Saturday, March 10, 2007

Having the Time to Bear Fruit

While preparing to preach on Luke 13, especially Jesus' indication that God is incredibly forebearing, giving always one more year for trees to bear fruit, I came across this passage in Stanley Hauerwas's commentary on Matthew (don't ask why I'm reading a commentary on Matthew in order to preach on Luke...). Hauerwas writes,

Jesus is the sign of the end of the age, making possible for [the disciples] to have the time, as Jesus did, to feed the hungry (Matt. 14:13-21; 15:32-39), cure the sick, comfort the comfortless (15:21-28), welcome the stranger (8:5-13) and be imprisoned and crucified between two prisoners. This is the work the have witnessed and been given as they have followed Jesus on his journey through the towns of Israel and finally to Jerusalem itself. This is the way they will learn to be watchmen for the kingdom, for by performing the work of the kingdom they will be given the gift of discernment so that they will be able to resist the temptations of the devil.

In a wonderful essay entitled "The Scandal of the Works of Mercy," Dorothy Day lists the works of mercy, codified by Thomas Aquinas, based on Matthew 25:

The spiritual works of mercy are to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead. The corporal (bodily) works are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive (those imprisoned), to harbor the harborless (refugees and immigrants), to visit the sick, and to bury the dead (Day 2002, Writings from Commonweal)

Her colleague, Peter Maurin, whom Day identifies as the founder of The Catholic Worker, was, according to Day, as much an apostle to the world as he was to the poor. He did not believe works of mercy were a strategy to care for the poor until another and better more effective social policy could be found. He believed that works of mercy were the social policy that Jesus had given his people for the renewal of the world. According to Day, Maurin though that in order to convince people

it was necessary to embrace voluntary poverty, to strip yourself, which would give you the means to practice the works of mercy. To reach the person in the street you must go to the street. To reach the workers, you begin to study the philosophy of labor, and take up manual labor, useful labor, instead of white collar work. To be the least, to be the worker, to be poor, to take the lowest place and thus be the spark which would set afire the love of people towards each other and to God (and we can only show our love of God by our love of our fellows). These were Peter's ideas, and they are indispensable for the performing of works of mercy.

Day calls this understanding of the works of mercy a scandal because it challenges the assumption that Christians are to do something for the poor by trying to create an alternative to capitalism or socialism. The problem with trying to create such alternative is that we seduce ourselves into believing that we are working to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and those in prison without knowing anyone who is hungry, naked, thirsty, a stranger, sick, or in prison. Day and Maurin knew that attempts to create a "better world" without being a people capable of the works of mercy could not help but betray Jesus's response to his disciples' question of what sign will there be of Jesus's coming and the end of the age. The sign is that they have the time to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and those in prison.

Moreover, such work will be offensive to those in power who claim to rule as benefactors of the poor and hungry. A people shaped by the practice of the works of mercy will be a people capable of seeing through those who claim to need power to do good, but in fact just need power. Great injustice is perpetrated in the name of justice. Great evil is done because it is said that time is short and there needs to be a response to this or that crisis. Christians live after the only crisis that matters, which means that Jesus has given us all the time in the world to visit him in the prisons of this world.

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