Let’s embed a fictional story into a real place. Historical fiction, perhaps we could call it. Romania: not the Romania of today with its growing monasteries and rekindling of spiritual life, but the Romania of last century, with its Soviet occupation and long, dark Communist night. The last Communist leader before the Romanian revolution of December 1989 employed a technique to control his population that is popular among leaders who have no soul: the technique of starvation. He starved his people into submission. There is not much energy left over for overthrowing a government when you’ve been frantically searching for your first meal in 22 days.
In one Romanian village—and there were thousands suffering this same horror—farmers were down to their final supplies. One family had run out of all basic foods and were starving toward death. The priest of the village church arranged for a special prayer service of supplication to be held in the town church for that family. Many villagers came to say prayers for the family, and prayers were offered with great sincerity. While the prayer service was in progress, those in attendance heard a bit of commotion outside the front of the church. Folks turned around when they heard the creaky doors open. They saw a teenage boy from the village enter the worship space, but what really caught their attention wasn’t the boy but what the boy said.
Let’s give him a moment to catch his breath. What comes to your mind when you hear the term “works”? Many of us grew up in Christian denominations that grimace when the word is mentioned, as if works were always a bad thing—works-based religion or “works cannot save”—but the word “works” like the words “tradition” or “image” or “incense” is biblically a positive term that sometimes takes on negative connotation. Tradition is a good thing, as in 2 Thessalonians, where we are called to hold fast to it, unless tradition contains vain and worldly values, as in Colossians 2, and then we are called to avoid it. Image is a good thing, as in Genesis 1, where it refers to the life of God within each of us, unless it becomes the graven kind, worshiped instead of venerated, as in Genesis 32, and then it is seen as idolatrous. Incense is a good thing, as in Psalm 140, where it rises and is an expression of prayer, unless it is offered by those who neglect social justice, as in Isaiah 1, and then it becomes an abomination.
The term “works” is like that. Biblically, works are fundamentally a good thing that can become a bad thing. Works are physical expressions of Christian faith and values. They are the actions done by human beings who care about other human beings. In one gospel passage, our Lord Jesus mentions six works: feeding the hungry, watering the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, meeting the imprisoned (Matthew 25). To use biblical language, these are living works: deeds that are both good in themselves and done with a good motive. Love for God and love for neighbor. These are the works the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. These are the works that, without them, our faith is dead and meaningless and no faith at all.
But what happens when those same works are offered for the wrong reasons, such as vanity or to impress others or as attempts to impress God and win his favor? Then, rather than living works they become dead works: deeds that may be good in themselves but done with a wrong motive. So biblically works are not bad things; they are either living or dead, depending on our motives when doing them.
How do we know when our motives are pure? Well, we know our motives are pure when we receive personal healing from the works we do for others. Personal healing comes when we accept that our own particular pain is simply our own share in humanity’s pain. Our loneliness is just our share of humanity’s loneliness. Our insecurity is just our share of humanity’s insecurity. Our laziness is our share of humanity’s laziness. Our problem with anger is just our share of humanity’s problem with anger.
But what happens when we step out of the petri dish of our own self-centeredness to help ease the pain of another? We lighten our own pain. An old proverb says this: “When you light a torch for another, you illumine your own path, too.” When you feed the hungry, you feed your own emptiness. When you welcome the stranger, you ease your own loneliness. When we care for the sick, we take a step toward healing our own self-centered illnesses. When we visit someone in prison or in the bondage of any difficult situation, we become more free from taking everything we have for granted. When we reach out to the least of these, they are not the only ones who are changed. Your beliefs, my beliefs, are not revealed in words alone, but in deeds.
One family had run out of all basic foods and were starving toward death. The priest of the village church arranged for a special prayer service of supplication to be held in the town church for that family. While the prayer service was in progress, the villagers heard a bit of commotion outside of the front of the church. Folks turned around when they heard the creaky doors open. They saw a teenage boy from the village enter the worship space, but what really caught their attention wasn’t the boy, but what the boy said.
Outside, in front of the church, was a wagon full of fresh food: fruits and vegetables grown by a really good farmer in the town, to be given to the starving family. “My father couldn’t be here to offer prayers tonight,” the young man said, “so he sent them in the wagon.”
“All people,” says the Lord Jesus, “will know you are Christians by your love.”