Fr. Roger J. Landry
Pontifical North American College
Monday of the First Week of Lent
March 13, 2000
Lv 19:1-2, 11-18; Mt 25:31-46
When the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was released at the end of October, it led to many news articles — including one written by a Rome-based Catholic News Service Reporter — that all basically implied that Rome had gone to Augsburg, that the Catholic Church was now admitting that Luther was right after all and that, contrary to putative Catholic thinking, we’re not saved by our works. Maybe you received like I did some frantic phone calls and emails from troubled Catholic friends or triumphant Protestants wondering what had happened, and what were the implications for the deposit of faith, papal infallibility and a whole score of related issues. It came as a surprise to them when I reassured them that, despite what the articles implied and Luther mistakenly believed, the Catholic Church never held that we were saved by our works, and that, in fact, that heretical position had been condemned when it was propagated by a fifth-century peripatetic Irishman named Pelagius over fifteen centuries ago.
But some then asked me the logical follow-up question on the basis of the Catholic faith: “What, therefore, is the role of works in our salvation?” Jesus gives us the answer to this question in today’s Gospel, and it is crucially important for us as Catholic priests and as future priests to get this right, because there is so much confusion on this in ecumenical discourses. Jesus teaches that WE’RE NOT SAVED BY OUR WORKS BUT WE’RE JUDGED BY OUR WORKS. We’re saved by his grace, which is God’s gratuitous gift, but we’re judged on the basis of how we respond to that gift, and more particularly how we respond to Jesus himself. We’re saved by faith, as St. Paul teaches, but it must be a living faith that manifests itself spontaneously in acts of love, as St. James adds. It is on the basis of our actions that we, in effect, will judge ourselves. As Jesus himself says in John’s Gospel, “I DO NOT JUDGE ANYONE WHO HEARS MY WORDS AND DOES NOT KEEP THEM, FOR I CAME NOT TO JUDGE THE WORLD, BUT TO SAVE THE WORLD. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word HAS A JUDGE; on the last day the WORD that I have spoken will serve as judge.” How we put God’s word into action in our lives, how we live the grace of the salvific faith he came and died to give us, will in itself be our judge. And these acts of love or lack thereof will constitute the basis on which Jesus will give us the kingdom of heaven as our inheritance, or send us, condemned, out of his sight into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels!
These words of Jesus are very direct and very stark. Like Moses said in his farewell discourse which we heard last Thursday, Jesus sets before us a choice between life and death, ultimately between heaven and hell. In this apocatastatic age we’re living in, oo often we Catholics are tempted, I think, to look at this choice as bad news, because of the possibility of hell and the fact that we realize our actions may too often more aptly fit the second set of standards Jesus describes. But the Lord meant it as good news, because he gave us clear indications about the way that leads to life and the way that leads to death. He calls us rather simply and uncomplicatedly TO TREAT OTHERS CHARITABLY.
And when we come right down to it, Jesus is not asking us to do anything he didn’t do himself. In fact, we could say that, minimally, he’s asking us to do much less, merely to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, cloth the naked, welcome the stranger, comfort the afficted and visit prisoners and concrete kind and generous acts of this sort. He doesn’t even require that we do it explicitly out of love for Him, because those whom he sent to his right didn’t even recognize that they had fed, clothed and visited him. “When did we see you hungry and feed you?,” they asked. The more we see Jesus in others, the easier and perhaps more loving these actions will become, but Jesus just simply calls us to be charitable to others, and assures us that when we are, he takes it personally. But when we look at what Jesus himself did, the love to which he calls us is unmistakable. To the hungry, he gives his own flesh to eat. He quenches the thirsty with his own blood. To all of us who were strangers through sin, he welcomed us and reconciled us to the Father by dying for us. He comforted the afflicted by joining them in their sufferings and thereby giving their sufferings redemptive meaning. And he not only visited those imprisoned by sin, but freed us from our prison cells, by breaking down the bars once and for all and showing us the way out. Jesus fulfilled each of these corporal works of mercy by giving of himself in love. This is the true fulfillment of human life, to give of ourselves out of love to God and others in such a way that this self-gift of ours becomes the gift of Christ himself to others. Besides merely giving material food, drink and clothing, we Christians can give Christ to those who are ultimately dying of hunger and thirst for the living God, and bring Christ to all those in any type of physical or spiritual bondage. As priests we are called to do that in a special way, to give of ourselves totally for others. It is in this that each of us would be able to be called an alter Christus.
The Church in her wisdom gives us this Gospel at the beginning of Lent to inspire us on our Lenten pilgrimage toward Easter, which in itself is done within the context of the much longer pilgrimage each of us is making toward our eternal destiny. We are called to conversion from all those times when we, out of sinful self-interest, ignore others or treat them merely as objects, or nuisances, or judge them to be subhuman inmates, or lazy tramps. And we are called to convert to Christ and see him in all those we meet, in all those whom he created out of love and redeemed out of love — and to try, however limited we are, to give Christ and his love to each of them. God loved us so much that he died out of love for us, and he asks us in return to live out of love for him. It is on this basis we will judge ourselves. But this judgment shouldn’t terrify us. Our Merciful God doesn’t ask for anything that is impossible, for with his grace all things, including this, are possible. This Lent is the time to respond ever more to this gift. May it begin here at this Eucharist! If we faithfully respond in love to these great salvific graces, then it is our firm hope that at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, we will hear those extraordinary words for which our very ears were made: “Come, O you who are so blessed of my Father: inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the Age.”