July 4, 2020

Right Hand and Left Hand: Meeting both Material and Spiritual Needs

This is the last of a three-part series Martha began this morning looking at the relationship between justice and charity and mercy, and how our actions in these ways affect our salvation. So far she has been challenging and encouraging as only Martha can be. Let’s read together and see how she concludes this topic.

And so finally we get near to approaching a point.  Up to now, I’ve talked about the corporal works of mercy, but the spiritual works are equally important. It’s a balance, and you can’t have one without the other.  Right hand and left hand, or two eyes, or two lungs.  The spiritual needs of poverty must be addressed as well as the material needs, and indeed, one may be spiritually poor while materially well-off, and never realise one’s poverty.  It is a dangerous imbalance to concentrate on just one component and neglect the other; this leads to the error on the one hand of the misappropriation of social justice teaching, where it is hijacked to mean trendy causes such as the Millennium Development Goals; which, while admirable in themselves, are not the whole of the Law and the Prophets; in 2006, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church declared the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be the top mission priority of the Episcopal Church.  Top mission priority?  Really?  Above preaching the Gospel?

Or the creation of “Environmental Stations of the Cross”; I wish I was joking about that last one, but no: apparently Gaia, not Christ, is being scourged and crucified.

Or the excesses of Liberation Theology, where the “theology” is minimized and the “liberation” is emphasized so that the ensuing politicization led to admonishment by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1984 and 1986 for the inclusion of “Marxist concepts.”  Again, the concept is not wrong or erroneous, but the excessive emphasis on ‘this world’ concerns above all else and consequent skewing towards radical political action and the importance of the State tipped certain proponents into error.

The blunder on the other hand leads to what the late Michael Spencer characterized as “wretched urgency,” where souls are treated as notches on the (Bible) belt and salvation becomes a matter of shoehorning the question of “are you saved?” into every possible human interaction, having neatly-encapsulated points and killer verses to use in order to browbeat an admission of sinfulness out of the potential convert, a slick recital of a “Sinner’s Prayer” with or without “walking the aisle” and perhaps a dunking, before you move on to the next victim.

Or the attitude described in the Epistle of James: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”  If your fear of “works righteousness” holds you back, then you are lacking.

Okay, I can hear you faintly murmur “Luther” and yes, you’re correct.  He was correct –to a degree – in his condemnations.  The works of mercy are not a check-list by which we tick off the boxes of almsgiving in order to Tippex over our sins and faults, bribing our way into Heaven.  The Scrovegni Chapel is a tiny jewel of the finest 13th century art, with a fresco cycle on the life of the Virgin by Giotto.

And every art reference book or website will not neglect to mention that, to quote Wikipedia:

The chapel was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, whose family fortune was made through banking.  At this time charging excess interest when loaning money was considered to be usury , a sin so grave that it resulted in exclusion from the Christian sacraments, and many early bankers were concerned lest their trade jeopardised their souls.  It has often been suggested that Enrico built the chapel in penitence for his father’s sin of usury and to obtain absolution for his own.  Enrico’s father Reginaldo degli Scrovegni is one of the usurers encountered by Dante in the Seventh Circle of Hell.

Now, recent opinion is moving away from this view, so maybe it’s not totally an example of “cash for souls” but sorry, Reginaldo and Enrico, you can’t buy your way out of this pickle.  You cannot be a grasping miser and expect to get off just by donating a pile of money at the point of death to expiate your (or your forefathers) sins.  To quote Aquinas again:

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. xxxv, 2): “Give alms from your just labors. For you will not bribe Christ your judge, not to hear you with the poor whom you rob . . . Give not alms from interest and usury: I speak to the faithful to whom we dispense the Body of Christ.

Remember the definitions and distinctions we made above between charity and mercy?  Good works on their own do not have any merit.


According to 1 Corinthians 13:3: “If I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor . . . and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”

To the saying (Colossians 3:12): “Put ye on . . . as the elect of God . . . the bowels of mercy,”, (he) adds (Colossians 3:14): “Above all things have charity.”  Therefore mercy is not the greatest of virtues.

(W)herefore Our Lord says (Luke 14:12): “When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy neighbors who are rich, lest perhaps they also invite thee again.”  (In other words, no tit for tat, no ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, no cash for favours, no donations in expectation of favours, no buying salvation).

Dorothy Day:

It must not be forgotten that the works of mercy demand more than a humanitarian basis if they are to serve as instruments in bringing about our eternal salvation.  The proper motive is indispensable and this must be one drawn from the supernatural order.

If we do not keep indoctrinating, we lose the vision. And if we lose the vision, we become merely philanthropists, doling out palliatives.

A spiritual work of mercy – instructing the ignorant – ties in with charity, which is (as Aquinas defines it) the work of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Benedict XVI, from his homily on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, 9th January 2012, baptismal Mass:

It is very important for you parents and also for you godfathers and godmothers to believe strongly in the presence and the action of the Holy Spirit, to call upon him and welcome him in you through prayer and the sacraments.  He is the one in fact who enlightens the mind, who makes the heart of the educator burn so that he or she knows how to transmit the knowledge of the love of Christ.

But before you get too comfortable and all “Aha!  Works avail nothing!” let me conclude with this: yes, they do.  There is the mediaeval pious legend about Judas in Hell, where all his body is covered in flames except for his left foot, and when the visionary asked why this was, he was told that in life, Judas had done one good deed, using that foot to push a bundle of hay into the reach of a starving lamb.

Sirach 29:15: “Shut up alms in the heart of the poor, and it shall obtain help for thee from all evil.”


Gregory says (Nom. in Evang. ix): “Let him that hath understanding beware lest he withhold his knowledge; let him that hath abundance of wealth, watch lest he slacken his merciful bounty; let him who is a servant to art be most solicitous to share his skill and profit with his neighbor; let him who has an opportunity of speaking with the wealthy, fear lest he be condemned for retaining his talent, if when he has the chance he plead not with him the cause of the poor.

(A)ccording to Hosea 6:6 “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God more than holocausts” and Matthew 12:7: “And if you knew what this means: I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: you would never have condemned the innocent.”

(A)ccording to Hebrews 13:16: “Do not forget to do good and to impart, for by such sacrifices God’s favor is obtained.”  [We can get the favor of God by doing good works?  And it’s Paul who says this?? What kind of crazy Catholic Bible was that Aquinas guy reading, anyway???]

The preacher John Mirk (an Augustinan canon of the late 14th century) warned his congregations about the role of the poor at the Day of Judgement:

Thys, good men, ye shull know well that yn the day of dome pore men schull be domes-men wyth Cryst and dome the ryche.  (Thus, good men, you shall know well that in the day of doom, poor men shall be dooms-men (judges) with Christ and doom (judge) the rich).

This even applies in cases where we say (with more or less justification) “Oh, but I never give money to beggars on the streets; they would just spend it on drink and I can’t be responsible for aiding someone to harm their health and their soul”.  Yes, we have a duty to be prudent with our resources and it is legitimate to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor, and there is a long, grave list of the uses and duties of Church and Social charity in the “Catholic Encylopedia”.  It is also that attitude which resulted in the phrase “cold as charity”, which should shame us all, since charity is a roaring furnace of Divine love, hotter than the sun.

Give strong drink to him who is perishing,

and wine to those in bitter distress;

let them drink and forget their poverty,

and remember their misery no more.

Open your mouth for the mute,

for the rights of all who are left desolate.

Open your mouth, judging righteously,

maintain the rights of the poor and needy. ~Proverbs 31: 6-9


G.K. Chesterton, from “Heretics” (1905) Chapter XII:

It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice.  It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them.

Man does not live by bread alone, but we shouldn’t forget the bread either; once more, Aquinas puts it pithily:

(A)s the Philosopher [this means Aristotle] observes (Topic. iii, 2), for a needy man “money is better than philosophy,” although the latter is better simply.


  1. Martha,
    Thank you so much for these beautiful and thoughtful essays.

    • Thank you, Pilar. I am flattered by the kindness of everyone who comments, even those who disagree or want to raise further points. That’s the main aim of these discursions; to get the discourse started and draw out others opinions and their valuable insights.

      That, and trying to make people laugh with bad jokes.

  2. So much good sense and wisdom here but I can’t shake the sense of emotional danger lurking in the wings. Does a preoccupation with ‘works’ feel like part of the lightness of being that Jesus promises believers? Anyone else here already feeling a bit guilty and miserable that we might have stolen those clothes and shoes we have not worn much lately, from someone else? Perhaps fallen behind a bit on the admonishment of sinners other than our own kids?

    It’s easy to mock e.g the Episcopal church for placing MDG on a pedestal but they are actually doing the work through relief projects and feet on the ground. That might not mean much in the Vatican but I suspect it does in the affected communities. What does the Gospel look like when it gets legs? How does it talk and think?

    And is quite so much emphasis on “salvation” as something mainly experienced after death, really helpful, or just running our fingers along the sharp edges of a Church with a long sad history of spiritual and emotional abuse, in both Catholic and Protestant forms?

    Ah well, that’s me, always with the questions.

  3. Works, I guess I’m damned if I do for the wrong reason and damned if I don’t for any reason. If I worked hard and was successful I stold it all., but Jesus will save me PTL.

  4. I have loved this series, Martha. Thank you.

  5. Great series, Martha. It is no easy task to explain the Church to those who don’t know and love Her……but, since the gates of hell have never prevailed, it is safe to say that our job is to edify, not convert.

  6. I appreciate that you wanted to share this series with us, Martha. I know that you have sincere intentions and desire the good and betterment for those around you.

    It’s not that those of us (who have problems with this way of living out the Christian life) want to be naysayers to spoil a party. We don’t want to ever convey that we are better in any way, or that Catholics or Evangelicals (who basically have the same theology of a lot of God and a bit of me) are somehow not really Christians. That’s ridiculous.

    It’s just that we want to say, along with St. Paul who first said it, that “there is a more excellent way.” Christ and His finished work…alone. Trusting, and living out life in the freedom of the gospel. Doing what we can for the neighbor, when we can, however we can, and knowing that we will often fail, but that it is all tied up un Christ and His forgiveness of sins.

    Thanks for your presentation. Please take our criticisms in the spirit for which they were given. A sincere desire to lift up Christ Jesus, and His gospel, and for the freedom of God to be God (and love real sinners), and the freedom for which He so wants His children to have.

    • Mr. Martin, may I suggest, as a former Lutheran, now Catholic, that no comments here more consistently express what I heard taught in the synods than do yours.

      • It’s interesting that one can find both the high road of walking daily in Spirit, truth, and love and the low road of cold legalism in all churches and church institutions, be they Protestant or Catholic.
        And as much as I despise legalism and rule mongering, I have to admit that the whip of religious law helps to keep me reminded of how much better it is to live inside that place of mercy and grace that is accessed by chosen obedience arising from genuine love, repentance, and thankfulness.
        And maybe it’s a healthy thing to get flogged by the law now and then. Maybe that’s one way we can share in His sufferings.

  7. Yes indeed. This ‘Christ alone’ espoused by Luther is a very difficult theology to hang onto. It is always under seige by those who feel that we must have a role to play.

    I know a great many Lutherans who have a lot of trouble with it.

    But, in every generation there are some who hold to the truths that St. Paul preached and taught, and who many good Catholics (through the years) also have preached and taught.

    Thanks, much.

  8. I find it interesting, Martha, that your extensive and insightful (not to mention amusing) treatise received only a few comments as compared to the recent blogs on church discipline. Is it that most of us are overwhelmed and perhaps a bit intimidated by the vast storehouse of church history retained by the Orthodox?

    “Thys, good men, ye shull know well that yn the day of dome pore men schull be domes-men wyth Cryst and dome the ryche.” Now that’s Olde English!

    As I read your offering, I thought of the passage from Revelation 19: “Then I heard what sounded like the roar of a huge crowd, like the sound of rushing waters, like loud peals of thunder, saying, “Halleluyah! ADONAI, God of heaven’s armies, has begun his reign! Let us rejoice and be glad! Let us give him the glory! For the time has come for the wedding of the Lamb, and his Bride has prepared herself – fine linen, bright and clean has been given her to wear.” (“Fine linen” means the righteous deeds of God’s people.)” [CJB]

    And I wondered if the “righteous deeds of God’s people” are perhaps the wedding garment neglected by the man in Jesus’ parable who was tossed out of the wedding feast.

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