The Scandal of the Works of Mercy
Christ the King: 23rd November, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
We live in apocalyptic times. Francis Ford Coppola depicted this reality hauntingly in his 1979 war movie "Apocalypse Now." Written a few years earlier, Walter Percy's science fiction novel Love in the Ruins (1971) similarly depicts a society coming apart at the seams, and tells of a moment when the protagonist, Dr Thomas More, experiences an existential moment of awakening: "Now in these dread latter days ... of the Christ-forgetting and Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines." Some 40 years later the times have not really changed. Our world today is just as Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted and death-dealing, and we all desperately need to come to our senses.
Today's gospel challenged us to come to our senses. It is the climax of a sermon that Matthew's Jesus gives in private to his disciples, while sitting on the Mount of Olives. The sermon is sparked by his disciples' existential anxiety and apocalyptic fears (Matt. 24.3): "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming at the end of the age?" Their Lord then tells of coming persecution, signs in the heavens and false prophets, before delivering the spine-chilling parables of judgement we've been grappling with for the past few Sundays.
Finally, he delivers the climactic parable of the sheep and goats. Not just believers, but all the nations on earth are gathered before him; Christ the King. Some are welcomed into their inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them from the very foundation of the earth. But others the King declares as accursed, and he banishes them into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. And the touchstone, the crushing judgement, is simply what each did and did not do. How merciful were they when faced with human need? That's the key.
In his Summa Theologica (II, 2, 30), Thomas Aquinas counts mercy among the highest of virtues: "The sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy, as regards external works" and "mercy, whereby we supply others' defects, is a sacrifice more acceptable to [God] as conducing more directly to our neighbour's well-being, according to Hebrews 13:16: 'Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.'"
Aquinas goes on to codify seven works of corporal mercy, mostly drawn from Matthew 25 (Summa II.2.32): "To feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the imprisoned, to visit the sick, to bury the dead." They are a useful touchstone for us to judge our own responsiveness to the gospel, and indeed our very effectiveness as a church. Reflecting on these works of mercy, Dorothy Day, the great Catholic social activist and worker, wrote these words in her essay "The Scandal of the Works of Mercy" (R. Ellsberg, ed., Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, p. 99):
The Works of Mercy are a wonderful stimulus to our growth in faith as well as love. Our faith is taxed to the utmost and so grows through this strain put upon it. It is pruned again and again, and springs up bearing much fruit. For anyone starting to live literally the words of the Fathers of the Church — "The bread you retain belongs to the hungry, the dress you lock up is the property of the naked"; "What is superfluous for one's need is to be regarded as plunder if one retains it for one's self" — there is always a trial ahead.
To illustrate this scandal of exercising Works of Mercy, Day then quotes from her recent correspondence: "I took a gentleman seemingly in need of spiritual and temporal guidance into my home on a Sunday afternoon. Let him have a nap on my bed, went through the [employment] ads with him, made coffee and sandwiches for him, and when he left, I found my wallet had also gone."
There is of course a cost to living the gospel, to exercising The Works of Mercy; it will take our time, try our patience, and affect our wallet. Those of you who volunteer at the Lazarus Centre or elsewhere will know that all too well. But there is really no other alternative; ultimately that's what the parable of the sheep and goats is all about. Apocalypse now.
The French Catholic priest and theologian, Michel Quoist, is perhaps best known for his little devotional book Prayers of Life (1965). In one of his prayers (pp. 90-91) he encapsulates beautifully the scandal and the blessings of truly opening one's life to the Works of Mercy. I quoted this prayer in my Apostrophe article earlier this month, but I think it is worth reading today:
Lord, why did you tell me to love all [people], my brothers [and sisters]? I have tried, but I come back to you, frightened ... Lord, I was so peaceful at home, I was so comfortably settled. It was well furnished, and I felt cozy. I was alone, I was at peace. Sheltered from the wind, the rain, the mud. I would have stayed unsullied in my ivory tower. But, Lord, you have discovered a breach in my defences. You have forced me to open my door. Like a squall of rain in the face, the cry of [the other] has awakened me. Like a gale of wind a friendship has shaken me. As a ray of light slips in unnoticed, your grace has stirred me ... and, rashly enough, I left my door ajar.
Now, Lord, I am lost! Outside [they] were lying in wait for me. I did not know they were so near; in this house, in this street, in this office; my neighbour, my colleague, my friend. As soon as I started to open the door I saw them, with outstretched hands, burning eyes, longing hearts, like beggars on church steps. The first ones came in, Lord. There was after all some space in my heart. I welcomed them. I would have cared for them and fondled them, my very own little lambs, my little flock. You would have been pleased, Lord, I would have served and honoured you in a proper, respectable way. Till then, it was sensible ...
But the next ones, Lord, the [others], I had not seen them; they were hidden behind the first ones. There were more of them, they were wretched; they over-powered me without warning. We had to crowd in, I had to find room for them. Now they have come from all over, in successive waves, pushing one another, jostling one another. They have come from all over town, from all parts of the country, of the world; numberless, inexhaustible. They don't come alone any longer but in groups, bound one to another. They come bending under heavy loads; loads of injustice, of resentment and hate, of suffering and sin ... They drag the world behind them, with everything rusted, twisted, or badly adjusted. Lord, they hurt me! They are in the way, they are everywhere, they are too hungry, they are consuming me! I can't do anything any more; as they come in, they push the door, and the door opens wider ... Lord! My door is wide open! I can't stand it any more! It's too much! It's no kind of life! What about my job? My family? My peace? My liberty? And me? Lord, I have lost everything, I don't belong to myself any longer. There's no more room for me at home.
Don't worry, God says, you have gained all. While [they] came in to you, I, your Father, I, your God, slipped in among them.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.