INTERPLAY BETWEEN GRACE AND MERIT
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ 1 CORINTHIANS 1:26-31; MATTHEW 25:14-30 ]
In the first reading, St Paul makes it clear that who we are and what we are is the result of grace alone. Indeed, we have nothing to boast about except the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He wrote to the Corinthians, “Take yourselves, brothers, at the time when you were called: how many of you were wise in the ordinary sense of the word, how many were influential people, or came from noble families? No, it was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, and to shame the strong that he chose what is weak by human reckoning; those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen – those who are nothing at all to show up those who are everything.” That is why we must not think too highly of ourselves in our accomplishments. In our pride, some of us think that we are so great and so good because we have accomplished so much in life, winning many laurels.
Yet the truth in life is that without God’s grace, we cannot do anything. If the Lord had not given us talents, such as money, health, intelligence, opportunities, contacts, mentors and good people that come our way, could we be successful in life? Without money, we cannot go for further studies or start a business. Without good health, we cannot do well in our studies or in our work. Without gray matter, we will not have the capacity to earn a degree or be creative in managing our business. Without good contacts, teachers, friends, counsellors we would not have known our talents. So all these are God-given. This is what the gospel wants to underscore in the parable of the Talents. Each one of us is given talents in life, some five, some two and some one. Why did God give others more talents than us, this is a question of grace belonging to the realm of mystery.
Indeed, it is the grace of God alone that we are saved and have become a new creation. St Paul writing to the Ephesians said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Eph 2:8-10) To the Corinthians, he said, “The human race has nothing to boast about to God, but you, God has made members of Christ Jesus and by God’s doing he has become our wisdom, and our virtue, and our holiness, and our freedom. As scripture says: if anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord.” Hence in his own life, he said “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Cor 11:30) His personal life taught him this when the Lord spoke to him saying, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, and then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9f)
Having underscored the primacy of grace, does it mean that good works is not important? There is the other extreme danger of emphasizing grace to the extent of removing merit from Catholic theology. To do so would be to contract the teaching of the Church on grace and merit. Catholic theology speaks about the reward of eternal life for those who live a good life. St Paul wrote towards the end of his life, “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Tim 4:6-8) We also have the parable of the Final Judgement when those who lack mercy will be condemned to hell. (cf Mt 25:31ff)
So how do we resolve the conundrum between grace and merit? We must begin by asserting that grace precedes, accompanies and ends in the person. From beginning to end, it is the work of grace. We are not saved by our own efforts but truly the pure grace of God alone. “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (Tit 3:4f) We do not earn grace but it is freely bestowed upon us. The psalmist says, “They are happy, whose God is the Lord, the people he has chosen as his own. From the heavens the Lord looks forth, he sees all the children of men.” We have been chosen by grace for grace!
However, grace given requires our cooperation, namely our response. The part that we play in the work of grace is simply to accept graciously the gift of God. We need to say “yes’ to His grace so that His grace can work in, with and through us. This is what the parable of the Talents is teaching us. The servants were given different amounts of talents. Having received the talents, they needed to put them to good use. The last servant was lazy and irresponsible. He received the talent, that is, the grace of God but did not use it to build himself up or for the service of others. This is the tragedy of many of us. We have received so many blessings from the Lord, of health, money, friends, jobs and opportunities. Instead of using them well for our growth and development through our service to the community, either we abuse them by neglecting to use them properly or we use them for our self-destruction.
Most of our miseries come from negligence and irresponsibility. This was why the last servant was punished severely. His master answered him, “You wicked and lazy servant! So you knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered? Well then, you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have recovered my capital with interest. So now, take the talent from him and give it to the man who has five talents. For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away. As for this good-for-nothing servant, throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.”
By not developing what we have, we eventually lose them. This is true with regard to our body. If we do not exercise the different parts of our body, we will fall sick and eventually some parts will malfunction. If we do not use our gifts of teaching, writing and singing or organizing, we eventually will lose the art as well. The best way to develop, grow and excel in what we have is to use them repeatedly, especially for the service of Church and society. Their appreciation and the meaningfulness of our contributions will motivate us to work even harder in helping others.
However, even if we are able to do good, let us not forget that without His grace in the first place, it would not be possible for us to contribute anything. The Lord does not expect us to give more than what He has given us. Hence, to the servant given five talents, only five more were expected and for the servant with two talents, only two more were expected. We are to give a hundred percent, that is, full commitment to the grace that He has bestowed on us. Happiness in life is not about how much we achieve or what we do. It is immaterial whether we produce five or two talents. That is why we need not be envious of others who have more talents. Because the more we have the more is expected from us in rendering back to society. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Lk 12:48) Rather, happiness in life is when each one of us according to our capacity fully exercises his potentials. Hence, we must complete the doctrine of grace with the teaching of St James. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (Jms 2:14,17f) St Paul says, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6)
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
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