Sunday, January 27, 2008

Monkey, Monk, Samaritan

A clash of cultures appeared in my little world today, a contrast concerning the aftermath of a life on earth, whether the actions, good or evil, of a human being, have an effect on an afterlife. The contrast came as a result of my getting up early this morning and reading some of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, or Monkey, followed by attending morning services. In the novel, on display is the Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation and a life of works that will lead to a better next life. Monkey and his troupe struggle with the concept of doing good for others, saving a king from a wrongful death, for example. They are selfish and mean, but with effort they can gather their will to do right for others. When they do right, it’s not clear why they do it. Monkey does some good works for fame, Pigsy does them for treasure. But why does the monk take on these challenges? That’s a tricky question, in part because he’s got Monkey and Pigsy (and Sandy) to do his good deeds for him. But well understood among them all is the importance of acting for others; it’s just not easy or desirable always to do.

With this concept in mind of the importance of a life of self-sacrificing acts leading to an improved state in the afterlife, with the possibility of reaching perfection, I then went to services which included a hymn that pointed to the falseness of such teaching. The hymn stated emphatically that works don’t count in salvation, that only faith matters. For my poor whiplashed mind, it was a clash, something I wonder about and something religions clash over. In your teaching, how do you make it clear that the Samaritan should stop? So it says in Luke 10: "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" The idea here is the struggle, “What must I do?”


J. Blessinger said...

Cool post, John.

For the Buddhist, purification by deed = salvation/reincarnation. For the Christian, salvation comes only by grace, but purification is a daily duty, a labor. I think that's the other side of the Christian dichotomy of faith and works that Paul tries to convey in Philippians 2:12-13, where he writes: "Therefore, my dear friends, [ . . . ] continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." One salvation, yet daily labors of love.
The same conflict is probably what drove the iconoclastic George Bernard Shaw to say, "I can’t talk religion to a man with bodily hunger in his eyes." Amen to that, anyway.

JN said...

Thanks for the comment, Justin. There are these items of faith that hang in the wind like sheets of tin lifted by gusts of reason. Paul confronts those doubts then, but it's an unsatisfactory explanation, meddling with the concept of will and attributing a portion of that will to God. So is God's will my will? My good will God's? If God's will manifests itself in my actions, then aren't we back to a matrix of human actions much like the Buddhist concept of karma? God's rule becomes dharma?

Me in my muddle, making modest sense of the monkey, the monk, and the good Samaritan.

Rev. Jonathan C. Watt said...

This is a very interesting post. You really answered the question for yourself.

>>>With this concept in mind of the importance of a life of self-sacrificing acts leading to an improved state in the afterlife, with the possibility of reaching perfection, I then went to services which included a hymn that pointed to the falseness of such teaching. The hymn stated emphatically that works don't count in salvation, that
only faith matters.

The problem is a mingling of two different issues. Salvation and good works. Salvation is a gift. Good works are for the benefit of our neighbor. The issue for Christians and good works is not one of future reward. There is no future reward for good works. Christ on the cross has taken care of the greatest need of human beings. He has restored our relationship to God. Jesus life death and resurection have secured our eternal future with him. We gain that gift through
faith that what he has done he has done for us. There is nothing we can do to make it happen or improve our relationship with God. That's God's work and his alone. He does that work through his Word. In fact, to try earn our salvation for ourselves is to insult God and reject the free gift he offers. You know what I'm talking about if you have ever had a gift rejected. "God I realize you've sent your son to die on the cross for me but I choose to earn salvation for myself." Firstly, to reject God's gift is to reject the giver. Secondly, we can't possibly earn salvation because we can't be perfect.

The purpose of self-sacrificeing good works for Christians is NOT an improved afterlife, or even to gain God's favor. We do self-sacrificing good deeds for the sake of our neighbor to the glory of God, in response to his free gift of salvation. One theologian put it this way. "God doesn't need your good works, but your neighbor does." In other words we are FREE to serve our neighbor simply because he has needs. Anything else is not self-sacrifice, only paying now for future rewards, i.e. trying to earn God's favor. The bonus is that as we serve our neighbor, life is better for him and us right now.

That's what St. Paul means when he says,

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Eph 2:8-9

Grace here is God's undeserved love. We can't earn it. The boasting he's talking about is either to ourselves or to God. Walking in good works that God prepared is to live a life of service for others simply for their sake.

When the rich young man comes to Jesus he asks the wrong question. The answer to "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" is "nothing, it is the free gift of God." He actually comes close in the question itself. No one can do anything to "inherit" anything. Inheritance is passed down in a family, you don't earn it. In answer to his question Jesus gives him the impossible task. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. He claims to have done that. No human being is capable of that feat. (See Jesus teaching on the commandments, salvation by works requires perfection Matthew 5, esp v 48) Jesus pushes it up a notch. Just one more thing, sell everything and follow me. Jesus pushes him to the breaking point. Jesus is telling him that he can't possibly EARN eternal life. He still doesn't get it. He leaves Jesus with the gift at hand but he rejects it. He wants to earn his own salvation. The disciples see it. A few verses later they ask, "who then can be saved?" Jesus answer, "for human beings it is impossible, but not for God." In other words, it's God's work not ours.

The dicotomy that you've run up against isn't a cultural one it is the difference between Christianity and every other religion.