Our gospel is the well-known story referred to as the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The reading opens with a question posed to Jesus: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” After recounting the parable, the reading closes with Jesus asking the one who posed the question: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The man replied: “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The biblical concept of mercy (hesed in Hebrew and eleos in Greek) is rich and wide; it is always strongly connected to love, specifically love in action. St. Paul writes about such mercy as does the early Church. In the 1st century church document, the Didache, the action flowing from mercy is demanded of the Christian (5.6, 15.4); those who have no mercy on the poor are condemned (5.2). The history of writings in the church repeats these themes, always connecting mercy as flowing from the love of God for humanity. Thomas Aquinas includes mercy as a special quality of charity (Summa Theologiae I, qu. 21, a. 3). Tradition has listed fourteen specific manifestations of mercy, seven corporal works (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the stranger, visit the sick, minister to prisoners, bury the dead) and seven spiritual works (convert the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive injuries, pray for the living and the dead). You can see why many simply state that mercy is love in action.
The scholar’s question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” raises the question if there is a linkage between “doing” and “inheritance.” I would like to think that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates’ fortune, but an inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver. Yet at the end of the dialogue, Jesus does tell the person “Go and do likewise.” Is this some kind of salvation by works? And if so, what does that say about divine grace?
Clearly Jesus commands “doing” love not simply being in a state of love. An authentic Catholic understanding is not the “either-or”, i.e., do this and not that, but rather “both-and.” In the 4th century followers of the British monk Pelgius claimed that a person, apart from grace, can work out their salvation – not likely, but possible. St. Augustine rose to the defense of orthodoxy and from the 4th century onwards Catholic theology and teaching have declared “works salvation” as a heresy, outside orthodoxy.
The Church teaches that salvation is from grace alone – the grace which enables us to respond in faith and in action to the gift of God. Yes, orthodox Catholics are about “doing,” but never in the sense that we have “earned” something that then places a claim upon God, but rather compelled by the love of God, how could we but do otherwise?
It is the cost of being in love.
Image credit: The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, Public Domain.