Today the word that surfaces in the scriptures is WORKS. We can hear this word as a noun such as a creative project that has been completed. Or we can hear this word as a verb, an action we can undertake.
To me, whether we think of ‘works’ as a finished project or actions to be undertaken, the word implies legacy. It is something we’ll leave behind after our lives are done. Something that makes a difference, that shapes and changes the world, even a little bit.
The Psalms extol ‘works’ as the evidence of God’s creativity and power through what our senses tell us: what we see, feel, hear, smell, taste and touch. In the New Testament, the idea of ‘works’ takes on the aspect of those actions we undertake in order to be righteous and faithful people.
Of course, whether our acts of faith can earn any portion of God’s grace has been a long debate in Christian theology, a point of division among different movements within our faiths. The debate is academically and intellectually worthy, of course, but I’m glad that I’m not ultimately responsible for these answers.
It matters whether we live ethically, of course. As for whether I can receive God’s grace because of ‘works’, that’s beyond my control. I just don’t know the answer.
We are partners in our destinies, so we shouldn’t be complacent, even if we cannot be sure of the outcome. Admittedly, I strive toward the ideal that God would find delight and joy in the way I live out my days. Yet I fall short of that ideal … well, every day.
Would I choose to live un-righteously, to live without participating in ‘works’ that are faithful, if I thought it didn’t matter to God? Would I live differently, indulgently, recklessly, carelessly, selfishly, if I thought I could live so, and still be forgiven at the end of all time? Probably not. I’d probably still be my messy self, following most of the commandments, but breaking some of them.
In contrast, do I believe that if I live ethically and faithfully, I somehow deserve more love and compassion and mercy from our Creator than someone who turns to God after a lifetime of ill deeds? After all, Jesus forgave one of the men hanging on the nearby cross at the end of his own life, as he was being crucified. We don’t know all the man’s crimes, but his newfound belief was only minutes old, his life was ending, yet he was invited into paradise with Christ.
The criminal being crucified next to Jesus didn’t have time for any ‘works’ that would help him earn God’s grace. Or did he? Perhaps his one action was his profound internal movement to form a relationship with Jesus in the brief time they knew each other.
Who deserves grace? Who doesn’t deserve grace? Can ‘works’ earn it for us? Can a life filled with the opposite of righteous works, a life measured by the atrocities and violence and oppression committed by a person, place someone beyond grace?
I confess, I have debated with my colleagues over that question earnestly, wondering if historic figures who have committed massive atrocities can ever expect forgiveness from God? I have learned that different faith traditions have different ways of understanding how God offers resolution to those who harm God’s children. The chance to form a relationship with God, to be in God’s grace, certainly starts by being remorseful and seeking forgiveness … and even then, how might one offer some form of apology and seek to atone for massive losses inflicted on whole populations? Perhaps it isn’t possible. Again, this isn’t within my control. It belongs to God.
Of course, while God’s mercy is God’s business, systems of justice and reconciliation are our human business. We have models for attempting to seek reconciliation and justice from those who oppress others and perpetuate atrocities. Even creating chances for redemption for perpetrators whose actions would seem irredeemable. Nations such as those in Rwanda and South Africa have found systems of reconciliation that allow people to remember, listen, learn from the past, confront each other, bear witness to each others’ stories, develop systems of consequences and atonement, and rebuild together. It is a slow and sustainable approach to healing.
This is certainly the work of deep faith … and humans are capable of it because of our capacity to love and hope, beyond all reason. Examples of this level of work are available through the forgiveness challenge. http://www.humanjourney.com/forgiveness/
Meanwhile, let’s return to the word ‘works.’ Again I wonder, can any of us ever earn or deserve or negotiate our worthiness to be beloved and forgiven?
We are connected, I believe, to a God that knows the best and worst about us, and loves us just as we are. That shouldn’t make us complacent. Our God always hopes for more from and for us: that we should stretch and reach toward our potential.
We are called to ‘become’ rather than just ‘be.’ From that perspective, our daily actions … our daily ‘works’ … are the place where we grow and become more fully human.
Below are excerpts from the lectionary:
- Sing to him, sing praises to him;tell of all his wonderful works.
- Remember the wonderful works he has done,his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered.
- For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say?
- Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.
- So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from work.