This debate has come up in the comboxes on this blog in two different ways: The first is with a reader who is a Catholic but asserts that what is most important are the good works people do. Catholic belief, attendance at Mass, practicing the sacraments–all that is secondary. Better to be a good pagan than a bad Catholic.
The second way this same viewpoint has come up is from a couple of Mormons who like to remind me that “by their fruit you shall know them” which is a gospel quote which means, “See how nice and kind and respectable and hard working and patriotic and wonderful these Mormons are? Their religion must be true.” Both of these viewpoints would seem to be common sense, and they appeal to the public, after all, don’t we all know bad Catholics who are hypocrites, and isn’t it really better to behave well than to hold to some arcane belief and be a stinker?
Then at Mass this morning we had this gospel: Jesus had just fed the 5,000 and walked on the water and the people were all excited. They wanted to know how he did the miracles. They were impressed with the signs. He was showing some pretty impressive “fruit”. They wanted more from him, and they wanted to do that stuff too.
He pops their balloon and says:
“Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.
For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”
So they said to him,
“What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
Let’s take this apart line by line: “Do not work for food that perishes.” This is not just telling them not to be concerned about money or how to make a living. This is telling them that the obvious work here in this world that we think is so important and so vital–the work of making the world a better place and all that–it’s a food that perishes. It won’t last. Go ahead and make the world a better place, then you’ll die and the next generation of sinners will mess it up again.
“Instead work for the food that endures to eternal life” or as he says elsewhere “Seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else will be added to you.” In other words, get your priorities right. Work for the next world and you’ll end up making this world better despite yourself. Work for this world and you might just lose this one and the next.
“The food that endures is the food that the Son of Man will give you.” Here’s where it gets interesting. These words are part of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, and are the beginning of what is called the Bread of Life discourse. This passage from verses 22-59 discuss the “sign” that Jesus will give for them to believe. It is the sign of the Bread from Heaven–which is his body and blood. This is where he says, “I am the Bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world…whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”
“So they said, ‘What must we do to accomplish the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them,”This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
Straight from the gospel: Belief in the Jesus Christ the Son of God who is the Bread of Life. That’s how you accomplish the works of God.
A religion that does not proclaim Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God, yet claims to be a Christian religion is a false religion. It teaches other than the simple truth that Jesus Christ himself taught.
A religion that claims to be a Christian religion but denies the truth of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus himself claims that he is the Bread of Life and that his flesh is the bread that comes down from heaven and that anyone who eats that flesh and drinks that blood will have eternal life and those who do not do so do not have life within them–any religion that claims to be a Christian religion and denies these truths does not do accomplish the works of God.
They might do good works and they might be nice people, but they’re following a religion of their own invention and are trusting in their own good works–which according to all orthodox Christian theology–will get them nowhere.
UPDATE: Mark Shea comments more forcefully on Mormonism being bogus here. Mark’s point is that Mormonism is an answer to a non existing problem: they say Mormonism is the ‘real’ church of Jesus Christ to replace the one which went bad long ago. This is a common thread throughout American revivalism–especially that of the early 19th century. It has a name. It’s called Primitivism: Here is an article I wrote some time ago for This Rock magazine called The Problem with Primitivism. I encourage you to read it.