NB: Well, it finally happened: I missed an issue. My apologies for not sending out Wednesday’s issue. My time at Biola has been exceptionally busy, and I didn’t have the bandwidth to send it out. Today’s issue is an excerpt from my middle talk of the three lectures on justice I am delivering here.
The endlessness of charity is where our reflections must, in fact, begin. Faith and hope will pass away, while charity remains. “Hope that is seen is not hope,” Paul tells the Romans. The partial knowledge of faith will cease, he tells the Corinthians. But charity abides, and is greater than these. Charity endures into the consummation of creation at Christ’s second advent, an event that has its origins in his first. In this way, charity provides us a foretaste and a glimpse of the joys of God’s own eternal life. Charity sums up the virtues, but goes beyond them: charity never ends, never runs out, never fails. The New Testament can emphatically order the moral life around love because it has glimpsed our consummation and joy in a way the Old has not: it has seen the death and resurrection of the Messiah, and so knows in part the form charity takes.
Yet because charity endures into eternity, it orders our affections and our actions toward the blessedness and perfection of our neighbour. Charity seeks their flourishing: it takes joy in the fulfillment of our neighbor’s capacities and powers as a person who is made in God’s image. Charity honors our neighbor’s sanctity, by giving them what they need and more beside. Yet in meeting our neighbor’s needs, charity is an act of communication: it arises from the recognition of our common humanity, and gives out of a person’s own for the sake of the other’s flourishing. This gift of the person frees the other from any obligation to reciprocate: charity lends without new debts being formed, and gives without receiving. In this way, charity is disinterested: it remains unselfconscious about a possible return or reward. Love “seeks not its own,” to the point that it welcomes secrecy in its works: “Love never boasts.” “Neither let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” when giving to those in need, “lest you become like the hypocrites who practice their righteousness to be seen by those around them.” Jesus heals the sick, and then demands their silence.
The non-reciprocal gift of charity, though, is also ordered toward establishing a common fellowship between us and our neighbour—of engendering peace. The love of God shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit is the fruit of the peace with God that Christ Jesus secured for us. The peace of God is not only the cessation of hostility between us, but the security that comes from being drawn through adoption into God’s own inner life, and so being protected from every danger and harm. The peace of God is a terrible good: its absence from our lives generates sin, even as our sin destroys peace. The peace charity pursues with its neighbors is like unto this: it is a bulwark against social decay, as it secures people in the confidence that their neighbour really will do good unto them as they do good unto their neighbour. The social peace charity invigorates aims not only at the elimination of strife and conflict, but at our enjoyment of a common life and of common goods. “As much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men,” Paul tells the Romans just before proceeding to the chapter of just governance.
Live peaceably with all men, though, he says. The ‘more excellent way’ of charity quicken’s the church, uniting the members of Christ’s body in the bonds of peace. Yet the porousness of the church’s boundaries demands that we remain alive to the demands our neighbour makes upon us everywhere we encounter him. “And which one of these proved a neighbour to his fellow who fell among the robbers?” So goes Jesus’ question to those who would try to escape the injunction to love their neighbor as they love their God. The parable is well known to us, as is the point: the Samaritan’s kindness emerges through his indifference to the social and racial boundaries that prevented others from assisting their distressed neighbor. Yet the parable’s frame also limits charity’s scope in ways not often noted: “as it happened one day,” Jesus says: by chance, in the ordinary course of events, a neighbour intrudes upon the Samaritan’s course and tests his love. The scope of charity is bound by the bonds that hold us: it is governed by providence, and requires us to make peace with our near neighbors before we aid those far away. It is no accident that Jesus exhorts us in the Sermon on the Mount to leave our offering and make peace with our brother before continuing our worship.