 19 asks Jesus what he has to do in order to obtain eternal life, Jesus exhorts him to keep the commandments. And as we saw last month, the commandments are mostly negative. (“Don’t do this. Don’t do that.”) But let’s not lose sight of the full council of God.
“Whoever would love life and see good days… must turn from evil and do good,” says 1 Peter 3:10-11. (Emphasis added) In the parable of the goats and sheep, what does Jesus suggest is the way to Heaven? It’s not merely avoiding evil, but doing good to those around us. And what, in this parable, gets people in trouble before God? Too much “not.” Failing to do for others. Not giving time, attention, money, or other resources to those we should have given to.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this,” says James 1:27 in one of the most concise summaries of the faith there is, “to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Or in other words, to stay away from things that may taint us but also engage the needs of our neighbors at the same time.
BOTH/AND, NOT EITHER/OR
Many Catholics who take seriously the practice of their faith, often self-described as “conservatives” and “traditionalists”, have the “don’t be stained by the world” part down, but significantly miss the fact that that’s only half of the divinely inspired verse. Many get that God is holy and that that holiness is exacting. (Cf. Luke 12:36-37) But they don’t likewise sufficiently get that it’s exacting, or demanding, in a constructive sense as well, and sometimes this misunderstanding comes from misplaced fear.
“Yes, it’s nice to do good things for people,” goes the thinking, “but venturing out into the world to do them means too easily being stained by the world. Better to stay closed off from it all.” (Essentially rewriting James to say, “Religion that is pure undefiled before God is to keep oneself unstained by the world. The End.” But no such editing of the Holy Spirit is allowed!)
However, “fear is useless,” Jesus taught us. “What is needed is trust.” (St. Joseph Edition of the New American Bible, 1970, Mark 5:36) He also said, “I have come to light a fire on the Earth. Would that it were already burning.” (Luke 12:49) And one does not generate or fan a flame by making sure to keep all matches and fuel locked up safely behind a closed door.
He created a number of the parables for those of a conservative mindset. Among them, the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the talents. In the former, “conservatives” are warned not to “over spiritualize” their faith, pretending to maximally honor God by simultaneously ignoring service to their fellow man. (See the same admonishment in Mark 7:9-13). They are cautioned not to let the desire to stay “clean” be taken too far – to the point where they reject the legitimate needs of their fellow man. In fact, the irony is that it’s precisely in prayerfully serving others that we are made clean! “Above all, let your love for one another be intense because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Don’t just love people, let your love be intense.
In the latter story, we find Jesus offering one of the more peculiar sayings in the New Testament: “To him who has, more will be given. And to him who has not, what does have will be taken away.” That sounds rather selfish at first glance. What could Jesus mean by it…
THE PARABLE OF THE TALENTS
In the parable of the talents, three different people are given three different amounts of money by their master and told to go do something with it. Their responses are interesting. And the master’s response extremely instructive, as well as surprising for those with a conservative mindset.
The first two recipients, the ones with larger amounts than the third go and do as they’re supposed to. They go off and make an equal amount of money to what they were given and share it with their master. The third, however, decides to be conservative. He decides to “play it safe” and buries the money given to him so that nothing will happen to it while his master is away. And some would wonder if this is terribly unreasonable. Stuff happens in life, to be sure! Things get stolen, lost, forgotten, etc. So, “better safe than sorry”? When the lender returns, the man is relieved to be able to return the single talent his master gave him safely.
But note well the master’s response. He ends up blasting the servant precisely for playing it safe. “You wicked, lazy servant!” he says. “So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter?” (Or, in other words, am demanding.) “Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
“IF THEY FAIL TO RESPOND…”
All the children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word, and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be more severely judged (Dominus Iesus, 22).
When somebody gives a gift, the expectation is that it gets used. Right? How would you feel if you gave someone a $1000 gift card and they looked at it and tossed it into a ditch? What would you think if you were to watch a rich man write a poor man a check for ten million dollars, only to have the recipient decide to use the check as a bookmark for the rest of his life?
“To him who has, more will be given. And to him who has not, even what he does have will be taken away.” Or, in other words, don’t be mistaken or get complacent! Don’t think that religion that is pleasing to God consists merely in avoiding the “negatives” in life, or refraining from committing sin. Going out and actively committing acts of kindness is equally required. Those who do not grasp this truth will have even what they do possess for now (material possessions, relationships, peace of mind, etc.) taken away in the afterlife.
While avoiding the mindset of Martha and needing to center our charitable works deeply in a solid prayer life, we must also charitably work! We must go and do, keeping in mind that it’s a matter of “percentages”, not raw totals. In other words, there are some individuals in life whom God only intends maybe to reach or serve just ten people over the course of their lifetime (those to whom He gives only one talent) and others who are meant to serve millions (those to whom He gives five). Per the instruction of the parable, he who is meant to reach ten and ends up reaching nine (90% faithful) will be in a far better place than the one who reaches ten thousand but was meant to reach or serve a million (1% faithful).
Of course, a prayer for wisdom and guidance is in order to know who we’re meant to serve and whom we’re not, taking a cue from Mother Theresa. As committed as she was to a life of service to all, this beautiful Saint maintained that she never saw “the masses” as her responsibility, only those who were right in front of her at any given time.
“WHAT SHALL I GIVE THE LORD IN RETURN?”
At our baptism, God gave us no less than eternal life. A literal eternity of perfect bliss! It might be a really good idea if we all stopped and reflected for several moments on whether or not we are sufficiently attempting, in some meager way, to “return the favor.”
We may not think that we have much to give God and…well… we’re right. But what did Jesus say when he asked his apostles to feed the five thousand and they explained to him they didn’t have nearly enough food and drink with which to do so? Essentially, “Give me what you do have and I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Not all of us can do great things,” said Mother Theresa. “But we can do small things with great love.” And great love is precisely what matters to God the most.
To be sure, love (or, in other words, holiness) has a “negative” side to it. (It necessarily includes a list of “not’s.”) Avoiding the commission of sins, giving up food (fasting) and making other sacrifices, for example, are very good and spiritually profitable. But don’t get stuck there because just “not” is not enough.