Perhaps it is spiritually fortuitous that this Sunday’s standard Christian readings thematically dovetail so nicely with current events.
As much of the national news focuses on this week’s expected announcement from Donald Trump about whom he will nominate for the Supreme Court, all four readings involve themes of justice, wisdom, judgment, mercy, and kindness. Understood correctly, there are lessons in these readings for both the secular world and the world of faith.
Most sermons this week surely will focus on the famous “beatitudes,” Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in which he laid out his central teachings for how we should understand God’s mercy. We are told, of course, that “blessed are the meek,” the “merciful,” the “pure in heart,” the “peacemakers,” and so on through the familiar litany.
In a much pithier way, a single Old Testament verse from Micah (also in today’s readings) rather well encompasses the same entire message of the Beatitudes: The Lord requires us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Indeed, if one wants to sum up the entire Bible in just three very short passages, one could probably just cite that Micah verse, and Christ’s two great commandments in Matthew 22:38-39 to love our neighbor and our God, and John 3:16 about God giving his one and only son so that we may have eternal life.)
Yet, while the Beatitudes and the verse from Micah justly command attention (and each could and should inspire numerous, learned, lengthy essays and sermons), one would be remiss in not also pondering the two other readings. Psalm 15 tells us that to dwell on God’s holy hill we should “walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from [our] heart… and stand by [our] oath even to [our] hurt.” And Corinthians tells us that all “the wisdom of the world” is mere foolishness in comparison with the wisdom of God. It goes further still, emphasizing St. Paul’s favorite theme that we are incapable of achieving salvation through our own wisdom and efforts alone – and that therefore God saves us not specifically because we always do the right thing (because none of us ever does the right thing every time) but instead “to save those who believe.”
All of which leads to what appears a contradiction: We are told again and again to do good, act wisely, be humble, be generous, etcetera, but then appear to be told (at first glance) that none of this really matters because salvation comes from belief, from faith, alone.
This is not the place to review the entire “works versus faith” debate, the centuries of discord that it entailed, or the growing realization that faith and works aren’t exclusive of each other but instead can work in harmony with each other. Instead, what is important when considering these readings together is not that one or another path leads to salvation, but that Scripture taken as a whole outlines different prescriptions and different standards for different situations and different realms.
Today’s readings, on close inspection, do just that. Micah tells us that the “case” we argue for our own righteousness is wasted, just so much disputatious hot air, when matched against God’s ultimate justice – but that what God asks of us is the simpler pose of kindness and humility. The key line of Psalm 15, meanwhile, is the one demanding integrity – that we keep our oath even when it hurts us in the here and now. The letter to the Corinthians repeats Micah’s theme that all of our “wisdom” is unavailing before God. And the Beatitudes tell us that ultimate justice and mercy – God’s “blessings” – are not necessarily of this world.
The point of all of which is…. Well, what exactly?
Taken together, the lesson here is that there are two kinds of justice and wisdom, both of which should be observed, practiced, valued, and honored. There is the earthly sense of wisdom and justice, which absolutely is important to practice in this life and which does have value in and of itself. All of the good works in which we are to walk are intrinsically important for the sake of our earthly existence. They make the world a better place, and their observance and practice help purify our own souls in ways beneficial to us both in the here and in the hereafter.
Yet we should understand that even our own wisdom and justice are wanting in the greater scheme of things for which only God has understanding and for which eternity is meant. As St. Paul explains, “the world did not know God through [the world’s own] wisdom, [so] God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”
All of this has bearing, in a roundabout way, to the battle over the Supreme Court, over the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, and on the way religion and civil life interact.
Just as God approves of two different kinds of wisdom and justice, one for this transitory life and one for ever-after, so too should a just society (which the United States is meant to be) recognize that people owe dual obligations – one to our civic order and one to our faith. In other words, we not only have a duty but also a right to render only some things to Caesar but some others, quite specifically, to God. Many of our elites these days are so intent on making sure that God doesn’t encroach on Caesar’s realm that they forget the equal imperative that Caesar not encroach upon God’s.
If government, through the compulsion of the law backed by policing authority, tries to force people in their own private affairs to act contrary to their faith and religious conscience, that government has transgressed its proper role and violated our God-given rights. Otherwise we will have a society where only the rough justice of men, but not that of God, is respected.
A judicial nominee who honors this distinction – who, in other words, insists that religious liberty be protected – is the only sort of judicial nominee who allows citizens to seek, and try to observe, both earthly and heavenly justice.
Judges willing to “stand by their oath even to their hurt” are the only judges worth having. (This does not mean, by the way, that a judge is free to ignore civic responsibilities by saying a higher authority calls him, but only that a judge must stop government from violating the private realm of an ordinary citizen’s faith – even if elite opinion holds that faith is less important than the elite’s own conception of “social justice.”)
If the civic authorities do not let us seek first what St. Paul calls “the wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” then those authorities are as wrong as wrong can be, no matter what motivations they claim.
There really should exist no conflict between citizenship and faith. But if those in authority insist otherwise, we should keep the faith – and “rejoice and be glad,” as Jesus preached from the mount, “for your reward is great in heaven.”
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.