Can We Continue to Live in a Religion of Merits?

Fr. Jijo Kandamkulathy CMF

Claretian Missionaries

“Increase our faith.” It is the prayer of the disciples today. Can faith grow? If faith is reduced to the assent given to a list of truths, it cannot grow. But, if faith is growing in an unconditional trust in the Lord, it is easy to realize that faith can grow or diminish. It is the same as a child increasingly trusts in a reassuring father as an emotional connection is established based on familiarity. The trust could diminish, if the father has not been around the child during the early years of its life.

An uncertain and wavering faith is our own daily experience. We believe in Jesus, but we do not trust him totally. We do not have the courage to detach ourselves from certain habits, to make certain renouncements. Here we have a faith that needs to strengthen itself. To explain how faith must grow, Jesus employs the example of a tree. Since Jesus refers to a sycamore tree, the allusion is to its very strong roots. The roots can survive for over six hundred years, and it is very difficult to uproot them. Jesus says faith is capable of realizing something as impossible as uprooting a sycamore or to making a mulberry grow in the sea.

These miracles, that he spoke of, refer to the possibility of the transformations that can happen in our society and in the world when we trust the word of the gospel and put it into practice. For one who believes — Jesus says — no irremediable situations exist. Those who trust in his word will witness extraordinary and unexpected miracles. But Jesus also warns that just because we trust in God, it does not automatically mean we will receive rewards. So, he narrates the parable of the slave, which leaves us a bit bitter and disillusioned. After a hard day’s work, the slave returns home very tired. The master, instead of complimenting him for the service done and inviting him to sit and eat a piece of bread, demands harshly: “First, serve me, after I am satisfied, you will eat supper.”

Jesus makes use of the example to transmit his theological message. He wants to correct the Pharisaic spiritual guidance of that time (in our time too) that preached the religion of merit. They were saying that at the end of life, God will provide a remuneration based on the performance of each one. Multiplying good works: prayers, fasting, alms, religious practices, sacrifices, scrupulous observances of the commandments and precepts for meriting reward from God is Pharisaic.

God, like a master who rewards well-behaving servants, corresponds perfectly with our logic. We think it right to imagine such a God. We are not aware that we are reasoning exactly like the Pharisees. The one who practices virtues for merit puts himself at the center of his own interests, helps brothers/sisters to better one’s own spiritual life. The major trouble provoked by the religion of merit is that it reduces God to an accountant in charge of maintaining the account books and signing on the debit and credit of each one accurately. The parable wants to destroy this image of God.

Because of the idea that in doing good we acquire merit before God is far too rooted in us, we feel very uncomfortable at the prospect of having to repeat, “We are simple servants; we havedone nothing more than our duty.” Jesus does not intend to underestimate our good works. He, rather, tries to liberate us from a dangerous egoism. Jesus wants us to understand that the Pharisaic behavior of doing good works to merit a reward is foolish because all that is good is always a gratuitous gift of God and not merited by the person. St Paul says: “For who sees anything different in you? What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor 4:7).

Indebted to Fr. Fernando Armellini for textual analysis