Despite What the Song Says, We Cannot Buy a 'Stairway to Heaven'

Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam Jones (24) walks off the field after a 23-10 win over the Cleveland Browns in an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

By now, we “get it.” We understand. As all of this week’s standard readings tell us, and as both Old and New Testaments tell us in plenty of other places as well, we all are called to act selflessly, to “leave [part of our harvest] for the poor,” and to “give to anyone who begs from [us],” and otherwise to show charity, compassion, and generosity to the less fortunate. Or, more simply, as written in Leviticus 19:18 and as later repeated by Christ as the second of the two Great Commandments, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

We know, therefore, what we are called to do. The question is, how best to do it? While this is no political column, it is worth noting that in all these passages, the onus is on us as individuals, through our own will — not through government compulsion — to act charitably and compassionately. This does not mean that government has no role in combating poverty, but it does indicate that we cannot substitute government action for our own private actions and pretend that we have therefore met God’s commandments. It also means we can have different opinions about whether government relief is the most efficacious means of giving aid, and about all sorts of other policy questions that have exactly nothing to do with meeting our obligations as followers of God.

Therefore, having set aside all questions of policy and politics, how, as individuals, are we called to carry out these instructions?

As is always the case when reading the Bible, context is crucial.

In Leviticus, in the Psalm, by implication in Corinthians, and in Matthew’s Gospel, all of these “love your neighbor” instructions are put in the context of following God’s entire code of conduct  — or, as the Old Testament calls it, His “commandments” or simply “The Law.”

And The Law calls us not just to give alms and then go about our business as if the alms are a separate duty unconnected with the rest of our lives. Instead, the Lord told Moses to tell the people this: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Not merely “nice”or “kind” or “generous,” but holy. That is how God prefaces all the rest of his instructions to us. The Psalm tells us not merely to obey God’s statutes, but to embrace them — to “observe it with [our] whole heart.” Corinthians tells us that we are “God’s temple,” the very home of “God’s spirit,” and that “God’s temple is holy.” And Christ, as reported by Matthew, ends a whole series of provocative commands (turn the other cheek and love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you) with this slam-bang summation: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Gee, that’s all: mere perfection. Child’s play en route to the pluperfect, right?

Of course not. We are, after all, fallen creatures. The reason we are “only human,” as the saying goes, is that we all have weaknesses, flaws, imperfections.

But God’s point is that we should strive for the perfection of true holiness (or maybe for the true holiness of perfection), meaning that in every phase and aspect of our lives we are to strive to be at one with His will and a vessel of His love. In other words, we should not merely compartmentalize our goodness. We can’t say: “Oh, I tithed this month already, so now I can go be greedy.” We can’t think: “I voted to raise my own (and all other workers’) taxes, so I can ignore the beggar on the street because government will provide.” We can’t merely sit on a volunteer board and then excuse ourselves for lies or betrayals we may commit.

Instead, everything we do is interrelated, interconnected, all part and parcel of an integral whole. Our souls must constantly be remade as hospitable places in which God can erect his holy Temple of the spirit. As part of that ongoing duty and journey and beautifully fulfilling joy, we should act with kindness and generosity and charity and forbearance and forgiveness not as an item to check off a “to do” list, but as a consistent, natural, instinctive, and reflexive way of living — as an almost automatic expression of what should be our true selves.

Of course we will fail at times. That’s what God’s grace is for, if we have faith in it. But without the true, sincere, wholehearted attempt to make ourselves holy — to live with true integrity of holiness — then we aren’t really following what the Psalm calls “the path of [God’s] commandments.”

Despite what the song says, we absolutely cannot buy a stairway to heaven, certainly not by spreading alms as a way to excuse all our other little evils. We must walk that stairway, step by step, with a willing heart yearning for a holiness always just above our reach until the day God welcomes us fully home.

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.