How to Conquer the World
We often pray for a life of tranquility, living happily ever after with the love of family and friends in reasonable comfort. So it might come as a surprise, but Christians—whether comfortable or afflicted—have an obligation in faith to conquer the world. “Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:5)
A living faith is inseparable from mercy: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:14-26)
The corporal and spiritual works of mercy summarize the duties of faith. Providing food, clothing, and shelter for the needy—beginning with our families—is a social obligation. So are visiting the sick and the imprisoned and burying the dead. Instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners, and counseling the doubtful are the obligations of parents, priests, and all leaders, great or small. Bearing with the faults of others, forgiving offenses, and comforting the afflicted requires generosity and call for uncommon graces. Praying for the living and the dead should be as routine as the sunrise and sunset.
God applies His grace to our responsive souls and, through us, to our institutions. Because of our limitations as individuals and to help us multiply the effectiveness of our good works, the Holy Spirit inspires us to institutionalize the works of mercy. He does not confer His transformative grace top-down on institutional structures, but rather individually, on our receptive souls. Institutions have worth in the eyes of God only to the extent that we mediate His graces in our work through them.
The Church as the Mystical Body of Christ has inestimable value as His spotless Bride. But hierarchical structures—to the extent they reflect the flaws of our fallen nature—do not. So Jesus inspires us to constant conversion and renewal as we share in His generous Spirit of love for the transformation of the world.
Various charitable organizations feed and shelter the poor. Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus to provide a structure for Catholic fraternal charity. Not-for-profit hospice organizations care for the terminally ill, and we contribute dollars to support such agencies. We dutifully pay taxes (not charity but lawful coercion) to ensure that nobody falls through the proverbial social safety net. But funding institutions can disguise uncharitable hearts.
Jesus pierces the veil of corrupt hearts with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee ruins his charity by taking sinful pride in it: “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” (Lk. 18:11-12) The remedy is humility: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Mt. 6:3)
Those who have custody of charitable funds may humbly maintain they are good stewards. But personal charity belongs to the benefactors of the institution. Keep this in mind the next time you pick up the lunch tab using the company expense account. The charity always belongs to those providing the financial life support, but only if the contributions are selfless.
Even when we exclude evil organizations presented as charitable organizations (such as Planned Parenthood and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), we can pervert organizations having otherwise noble purposes. When we institutionalize charity, vigilance protects good works from the effects of sin. Examples of mismanagement and abuse abound. It is particularly distressing to see some Catholic agencies entangled in government organizations promoting population control. Sometimes justice demands that we remove the financial life support of so-called charitable institutions.
Our attempts to institutionalize the Holy Spirit to deflect personal responsibility are not limited to the corporal works of mercy. We also may undermine the spiritual works of mercy through institutions. Here is an amusing fictional conversation between a high-powered New York bond trader and his daughter from “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe:
“Daddy?” “Yes, sweetheart?” “Daddy, what if there isn’t any God?” Sherman was startled, bowled over… “Who said there isn’t any God?” “But what if there isn’t?”… What insidious little troublemaker in her class had been spreading this poison?...[Sherman] had hoped he would never have to discuss religion with [his daughter]. They had begun sending her to Sunday school at St. James’ Episcopal Church... That was the way you took care of religion. You enrolled them at St. James’, and you avoided talking or thinking about religion again.
Individuals and parents may delegate their spiritual works of mercy responsibilities to institutions. But such delegation does not relieve them of their duty of continuing vigilance because God applies His grace on us, and we are His instruments.
Jesus uses a Parable of the Yeast to teach the almost invisible radical subsidiarity inherent in the work of transforming the world in Christ: The kingdom of God “is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened.” (Lk. 13:21) When we consider our sinful inclinations, the mystery isn’t so much the extent of evil in the world. The enigma is why there is so much good. The Parable of the Yeast helps us understand the disproportionate effect of good deeds and the power of God’s grace.
That all politics is local is generally true, at least during an election year. But the works of mercy that conquer the world are always personal—guided by wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
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