Do Good, for God is God: Our Exceptionless Duty to Care for Our Neighbor

“Do good, for God is God”: this is how the great Spanish playwright, Calderón de la Barca, sums up the drama of human existence in his important play of 1648, “The Great Theater of the World.”

Whether one goes to heaven or hell has everything to do with how one treats the beggar in the play. And in this, Calderón distills much of the lesson from yesterday’s Mass readings.

As we meditate further on these readings, I would particularly like us to think about what they entail in terms of the principles that must guide our common deliberation, as American Christians, about immigrants and refugees. I have staked out a particular position on these matters in other places. Here I want to focus on the principles, in the hope of fostering consensus.

In the first Mass reading from Leviticus, we have Moses presenting the Law under the overarching command and purpose: “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy” (Lv 19:2).

Amongst the nations, the chosen nation of Israel is to live differently, so as to draw all people to the worship of the one true God. For example: “The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD” (19:13).

Later in the chapter we are told: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (19:33-34).

These are still our laws as Christians. And the premise is nothing less than the metaphysical fact that God is God. From that fact alone, we must do good.

The coming of the Son of God in the flesh only intensifies the imperative to do good (and this doing good is, above all, a question of social morality; sexual ethics, say, must itself be understood in terms of social morality, and should never be the special object of a neurotic fixation). In the great Last Judgment scene of Matthew 25, it is not only that we must do good because God is God and God is good. We must do good because we love Jesus and owe Him everything. In Jesus, the goodness of God has gone all the way into total identification with each human being, especially the poorest and most powerless.

It is a fearsome thing to fail to see Jesus in our neighbor, that is, anyone whom God brings near by placing him or her in our path in some way (including a stranger from a far country who has come here). Our obligations to our neighbor must not be explained away by a perverse use of natural law, as if nature could ever trump grace. Jesus is very clear, and it should make all of us tremble: “‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’” (25:41-45).

There is such a thing as an “order of charity,” but how we understand that must be measured by the words of Jesus. We must not measure the words of Jesus by our rationalizations. HE is the Judge; we are the judged. Not the other way around.

We do owe special obligations to those entrusted to our care, but “the neighbor,” the one who has been brought close (and that can include enemies), is also entrusted to our care. Jesus is very clear.

I am renewing my Marian consecration right now, and one of the difficult points about such consecration is surrendering the ability to direct one’s spiritual offerings any way one wants, say, for the sake of one’s loved ones—even for the sake of one’s own children! One is supposed to surrender all merits into Mary’s hands, so that she may see that they are applied where they are most needed. The assumption here is that there is an objective order of need, which of course we are not able to survey. There really is a providential plan in which our sufferings and offerings are important, which we are not able to survey.

Fetishizing the “order of charity” in a way that makes our obligations in the drama of salvation surveyable by us is a mistake. It is crypto-secularism.

Yes, we must provide for our children first. And, yes, the poor and the powerless in our country have a special claim on our charity. And, yes, how many immigrants and refugees we can take care of is a reasonable question. But for the wealthiest nation on earth, the answer is going to be a whole lot more than zero. And the immigrants who have already built lives here… Well, the Leviticus passage above is very clear.

We can’t wait until we’ve stockpiled enough to care for our children for the rest of their lives, or until we’ve eradicated poverty in this country, before we care for others, “strangers,” God has, in His providence, made our neighbors. We must take care of all the needy who are ours to take care of: family, fellow-citizen, and stranger. God the Father is sovereign over history; our convenient understandings of natural law are not.

At the beginning of the second part of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas est, Pope Benedict makes clear that charity in action necessarily flows from charity in the soul: “The Spirit is also the energy which transforms the heart of the ecclesial community, so that it becomes a witness before the world to the love of the Father, Who wishes to make humanity a single family in His Son. The entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of man: it seeks his evangelization through Word and Sacrament, an undertaking that is often heroic in the way it is acted out in history; and it seeks to promote man in the various arenas of life and human activity. Love is therefore the service that the Church carries out in order to attend constantly to man’s sufferings and his needs, including material needs.”

That is the authentic Christian social vision: Trinitarian, integral (spiritual and material), and universalizing.  

This mission is the whole point of being Christian, which is why Jesus presents the Last Judgment as a test of our earnestness in honoring the consubstantial solidarity of our shared humanity, especially as found in the powerless—as radicalized by the Incarnation: what we do to the least of our neighbors, we do to Him. We must always do good, for God is holy, that is, good without limit, good even to uniting Himself in love to every single needy one of us.