WHAT SHALL I DO?
Do all the good you can,
The question, “What shall I do?” is heard quite often in the Bible. It often marks the occasions in which human beings encounter God. Encountering God activates the essence of our humanity. We are meant to be dynamic, not statuesque movements, not monuments. We are to impact and make a difference for the better in the given context. Even an accidental human touch, for instance, leaves fingerprints; and nothing the same thereafter. If such is the transforming power of the human touch, we can imagine how incomparably greater is the power of God’s presence. So, the words of Paul are absolutely true that he who is in Christ Jesus is a new creation.
There is always a temptation, however, to hide from our true self. It is not an accident that “hide and seek” is a universal game; and it is played not just by children. What is more, it is not only from others that we hide. We hide also from ourselves. In respect of others we wear masks. In respect of ourselves we simply shut our eyes, refusing to see who we are or can be. Physical blindness results from the refusal to see. That explains why Jesus had to come to “open the eyes of the blind”.’
In the Bible, hiding and its correlative of spiritual blindness are seen as symptoms of human alienation from God. It is natural that we do not wish to see that from which we are alienated. Our aversion is not always a reflection on the true nature of what we turn away from. It is a confession that we are in a state of alienation from the object of aversion. The spiritual problem with alienation is that it cripples our dynamism. Alienation is a state of spiritual paralysis. We cannot do any good in respect of what we are alienated from. We are left free with only what is evil. That means also that we are not free to express our true self in a state of alienation; for we are not altogether evil. In order to express ourselves fully, we need not only to speak but also to ‘do’. “Doing” has profound spiritual implications. Hence Jesus insists that we should not only hear His words but also do in accordance with them. The right to do, not less than the right to speak, is fundamental to us. Religious life devoid of “doing” what is right and righteous is profitless. We cannot worship God “in spirit and in truth” if our knowing and doing are not integrated. Escapist religiously is alien to spirituality. This was the problem with the religiosity perpetuated by the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Adam and Eve were created and commissioned to “till the land and to care for the Garden”. They stayed true to their vocation until they succumbed to sin and so alienated themselves from God. Soon thereafter they hide themselves from God. Hiding is a metaphor of alienation. But it is not only from the person and presence of God that they hide. In effect, they hide also from themselves, especially from their vocation. They cannot hide and, at the same time, do justice to their mandate to till the land and to care for the Garden. Encountering God is the very opposite of ‘hiding’. Hiding is a state of lost-ness. God comes seeking after us to rescue us from hiding. Our encountering God activates the spiritual need “to do”. This need to do is of the essence of the need to be. We cannot but “do” because the breath of God animates us. Breath is a dynamic principle. If we have no breath, or if we are breathless, we cannot do. Likewise, if we do not do anything at all expressive of our spiritual life, we can only be like the Church at Sardis: have the façade of being alive but are dead. [Revelation 3:1]
It is instructive to examine the spiritual pattern in the healing of the paralytic in this light. He was dead, spiritually. His paralysis was only a symptom. Paralysis is a state that excludes ‘doing’ altogether. He was ‘paralyzed’ not so much because his body could not move, but because his soul was frozen in sin. The body is the medium through which the soul expresses itself. Given the condition of this man’s soul, he had nothing to express through his body. He was barrenness encased in a body.
Ironically, even though his soul had no use for his body, his body could still serve as a medium for others to express their faith! Jesus responded to this situation, as Mark makes it a point to mention, with reference to the faith of the four men who brought the paralytic to Jesus. The paralytic reached Jesus on the pallet of their faith. But to encounter Jesus is to have one’s faith quickened. Faith is the stirring of the soul. It is not for healing that we need to go to Jesus; it is, instead, to quicken our faith. That faith is not make-believe. It is practical and palpable. So, the paralytic is asked to take up his bed and walk. Faith is nothing if it does not make a difference. Jesus has no use for dead faith. Faith is inherently and inevitably dynamic. “Go and do likewise” [St. Luke 10:37] is a mandate irrelevant to idol worship; whereas it is the life-breath of true faith.
Not surprisingly, the deep desire to do something that honors God and expresses our faith in Him is quite universal. Increasingly many in our midst are convinced that the greatest favor often the only one – we can show to Jesus is to build one more church. We, in fact, calibrate church-growth in terms of the number of church buildings we erect. Where there is no need for new church buildings, religious zeal is expressed by building parish halls. Admittedly, all of these are done ‘sacrificially’. And the dedication of these buildings is supposed to symbolize the renewal of the congregations concerned. The hallmark of a materialistic age, wrote Oswald Spengler some 70 years ago, is that it substitutes begetting with building. Brick and mortar structures, like Towers of Babel, take the center stage and people are nudged to the sidelines. Their plight is not unlike the plight of the people at the time of Jesus: “sheep without a shepherd”.
The flip side of all this is that religious fervor comes to be expressed entirely in the language of Mammon. A person’s standing in church circles stands almost exclusively on how much she/he gives. Giving over - much is all that we mean by ‘sacrificial’ giving. Sacrifice has only a quantitative connotation. In this process we forget Jesus’ upside-down outlook according to which the two small copper coins given by a poor widow was rated spiritually higher than the huge sums contributed by the rich in the community. This sounds so strange today! The fact remains, however that unless we stay true to this norm we could sacralize Mammon worship and invite the aberrations that go with it. The problem with us today is not that our churches are poor; the problem is that we do know what it means to ‘go and do likewise’.
The positive message in the current scenario is its underlying recognition that the dynamism of faith life entails ‘doing’ the faith, or expressing it not only through words but also through appropriate and faithful action. What is regrettable, however, is that this dynamism is understood in a stereotypical and materialistic manner. I do not mean to imply here that building churches is un-spiritual, Far from it. But it is certainly my point that equating the expression of faith exclusively with building churches is wholly and blatantly unbiblical.
We need to understand why this happens. Popular religiously at all times, and more so in this materialistic age, has been driven by considerations of gain or loss. In this age, the truth is that we fear God only because we love Mammon. Religious prescriptions are followed to the extent that they help in maximizing the gains and minimizing the loss implied in the way of life we pursue. Quite naturally, therefore, quantity of giving becomes the sole yardstick of our religiosity. This fills up the coffers of the churches, indeed of all places of worship. In this process people fail to ask who is being worshipped, or what it means to worship the living God “in Spirit and in truth”. That is not all. The obsession with places of worship, and the localizing of religiosity strictly within them, brings about an increasing disengagement with the total context in which we live. We cease to have any concerns for, and any impact on, the world around us. A crisis of irreverence stares us in the face today. Sadly, this is true not only of our churches but also of our so-called ‘missionary institutions’.
What makes ‘church growth’ as understood and undertaken today somewhat dangerous is that it becomes a substitute to ‘faith-growth’. We are growing in numbers, in material resources and in terms of all other materialistic indices of growth. But the same cannot be said about our growth towards maturity in respect of faith. Even as we swell in numbers and material facilities, we shrink as human beings. There is an alarming imbalance in our growth. All forms of imbalance are unsustainable. It cannot but bring in its wake serious problems of stability and authenticity. The more we grow in this manner, the more troubles we invite for ourselves. At least, that is one of the main lessons to be learned from the story of the Tower of Babel. The grandiose monument, attempted for a very noble reason, collapsed because it represented an imbalance between the material resources and spiritual stature of the people. They had the technology of matter but they did not have the geology of the Spirit.
Having created places of worship on the analogy of monuments we are left reinventing the Samaritan debate. The foremost question for the Samaritans and the Jews was whether God lived “on this mountain or that mountain”. Presumably God would choose the most impressive and beautiful among the various terrestrial accommodations built with the hands of men! The logical outcome of this perverse religiously is that God loses His freedom to move at will and encounter human beings in the midst of their needs. It is to this reality that Passion of Christ draws our attention. “Jesus under arrest!” Somehow, we cannot stomach the fact that God could be free and act independently of our likes and dislikes. Of course, we pray by rote “Thy will be done…” But we polarize the words and spirit of this prayer. It does not occur to us to think that to pray that God’s will “may be done on earth as it is in heaven” is also to come under the obligation to “seek” the will of God that we may understand it in truth. We degrade this profound prayer into a mantra of passivity; whereas it is a call to spiritual battle, as the life and mission of Jesus testifies.
Jesus leaves us in no doubt, "Doing the faith" is not quite the same as doing whatever we choose to, in his name or in the name of our religion. We have to do everything in His name, and in accordance with what he has taught us. He is the way. We must travel along this way and not expect Jesus to follow us, irrespective of the paths we choose. As a rule, we choose the way and expect Jesus to manage the consequences thereof. Of course, we begin our projects and enterprises with prayer but the intent of the prayer is that our will may be done without any let or hindrance.
It is necessary to realize that feverish activities do not amount to 'doing' as it is understood in the Bible. "Go and do likewise" says Jesus to the Lawyer. To 'do likewise' is to do whatever we do as neighbors. The most basic spiritual duty is to become neighbors, both to God and to human beings. In worship we become neighbors to God. In the service we become neighbors to human beings. But to be neighbors we need to love. Love marks a true neighbor. Nothing that is undertaken without love has, therefore, any spiritual merit. It is in vain that we worship or serve, unless we do both as expressions of love. Doing is integral to practicing love.
To do 'likewise' is to bring about a difference, as the Samaritan did. The Samaritan's 'doing' makes all the difference between the life and death for the wounded victim. If whatever we do is an alternative, deliberate or otherwise, to dong on this kind, we do not 'do' in the Biblical sense. We simply go through the motion of doing, without 'doing likewise'. To do 'likewise' is to do in a manner that expresses and concretizes the substance of our faith. That 'substance' is best described, in the words in the words of the Lord's Prayer as making the will of God prevail on earth as it is in heaven. We call such deeds 'works of faith'. Faith connects the Word and the world, the Kingdom of God with kingdom of man. What James means by 'faith without works' is not necessarily a way of life devoid of all activities. Faith without works includes, also, works without faith. We cannot have faith without works, without at the same time, indulging in works without faith.
Take the case of the Lawyer who sets out to 'test' and expose Jesus. (St. Luke 10:25) He is not exactly a lazy bloke. He is, on the other hand, very studious, alert and active; on the prowl to detect and disable the enemies to his religion. He knew a great deal about Judaism. The problem was that his knowing was t this fait totally divorced from 'doing' it. Faith was for him, as for many others, something to be preserved and protected, isolated from the smell and sweat of day-to-day life. For him, 'doing the faith' meant only one thing: defending it against its putative enemies. The Priest and the Levite in the story play a complimentary role. They simply showcase this faith. Between the Lawyer and the Priest / Levite there is a hidden but real collaboration. The Lawyer is the theoretician or ideologue of the religion that the Priest / Levite enforce on others. That this religiosity is irrelevant to the world of needs in which people live simply does not matter to either of them.
Religiosity of this kind develops, in due course, disrespect for 'doing'. Physical work, especially involving what is deemed 'low', comes to be despised as in the case of Brahmanism. Between this Brahmanism and Pharisaical Sabbatarianism there is an attitudinal affinity. Our idea of keeping the Sabbath 'keeping' the Sabbath, mind you, not 'honoring' it - is that in it we should avoid work! It does not matter to us that our Lord was in evident disagreement with this negative idea of the Sabbath. Jesus insisted on honoring the Sabbath; merely keeping it was insufficient for Him. Works, expressive of faith, were not incompatible with that discipline. It is noteworthy that almost half of his miracles of healing were 'done' on Sabbath days.
The outcome for the pseudo-religious disparagement of 'work', implied in our understanding of the Sabbath, is most regrettable. It degrades us into parasites. Those who do not work, according to Paul, are thieves. People of the world can be divided into two categories: works and parasites. If you are not a worker, you are a parasite. A parasite is an abhorrent creature even if he is attired in the fineries of religiosity. Paul's authenticity in preaching the Gospel lay, in part, in his discipline of earning his livelihood, even as he went around as an Ambassador of the Gospel. He was a partner with Jesus; and partners, he knew, could not be parasites. The foremost reason for the spiritual aberration of the Brahmanical order in this country is the stigmatization of work. Those who do so cannot but be deaf to the cry of truth and justice. Parasites are, by nature, below the call of conscience. They mistake hard-heartedness for their strength. They are more masks; and there is nothing in them that you can appeal to, in the name of God or man.
When 'doing' is separated from faith, religion becomes a theatre of hypocrisy. Our attitude to work is the most authentic expression of health. Those who shirk work are sick, even if they are free from illness. Jesus subjects healing to the test of work. The reason why the paralytic is asked to take up his bed and go home is quite simple. Taking up his own bed tests his attitude to work. He cannot be healed so long as his attitude to work remains negative. Till then, others carried him on this bed. He had nothing to do, if only because he wished to do nothing. That was his problem in the first place. You don't need a greater proof than this for the fact that he was dead in faith. It is impossible that one has faith and remains a parasite! A parasite is, by definition, abjectly depended on others. This rules out God-dependence. A parasite can only pretend to be dependent on God; he is, in truth, a slave of human beings, no matter how exalted his seat may be.
Faith is an activating and empowering principle. That is not all. That being the case, it is self-explanatory that faith healing has to be tested by the yardstick of work. To preach or offer healing, isolated from the world of responsibilities, is unbiblical and dishonest. Peter's mother in law, for instance, got up and served Jesus and the disciples the moment she was healed. Jesus insists on a connection between faith and work. The proof of faith is not any contrived attitude or posture, but the eagerness to 'do' something that expresses it. The blessing in 'doing' is that it roots us in the present. The alternatives to this are either a pull to the past and an escape to the future, both of which rob us of the dynamism of life. Indeed the less robust our faith is the more we are seduced by these escapist alternatives. Intensity is possible only in the present. In comparison, the past and the future are shadowy.
From Jesus' perspective, 'doing' is the proof of obedience. Saying 'Lord, Lord' proves nothing. He who does the will of God expresses the essence of his faith. This articulates the power and fruitfulness of faith. More than ever before, this is a crucial and quintessential need today. The youth of today are chafing at a substance-less faith: faith that does not express itself through works. The very vacuity of it puts them off. They seem rebellious only because they are less hypocritical than we are. We followed by force of habit, unthinkingly. They insist on being given a reason for doing what they are required to do.
It is not an accident that the missionary movement was characterized the wholesome dynamism of the biblical faith. Missionary outreach symbolized its vitality. In contrast, the tendency to withdraw deeper into the church or mission compound, embracing a mentally of besiege, is a sign of spiritual malaise. It needs to be wondered as to what is the psychology behind the craving to build bigger and more impressive church buildings. Is it an eagerness to express faith through action, or is it driven by a psychology of escalating insignificance that seeks to treat itself by improvising substitute gratifications? The less our faith is expressed through works, the more irrelevant and insignificant we are bound to feel. The more we do so, the greater will be the craving to compensate for it by showing off the impressiveness of the material accomplishments of our religion or denominations.
Readers would have noticed that the more religiosity is expressed through the magnificence of places of worship; the more churches become the theatres of power play, conflicts and petty politics. This happens because church offers scope for most people to attain and showcase any personal significance. The very earnestness, often bordering on ferocity, with which parish elections are contested, won or lost these days makes one laugh and cry at once. Unless and until Christians discover the simple truth that the world beyond the church compound offers far greater scope for incarnating one's faith this very regrettable trend is unlikely to abate. As the parable of the Good Samaritan puts it beyond any shadow of doubt, it is in the test. Significantly, it is in this context that Jesus tells the Lawyer, "Go and do likewise!"
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