There are people, observed St. Jerome, “who have the robe of a good life” but hold to false doctrines, and there are people who are “strong in sound doctrine” but who destroy it with sinful deeds. “For it behooves the servants of God,” he wrote, “that both their work should be approved by their teaching and their teaching by their works.”
Put another way, lip service is not enough. Words without works are worthless. Worse, they are damning, as Jesus bluntly stated in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount in today’s Gospel: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?” That “day” is the day of judgment, which Jesus spoke of in detail prior to his passion, in his famous parable of the sheep and the goats (see Mt 25:31-46). Those professing of mighty deeds performed in the name of Jesus will be shocked to find themselves cut off from eternal life: “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.”
The stunning nature of these words simply cannot be softened. They are a warning, not given out of harsh anger but from divine love — a love for truth and a love for mankind. God, of course, is love. And in God there is no distinction between being, or existence, and being holy, his essence.
Since we are called into full and transforming union with God, our very being — not just our words — must be holy. This means that every word and action must be animated by divine life and love, which is what it means to do the will of our heavenly Father. Being able to perform astounding, even miraculous, deeds is not proof of inner, sanctifying life, for they can result from exterior, charismatic graces. And while people with wrong motives can use those charismatic graces, they cannot hide those motives from the giver of grace.
“The imploring noise of those who would be saved despite their indifference to God’s will,” writes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis in “Fire of Mercy, Heart of the World” (Ignatius Press, $31.95), “is in stark contrast to the silence of those who implore God, not with words, but by reforming their lives.” This will of God is not that we perform mighty deeds, but that we truly live the new law given by Jesus. But in order to live this law, we have to really hear it.
Thus the emphasis in both this passage and Matthew 25 on the powerful relationship between hearing and doing. “Everyone who listens to these words of mine,” Jesus said, “and acts on them will be like the wise man who built his house on rock.” If we only hear and do not act, the house we build on sand will collapse and be ruined. If we only act based on our understanding, without really listening, we put ourselves above the will of the Father and fail to be an obedient child of God.
We know it is possible to listen without really hearing. Contemplation is a grace, “the soul’s clear, free and attentive dwelling upon the truth to be perceived,” according to the mystic, Richard of St. Victor. By contemplating the words of Christ we then grow in our ability to trust more deeply in the person of Christ, who is our rock and sure foundation. The Lord, speaking through Moses, said, “Take these words of mine into your heart and soul.”
The Lord Jesus exhorts us today to do the same, for he is the rock we must build our lives upon. His words are the wisdom that informs our teaching and guides our works so that both might be approved.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.