13th Sunday of Year A
Why perform works of charity?
Why do I perform works of charity? Is it so that I may receive a reward from God? Perhaps I am after the ultimate reward, that my good works will earn me the way into heaven? The First Reading tells the story of a woman who was kind to Elisha, a prophet of God. In return for her kindness, God granted her a child. In the Gospel, our Lord seems to provide further support to the notion of doing good works for reward, when he said, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous” (verse 41).
In contemplating the virtue of good works vis-a-vis the expectation of a reward from God, the message from the First Reading and Gospel seems to contradict the parable of the Unprofitable Servant (Lk 17:7-10). The parable explains that in serving the Lord, we should adopt the attitude of the Unprofitable Servant and not expect anything in return, for “we have done only what we ought to have done” (Lk 17:10). Further, in St Paul’s pilgrimage journey, he adopted the same attitude. While his preaching was deeply appreciated by the people, he did not want to accept financial rewards from the people, toiling night and day to provide for himself (1 Th 2:9, 2 Cor 11:9). The truth is, it is detrimental to our faith to perform works of charity with an expectation of earthly pay-backs. Such an attitude can be a threat to our development of a healthy faith. Why?
Firstly, while God does grant us earthly rewards, earthly rewards are never a guaranteed outcome. Otherwise, what are we to conclude if the earthly rewards are not awarded to us? Do we then deny God or His goodness? Secondly, the expectation of rewards undermines the mercy and unconditional love of God. We risk creating a secularising version of God by applying the values of our secular world on Him. We develop the mistaken notion that good work is essential in gaining God’s heavenly favours. What is then to become of a wicked man who repents and accepts Christ on his death-bed? Will God abandon him just because he does not have a chance to perform works of charity? Surely not!
One might then ask, if God is merciful and his love unconditional, why do we bother performing works of charity at all? After all, our good works do not “earn” us anything, right? St James explains it this way, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (Jam 2:14-17) That is right, faith without works is dead. Works of charity are faith in action. I cannot claim to have faith but does not perform works of charity. If my faith does not manifest in works of charity, then my faith is either disingenuous or shallow at best.
We live a in selfish world, where many are so preoccupied with their own welfare and comfort that they become blind to the afflictions of others. Beyond being a manifestation of our faith, as the body of Christ, our works of charity are the hands of Christ reaching out in love to humanity. Works of charity, whether it is undertaken by individuals, charities or religious organisations, are a bright spark in an otherwise cold world. My works of charity are active acts that bring the love to God to those I meet.
Our works of charity are the outreached hands of Jesus to the world. Hence, in performing works of charity, there is perhaps no better example to follow than our Lord Jesus. Did our Lord perform miracles so that people would praise him, admire him or reward him in some way? No! Our Lord performed works of charity so that the people can encounter the love of God. As disciples of Christ, we are called to follow in the footsteps of our Lord. It is true, going out of our way to help another person is not without personal cost. The secular world tells us that it is silly to incur a cost without expecting something in return. But this is precisely what our faith calls us to do. The Second Reading explains that when we were baptised into Christ, we were also baptised into his death” (verse 3); and “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (verse 4). To love another to be prepared to make a personal sacrifice and die to ourselves for that person. And the highest form of love is agape, i.e. the unconditional love of everyone, including strangers. Each time I reach out to a person in need, we inject a sense of newness into my life and that person’s life.
So, let us re-examine the message of the First Reading and the Gospel. In the First Reading, the woman’s kind act to the prophet Elisha was not motivated by an expectation of a reward. Like the unprofitable servant, she was just doing what her faith calls her to do, injecting a sense of newness into the prophet’s life. In the Gospel, our Lord teaches that welcome a prophet or righteous man is a way of welcoming God (verse 41). When it is true faith in action, our motivation is not the expectation of a reward, but the propagating of God’s love. Where am I in my faith life with respect to good works? On this day, the Lord is urging me to put my faith into action and bring His presence to the world. If I am doing good works for the wrong reasons, let me realign my action to my faith, so that I may truly be a disciple of our Lord Jesus. To love like Jesus does. Amen!