Sunday: Being Orthodox Is Not Enough
The readings for this Sunday, the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B), explore the shortcomings of merely believing.
Catholics often emphasize the importance of being an “orthodox Catholic,” one who believes what the Church believes. That is absolutely right.
What you believe is extremely important. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, friendship with Jesus means idem velle, idem nolle (same desires, same dislikes). As Pope Francis put it in Washington, “Trust completely in the voice of the One who ‘teaches all things’.” Or as Jesus put it, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life.”
But that’s not the full story of what Jesus expects. Jesus also said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” In the great story of the Last Judgment, he doesn’t separate the sheep and goats according to their beliefs, but according to their deeds.
We Catholics can get distracted by being “right.”
A Catholic who knows his apologetics backward and forward and can defend Catholic doctrines against Protestants, pagans and dissenters can be right 100% of the time, and still be headed to eternal perdition if he doesn’t act according to his beliefs.
If you do Catholic volunteer work, it won’t take you long to meet people who struggle with one teaching or another, but quietly and consistently live upright lives that avoid sin and embrace service. There’s nothing wrong with struggling with a teaching, as long as they don’t try to convince others that the Church is wrong.
This is the kind of thing that happens in the readings today. In the first reading, the seventy elders of Israel get a dose of the Spirit that allows Moses to speak the Lord’s truth, to prophesy. But two elders, Eldad and Medad, were not where they were supposed to be. They were not being orthodox in their religion. Nonetheless, “the spirit came to rest on them also, and they prophesied in the camp.”
When Joshua objects, Moses rebukes him. “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!”
The same thing happens in the Gospel, when someone is driving out demons in Jesus’ name. One of the Apostles tells Jesus he tried to stop him. “Do not prevent him,” says Jesus. “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.”
Then Jesus broadens the definition of what “a mighty deed” is. “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.”
He doesn’t just define right behavior by good deeds. He defines it by avoiding sin. Jesus is so radically opposed to sin, he says it would be better to be maimed than to be a sinner. Worst of all, he says, is to cause “one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.”
“It would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
Here orthopraxy and orthodoxy meet. There are two ways to cause a little one to sin: One is to lead them into sin by example; the other is to teach them error or — what amounts to the same thing — to fail to teach them truth.
“Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation,” says the Catechism.
But “It is by what they have done for the poor that Jesus Christ will recognize his chosen ones,” it adds.
Blessed John Henry Newman points out that if you believe the word of God but fail to do it, it will be even worse for you.
True orthodoxy is at one with orthopraxy. As Sunday’s Psalm puts it: “The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.”
Both your heart and the heart of Jesus.