I am amazed at how people often respond to various tests in the Bible. Some in the Old Testament are filled with terrible warnings and clear promises of divine punishment for breaking God’s law and covenant. But for all of these difficult and terrible texts none has ever compared, at least to my mind, with the words of our Lord in Matthew 7:21-23:
Not everyone who says to me, '”Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
The obvious seems quite obvious here. It is one thing to profess Christianity and quite another to possess Christ as one’s Lord. On the final day only one’s personal relationship with Christ will really matter. But that relationship is more than profession in the here and now, it is a life in the Spirit which produces fruit.
St. Jerome said: “There are people who have the robe of a good life” but hold to false doctrines, and there are people who are “strong in sound doctrine” but who destroy it with sinful deeds. He added, “For it behooves the servants of God that both their work should be approved by their teaching and their teaching by their works.”
Put simply, lip service is not enough. People may sound religious, even do great Christian deeds, and not have a real relationship with Jesus Christ. Words without works are worthless, to all but quote James. In fact, such words are themselves damning according to Matthew 25:31-46. Those who profess mighty faith and commitment would be shocked if these words were taken at face value. But the most truly frightful words are these: “I never knew you, Depart from me, you evildoers.” These words are stunning.
These are a warning issued by a loving God. God is love, love is his very being. But in God there is no radical distinction between his being and his divine essence, which is holy. Thus we are called into full and transformative communion with Christ. This means that every word and action of our lives should be animated by his divine life and love. Being able to perform astounding acts of power are no substitute for the inner, sanctifying love for Christ. Exterior acts of charisma are no substitute for wrong motives and the lack of grace.
Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, in his wonderful book on the Gospel of Matthew Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word (Ignatius Press), says: “The imploring noise of those who would be saved despite their indifference to God’s will is in stark contrast to the silence of those who implore God, not with words, but by reforming their lives.” (There is a second volume in this series on Matthew. These books are replete with amazing and Christ-centered insight. I treasure them.)
Carl Olson, in Our Sunday Visitor (March 6, 2011) adds, “This will of God is not that we perform mighty deeds, but that we truly live the new law given by Jesus. But in order to live this law, we have to really hear it.” I could not agree more. Thus there is a powerful relationship in Matthew 7 and 25 between hearing and doing.
So a major question this all poses to me is this: Can we listen without really hearing? This is where contemplation comes into our journey whether we call it this or not. Richard of St. Victor said, “The souls’ clear, free and attentive dwelling upon the truth [that is] to be perceived” is such a grace. We must contemplate the words of Jesus, consider deeply our relationship to him and really listen to what we hear him saying.
We are enabled to live faithfully because God’s grace allows us to listen and hear effectively. Pray that you will always hear and then do what God says. You are not ultimately saved by the merit of your good works but you must never fall into the opposite trap, believing that your works do not matter at all. If you keep these words ever before you then you can avoid both traps. This striking warning will thus serve its proper purpose, preventing us from falling into a form of profession that does not commit our souls to transformation and the works of true love.
Matthew 7:24-25 makes this even more plain when it says that Jesus’ true followers not only hear his words but listen and obey them. His message makes a real difference in their lives. Such a person is like a builder who constructs his house (life) on a rock (foundation) which will cause it to stand in the storms of life. Practicing the obedience of faith builds such a foundation of faith.