Thursday, September 21, 2006

Matthew 25 on Grace and Works

My morning scripture reading today was Matthew 25. Jesus tells three parables in this chapter, two of which seem to enunciate Catholic teaching on grace and works quite clearly.

The first, the parable of the 10 maidens, asserts the need for vigilance. One could interpret the five wise as those who commit works and are prepared for judgement. Frankly, I think that stretching the symbol a bit. Suffice it to say, we must be prepared for the bridegroom. We should not wait until it's too late.

With the parable of the talents, we get closer to Catholic doctrine on grace. Here are the opening verses (14-15):

For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.


One of the most difficult doctrines for Christians is predestination. St. Augustine grappled with it, as did Luther (the former, successfully, while the latter, not so much so). Why is it that some do not have the grace necessary for salvation? In Protestant theology (at least the theology of the Reformation), the Elect are given grace; the Reprobate are not. the more extreme form of this doctrine is double predestination—the idea that God created souls who would be reprobrate intentionally. That is, He intended for them to be destined to Hell. To these, He does not give his grace. In this realm, the concept of free will doesn't really work. God gives grace only to those whom He wills to have salvation. I imagine many Protestant denominations would have trouble with this formulation these days. However, at the time, that was the hard line. Luther didn't care for it, but Calvin embraced it fully. The idea that one could resist God's will is ludicrous; therefore, our will must not truly be free.

We know from 1 Timothy 2:3-4 that God wills that all should be saved. What that means in terms of the conomy of grace in Catholic theology is that all are given what is called sufficient grace. We are all given the grace to repent and accept Christ's forgiveness. The question, then, is whether our will will follow. God does not compel us to love him. He gives us all we need to make the choice. Then we have to make an act of will: choose God or not. This is sufficient grace—the grace to choose. Then we must act. Our actions then determine whether we will have additional actual graces to result in sanctification. These additional actual graces are also called efficacious grace—that is, the grace to effect salvation for the Elect.

Matthew 25:14–15 are a perfect analogy for this economy. The man going on a journery bestows upon three servants the means (talents) to gain his graces. I find it a rather happy coincidence that a word we use for our own personal capabilities signified a large sum of money—some 15-years' wages for a common laborer. The first two servants received the sum—the actual quantity is irrelevant—and they immediately put it to use. That's the way it is with sufficient grace. We take what God grants to us freely out of His own generosity, and if we choose His will, we multiply that gift into something greater than it was. However, none of it could be done without His gratuitous gift. At the same time, He owes us nothing more. We're His servants. Our job is to do His will. His reward to us is, again, solely born from His generosity and mercy. At the same time, knowing that He is a gracious God, we know He will reward us (which is how Catholics understand merit—a gift God wnats to give us as His obedient servants).

Then the unhappy plight of the third servant. He is given a talent. fearing the wrath of the master, he doesn't use this talent or even turn it over to someone else to use for some benefit. Instead, he buries the talent. When the master returns, the servant simply gives the talent back. While this might seem to be an inoffensive gesture when it comes to "safeguarding" someone's goods, it's not what you're supposed to do with a gift. It's a rejection of a gratuitous gift. It's the equivalent of saying, "I knew you were expecting me to do something challenging with this gift, so I decided not to use it. Here it is back in perfect shape."

God doesn't give us gifts or talents to bury (nor are we to hide our light under a bushel basket). Talents or gifts are given with an expectation—to make the talent grow into more than it was.

As if to confirm His meaning, Jesus goes on to the next parable:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.


We have just prior to this an analogy for the lazy servant who rejects the master's gift. Now we have the Son of Man seated on His throne. This passage is less parable than analogy. He says that the Son of Man will sit on His throne and will sort people from all the nations as one sorts sheep and goats. The important thing to realize here is that the parable doesn't start until after the analogy is made. We will be sorted. The parable provides the means, the criteria by which we will be sorted:

[F]or I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.


The sheep are brought into the kingdom for what they do, not for what they profess (Matthew 7:21). In fact, Christ's Judgement only makes sense if one has criteria by which he or she is being judged. And what would those criteria be?

- Feed the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Welcome strangers
- Clothe the naked
- Visit the sick and imprisoned

Notice what is not mentioned: have faith. Jesus does not say that these goats didn't believe in Him, and at this stage, disbelief in Him would be rather difficult as the goats would be in His midst. While faith is certainly necessary, it isn't the only necessary thing.

Although Romans is frequently cited as support for sola fide, Paul himself reiterates the necessity of good works: "But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 For he will render to every man according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury." (Romans 2:4-7).

The Book of James is particularly known for its claims of the necessity of works. Where Protestants err is when they consider works of the Law (which Paul condemns) and works to which we are impelled by grace as equal.

Where we agree is that we are saved by grace alone. Only God's gratuitous gift of grace can save us, but that grace should move us to two things: faith and works.


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