Guthrie's Gospel

Economic justice from a Christian perspective

Category: Isaiah

On Faith and Works

St. Peter of Damascus once wrote:

The fathers … kept the commandments; their successors wrote them down; but we have placed their books on the shelves. And even if we want to read them, we do not have the application to understand what is said and to put it into practice; we read them either as something incidental, or because we think that by reading them we are doing something great, thus growing full of pride. We do not realize that we incur greater condemnation if we do not put into practice what we read … And we should remember what the Lord says about the servant who knew his master’s will but failed to carry it out (cf. Lk. 12:47).

St. Peter of Damascus (The Philokalia Vol. 3 edited by Palmer, Sherrard and Ware; Faber and Faber pg. 169)

Quoted from: Milk & Honey.

St. Peter makes clear the centrality of actions, of works in the Christian life. Too often our emphasis seems to be on personal, spiritual salvation, on faith and prayer. All these things are good and necessary in a Christian life, but we must not make idols of them or emphasize them so much that we forgot that Christ preached a religion of doing for the salvation of all Creation, not just for you or me.

St. Peter reminds us that it is easy to abstract what was written long ago in the Bible and in other pious works into mere words which we do not live out. We read. We declare our faith. But we do nothing. And that is the problem because our faith cannot and does not exist separate from our works. When we read the word of God, but do not do it, we become like the servant who does not do his Master’s will and heap condemnation upon ourselves. One who believes as a Christian must necessarily act as a Christian or deny Christ’s teachings. We all, of course, fall short (I most of all), but it is important to acknowledge that we must try to live by deeds of faith, to fulfill Christ’s commandments to act with love and mercy toward others. St. James the Just taught “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17) and our Lord Jesus Christ Himself tells us in Matthew 25:31-46 that we will be judged by Him for the things we do to others in this life, in this world.

Now, all this is not to say that Christianity is a mere set of actions, that one can curse God with each breath so long as they are charitable and kind. Good works may be done without faith, but faith cannot exist without manifesting itself in good works. This is what St. John the Theologian teaches when he writes, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18). When we have faith in the Lord, God abides in us, but when we do not act according to our faith, God does not abide in us. Faith is not merely hearing the word of God, it is doing the word of God, for as Christ Himself declared to his disciples in Luke 6:47-49, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” When we do not enact Christ’s teachings through actions, we build our hope for salvation on a foundation of sand.

Good works are the manifestation of faith and are an inseparable part of faith. Faith without works is not merely dead, it cannot exist. If we love Christ, we must feed His sheep (John 21:16) and offer up the fast to God that He asked of us through his holy prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
(Isaiah 58:6-7)

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A Christian Case for Socialism

Some Christians in America have taken to raging against the threat they believe socialism poses to America and to Christianity.  They see socialism as the antithesis of all things Christian and they are not entirely off base in their fears.  Some movements and countries that have called themselves socialist have been explicitly anti-religious.  The former Soviet Union is a clear example of this.  Religious people (as well as many others, it is worth noting) were oppressed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their beliefs.  But even so, does it stand that Christianity and socialism must always be opposed?  No, it does not.  Christianity and socialism actually have much in common.

In the book of Acts, Christ’s Apostles lived in a communal way.  The book states that “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” and “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common” (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32).  Holding things in common, giving to anyone who had need, that seems very similar to the radical socialist notion of mutual aid, often expressed in the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

The accounts in Acts are born out in the Pauline and the Catholic epistles.  Paul, in 2 Corinthians, reiterates the egalitarian spirit of the early Christian commune, saying, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened;  but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality.  As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” (8:13-15).  In 1 Timothy, Paul condemns greed, proclaiming “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” before exhorting Timothy to “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy.  Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (6:10, 6:17-18).

And Paul is not alone in his epistolary encouragement of equality and charity.  James says “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (2:15-18).  Peter writes in his first epistle, “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.  As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (4:9-10).  In 1 John, we are again told “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?  My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (3:17-18).

From the Acts of the Apostles through the Epistles it is clear that the Apostles and the early Church believed that charity and a striving for material equality were requirements for being a good Christian.  However, this parallel between Christianity and socialism did not arise from Jesus’ followers, but rather from their faith in God’s teachings.  Christ himself is the wellspring for Christian socialists.

Christ, in His teachings, repeatedly condemns the rich and the accumulation of wealth.  In Luke, Christ declares “But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation” (6:24).  In Matthew He states, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (19:23-24, 6:24).  In describing the final judgement, Christ tells of how He will deal with the greedy by saying, “‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’…And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-43,46).  Christ’s wrath against greed also takes tangible form when He drives the merchants from the Temple, crying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” and “Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” (Mark 11:17, John 2:16).

By the same token, Jesus extols generosity and sharing throughout His teachings.  In Mark, He tells His followers to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (12:31).  In Matthew, He tells a rich, young man “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (25:21-22).  In Luke, He advises giving to those who cannot give back when He says, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (14:12-14).  He further promised eternal salvation to the generous, saying “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me…Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:34-36,40).

Through His teachings and actions, Jesus made it clear that to be righteous the prosperous must distribute their wealth to the poor.  This teaching was not some new innovation, but a continuation of God’s teachings as given through the Prophets, David, and Moses.  Indeed, in declaring His mission, Jesus cites Isaiah, announcing “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). As Christians, we must strive to emulate Christ’s example.

God and Evil, Isaiah 45:7

In my attempts to better understand the teachings of the Lord, I often seek out scriptural commentaries. One that I’ve enjoyed for many years is Search the Scriptures by Presvytera and Dr. Jeannie Constantinou on Ancient Faith Radio. Dr. Constantinou is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church and a Biblical scholar. Unfortunately, I often fall behind on her podcasts because either I get distracted by other concerns or she takes a long break between recordings and I forget to check to see when she releases new material.

I recently began making my way through a backlog of Search the Scripture episodes I’d missed and found her discussion of Isaiah 45:7, “ I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” to be particularly insightful. In it, using commentary from early theologians including St. John Chrysostom, Origen, and St. Basil the Great, she explains how God is not the source of evil in the world despite passages like Isaiah 45:7 and others that seem to declare God to be evil. It’s very worth a listen if you have about 45 minutes to spare while driving, doing chores, or sitting in quiet contemplation.

Give Isaiah 45:7 a listen, and if you like it, Dr. Constantinou has many more episodes to enlighten your understanding of God’s word.

Here is a direct link to the audio file of the podcast.