Quenching the flame

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King. Ez 34:11-12,15-17; Ps 23:1-3,5-6; 1 Cor 15:20-26,28; Mt 25:31-46

Today's Gospel should, I think, inspire a certain amount of holy fear. In the last parable of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives an account of his coming as king in glory. He will judge all nations, that is, all people, separating them into two groups. The group on his right will inherit the kingdom of heaven forever, prepared for them since the world was created; the other group will enter the fire of hell forever, the fire originally intended for the devil and his angels, but to which some human beings will be bound by the choices they have made.

A first lesson from this parable is that it is not only what we believe, but also what we do that matters for our salvation. Now there has been some confusion over this point for the last five centuries because of the teachings of Martin Luther, who started the Protestant movement. In his new doctrine, Luther claimed that we are saved by faith alone regardless of our deeds, whether good or evil. Luther also accused the Catholic Church of teaching that we can merit our salvation by good works, like earning our way to heaven. Now what Luther taught was wrong, as today's Gospel shows. Neither the Bible nor the Church has ever taught that we earn our salvation through good works. Salvation is an unmerited grace. This grace is, however, like a divine seed that should generate the Fruits of divine love, these Fruits being actions in which we love in union with God. Aquinas, for example, describes benignity, a Fruit of the Holy Spirit, as a holy fire, by which a person melts to relieve the needs of others. If we say that we love God, but are cold toward those whom God loves, that is, other persons, then the love of God cannot live in us (cf. 1 John 4:20). If love is extinguished in us, if we have quenched the holy fire of benignity at the time of the Last Judgment, then all that will remain for us is the fire of hell.

What, then, are the actions in which we show benignity, or holy fire, to others? Jesus lists a great many practical actions: giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, care to the ill and visiting the imprisoned. Indeed, we know from elsewhere in this Gospel that even a single cup of cold water, given to someone out of the love of God, will be remembered on the Day of Judgment (Matt 10:42). Furthermore, there are spiritual counterparts to all of these gifts: to give solid food and refreshing drink can also mean to teach truth in a wilderness of error; to visit the sick or imprisoned can also mean giving comfort those who are afflicted or imprisoned by sin, anguish and despair. There is an ocean of need in this fallen world, and, as a consequence, a great many possible actions of love.

So what are our responsibilities in our particular walks of life? What are we obliged to do? This is the hardest question to answer because we are not required to do all goods things all the time, nor is any one of us obliged to address all human suffering single handed. We are members of the Body of Christ, the Church. Each of us has a particular calling and set of responsibilities; indeed, to try to do too much is to risk failing in what we are specifically called to do. Furthermore, actions of charity do not always involve giving things; they can also involve refusing to give. To refuse to give alcohol to a drunkard, for example, for fear of the damage he would do to himself, would probably count as a action of charity. We do, therefore, need prudence to know how to act well.

What we do have to be careful of, however, is the following kind of situation: when we are confronted with a person in need, when it is clear what we ought to do out of love of God, when we have the power to act, and, yet, we turn away. Aquinas teaches that all such omissions involve at least some interior action, an action in which, as Jesus warns, we reject Him. May God gives us the fire of His love and the grace never to quench that flame.

Father Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 23rd November 2008

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