I don’t need to be persuaded that mercy is at the heart of the Christian gospel. And I don’t mean a feeling or attitude of mercy, but its daily practice. “Go and do likewise” is an instruction that haunts me, waking and sleeping. When Christian friends and colleagues declare, as they often do, that Christianity “all boils down to this”—feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, and all the other things Jesus mentions in Matthew 25—I don’t say they are wrong. And when they approvingly quote the dictum attributed to Francis of Assissi, “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary with words,” I know what they mean and don’t disagree.
If you’re living in a homeless shelter, enduring another scary day in a South Central Los Angeles, or barely keeping your head above water as a divorced parent in a middle class subdivision with three kids, no savings and bald tires, you are probably not going to feel very helped by your Christian neighbors if all they do for you is sit you down in church (as The Mikado sings) “to hear sermons/ from mystical Germans.”
Jesus didn’t ask people who came to him for lunch to be living proof of God’s all-sufficiency by giving them stones instead of fish, or by sending them off hungry to fend for themselves out in the middle of nowhere. And people who never sought the kingdom first (or at all), people who didn’t have hearts undivided and free of worldly preoccupations, were helped by Jesus anyway, even when they came to him hoping strictly for material things—new eyes, usable limbs, food for their bellies.
And yet there’s something not quite right about this reduction of discipleship to what Catholics call the corporal works of mercy. Is this really all there is, when you “boil it all down?”
Peter Gomes once put that question to a congregation in Memorial Church. He was meditating on that great scene in Matthew’s gospel in which the Baptist sends emissaries to Jesus to find out if he is “the one.” Jesus replies, “Tell John the lame walk, the blind see, the dead rise”—and, we might add, people who come out to see him but forget their lunches are lavishly fed.
There they were, all those tangible realizations, the practical stuff, the good, just and compassionate deeds for which we rightly revere Jesus, and which we rightly try to emulate as the very heart and cornerstone of our faith. But then Jesus tacks on one more enigmatic little phrase: “…and the poor have the good news preached to them.” Preach to the poor? Aren’t we supposed to be doing something – something more productive?
Some people think so, Gomes observes; but it turns out that preaching good news to the poor is the linchpin of Jesus’ ministry. Without that announcement of hope, the people he feeds, heals, or raises from the dead “have not really made much progress as human beings from the time they first met Jesus, nor do they have much of an advantage over other creatures.” If all Jesus gave to the miraculously fed and healed was “an extended, renewed license to return and take part again in the misery and sufferings of the world,” what favor has he really done them? To enjoy a full stomach, to hear, even to live again, but “to do so without promise, without horizons” is simply more of the same.
You can feed a crowd all day, Gomes says, but at the end of the day, “what you’ll have done is fill a few bellies and encourage a desperate willingness in the crowd to crown somebody—anybody—king, if only that king will keep those fishes coming.” But “if after the tangibles are taken care of, we get down to the business of gospel living for which Christ came,” the new life he offers to all who open their hearts to it, that would be something to write home about, something unimaginably powerful: nothing less than a way of being in the world “enabled and fortified by hope; by the good news of God’s acceptance that both transforms and transcends.”
The novelist, Gabriel García Márquez, touched upon this decisive “gospel life” in a curious incident he recounted to a journalist years ago. The incident took place during a gubernatorial election in a northern Mexican state where the entrenched ruling party was again on the verge of total victory. Party operatives had bought the attendance of a big crowd of villagers who, eager to earn their pesos, were patiently listening to the customary litany of PRI accomplishments – clean water, new sewers, schools, community centers, more street lights.
Rampant graft meant that everything was badly built, of course, and things broke and closed down with depressing regularity. Nonetheless, the crowd applauded on cue as each achievement was touted. But way at the back of the crowd, a small man raised a big placard on which he’d scrawled this massively subversive message: “¡Basta ya de realizaciones. Queremos promesas!” – Enough already with accomplishments! We want promises!”
Yes, I think we do. We want, and need, in fact, everything we can get—both the practice of justice and the hope of justice; both the capacity to receive the kingdom that will someday appear as a gift from the storehouse of our God who is and gives “abundantly far more” than we can imagine and the capacity to do the works of tangible love of which the kingdom is built; both the generous joys of this world and the all-sufficient joys of heaven.
Here’s the kind of ministry I believe in. It doesn’t boil anything down. It’s got a bias towards breadth and depth and height, a liking for fullness, a preference for having it all. If someone were to say, “People need bread,” I would reply, “Yes—and promises.” Or if someone were to say, “People need promises,” I would answer, “Yes—and bread.”
I believe we are most like Christ when we contend with things whole, so that if someone should say, “Our church is most faithful when it is feeding the hungry,” I would say, “Yes, it is—and when it is caught up in the ecstasy of divine love.” And if someone should say, “Our church is most truly faithful when it is at worship,” I would say, “Yes, it is—and when its life is on the line for the flesh of Christ’s flesh, the last and the least.”
The challenge for disciples lies in not dividing the gospel, in not making of it a wedge that splits action from contemplation, body from spirit, theology from practice, or ministry from buildings and grounds. The challenge is to take our life together whole—not forcing artificial choices between tradition and innovation, doctrine and pastoralia, endowment and annual giving, outreach ministries and internal fellowship, them and us (no matter how subtly such distinctions are drawn).
We’d be fools to choose one and not the other. If God’s abundance means anything, it means that God intends for us to have it all.
Too kind, Carter. Thanks so much, by the way, for the quote from Peggy Way, one of my heroes-at-a-distance. Wise, wise, wise.
This is so much part of your streaming routine of wonderfulness that it’s boring. (Not! Joke! Wonderful in its own right!) I’ve been mulling over UCC educator Peggy Way’s splendid insight all morning, and you remind me of it yet again, and I’m sure you know it, but here it is anyway: “Whether you’re conservative or liberal doesn’t matter. The point is to conserve and liberate.” Thanks yet again!