If the various sayings of Jesus in the Gospels are accurately reported, there are times when he seems to have contradicted himself. I am not speaking of the fact that the things said by Jesus in St John’s Gospel are often very different from those attributed to him in the other three Gospels; nor am I referring to the way in which a particular saying is often reported slightly differently by the various Evangelists. I am referring to the way in which the same Evangelist attributes two or more apparently irreconcilable sayings to Jesus one after the other in quick succession.
For instance, in the fifth chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven;” while in the next chapter he tells them to “Beware of practising your piety before men in order to be seen by them…Thus, when you give alms, let not your right hand know what your left hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secrecy; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Admittedly, those two chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel consist of a great collection of the sayings of Jesus, each of which was probably said in a very different context from the others. But even so, how can we try to obey them both? How can we both let our light shine all over the place so that everyone can see us furiously doing good works as publicly as possible, and beware of even allowing our right hand to know what our left is doing in case someone might notice what we are up to and say ‘Gosh! Look at him! isn’t he super?’ In fact, of course, the contradiction is more apparent than real; for what we are bidden to do is to let our light so shine before men that they may glorify - not us - but God; while what we are warned against doing is parading our good works before men in order to make them praise us, not God. Religious one-upmanship is out.
Now, it is all very well to say that the contradiction is more apparent than real, as if that settled the matter and the problem was solved; but I’m afraid that it is far from being either settled or solved. In fact, the problem of how to live a life of faith in God while still devoting much time to good works has divided the church from the beginning. Nearly all the first Christians were Jews, who had been brought up to believe that the prime duty of a religious man was to obey the Law delivered by God himself to Moses on Mount Sinai; every aspect of daily life was regulated by law - the kosher food you could eat and that which should not pass your lips, what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath, how much of your income should go in almsgiving to the poor, and so on.
If you obeyed all these laws - and there were thousands of them; I have only described the tip of the iceberg - you clocked up a religious credit account with God, and were assured of his favour; while, if you failed, he would have no use for you. Thus, by doing good and pious works you earned your own eternal salvation; God simply responded. Since habit dies hard, the first Christians continued to behave as though all this were still true, even though Jesus himself had inveighed against this kind of behaviour again and again, and it took St Paul to remind the church that people did not earn their own salvation; it was the gift of God. ‘By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.’ he told the Ephesians. In the whole event of Christ, God had shown that he loved people as a father loves his children, and children don’t have to spend their whole time building up a credit account with a father who already loves them. It was nonsense. Instead, they should love him in return, trust him, and, of course, hope to please him by behaving as they know he would like them to behave - by loving - and helping each other for instance.
It all sounds magnificently obvious when set out by St Paul with his usual ability to go to the heart of the matter; but the fact that something is glaringly obvious has never stopped human beings from behaving as though they could not see it and were as blind as bats. As everyone knows, the Reformation in the early sixteenth century was triggered off by such men as Martin Luther and John Calvin, who believed that the medieval Church had got the whole business of faith and works wrong all over again, teaching men and women that they could earn their eternal salvation by attending Mass, by making their confession, and not only by supporting the church financially but actually by buying God’s forgiveness with money in the form of Pardons, Indulgences, and the like from the Priests. Luther a Catholic Priest and Augustinian monk, was so disgusted by what he took to be the corruption of the Church and its abandonment of the central truth of the gospel of God’s love that he rose up in revolt and proclaimed that man’s salvation was to be had by faith in God and his love alone and by no other way; good works would never get any man or woman to heaven. ‘Heresy!’ not surprisingly cried the Catholic Church as loudly as it could, ‘Faith which does not issue in works - which does not produce any fruit - is not faith at all.’ Then, quietly, it began to clean up its act without, of course, admitting that it needed to do so.
At this point, some of you may be thinking that all this is very interesting - or maybe very dull - but what has it got to do with us? Well, it might be a good idea to ask ourselves whether we, too, sometimes fail, as so many of our predecessors seem to have failed, to live up to Christ’s teaching about the proper place of both faith and works in our lives. How can we be sure that we practice what we preach?
I was told a story years ago of a Sunday School teacher - a good, loving, Christian woman - taking a class of six and seven year-olds. She was telling them the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. You all remember it. the Pharisee, a classic example of someone clocking up a credit score with God, prayed with himself, reminding God - and since the Jews prayed aloud - telling everyone else within earshot how well he was doing, fasting, alms-giving, and so on, and ending by thanking God he was not like other men, especially not like the publican. The publican, who knew himself to be religiously a dead loss, simply prayed, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner;’ and Jesus praised the publican and not the Pharisee. The children listened spell-bound, as children do, and at the end the teacher said, “All right, children! Stand up - hands together - eyes closed! Now, let us thank God that we are not like that horrid Pharisee!”
It is easy to laugh, but how can we be sure that we don’t fall into the same trap? The Pharisee was sure that he was right to pray as he did; the teacher was sure that she was right to say that the Pharisee was wrong, and to tell the children to start their innocent little religious lives with a prime piece of pious one-up-manship; and so perhaps the answer to my question.
How can we be sure that we are doing any better than the ancient Pharisees, sixteenth century Lutherans, medieval Catholics, or modern Sunday School teachers?, is that we can’t; and paradoxically the best way of making sure that we avoid being sure of our own religious perfection is by comparing ourselves with someone else - one of the saints, for example - or perhaps Mother Teresa of Calcutta. If there is anyone who seems to know how to let her light so shine before men that they glorify God as a result, it is Mother Teresa, even though she has had fame forced upon her.
Born into a Catholic family in Albania, a Moslem country by religion and until recently, Communist politically, on reaching maturity she became a nun. I believe that she was posted to Northern Ireland, but I am not sure of my facts at this point. What is certain is that later she was sent to India, where she worked in Calcutta, one of the most crowded and derelict cities in the sub-continent. She was not a member of an enclosed Order, and so she used to go about the city on various occasions and errands of mercy. It is said that one one such occasion, late at night, she was returning to the Convent, when she passed one of the city’s largest rubbish dumps, upon which was thrown the refuse of the city - filth of all sorts, rotting vegetable waste, the corpses of dead cats and dogs, and even human excrement - and as she did so, she heard screams, groans, and obscene gurgling noises coming from someone or something on that huge stinking heap of muck.
She was so frightened that she picked up her skirts and ran; but she did not get far. Out of breath and still shaking with fear, she stopped. “I heard a voice in my head,” she told people afterwards, “saying ‘You are running away from Christ.’” So she went back, and found a woman, emaciated, skeletal, and dying. She had been thrown there by her son as being of no further use to him or anyone else - not worth feeding any more - a bit of human garbage to be thrown away amongst the dead dogs and other waste products of Calcutta’s slums. Mother Teresa picked her up, and somehow managed to take her home to the Convent where she cared for her until she died. She has been doing much the same ever since, founding a new Order of Sisters, who help her to do; help her to collect, to nurse, to love, and to enable other bits of the world’s human rubbish - other images of God, other little forgotten Christs - to live or to die, whichever might be the will of God. In so far as we do whatever we do to the least of his brethren, Jesus is reported as saying, we do it to him; and the reason why Mother Teresa’s good works shine so luminously before men that even Hindus, Moslems, and European agnostics, who are not usually very impressed by Christians, glorify God, is that she has taken that saying seriously, treating all her fellow human beings as if each of them was Christ himself.
We can’t all be Mother Teresas, and we don’t all live in Calcutta. But we all live in places where, if dying women are not thrown away on municipal rubbish dumps by their grown-up children, there are always people who feel that they have out-lived their usefulness - their biological usefulness or their social function or both - lonely, bereaved, suffering and rejected people, who desperately need to be treated as valuable, as the children of God which they are, even if, unlike that woman dying amongst the waste products of Calcutta, they are probably too inhibited to cry for help. And if we can’t all be Mother Teresas, we can try to remember that such people are about the place - every place - and are images of God, and treat them that way. If we do that, we need not worry too much whether our right hand knows what our left hand is doing or how strongly our light is shining or not shining before men. God will look after both the one and the other for us.