Jesus Christ’s Teaching for Today

Does truth of the Catholic faith matter, and what is more important, what you do or what you believe?

This debate has come up in the comboxes on this blog in two different ways: The first is with a reader who is a Catholic but asserts that what is most important are the good works people do. Catholic belief, attendance at Mass, practicing the sacraments–all that is secondary. Better to be a good pagan than a bad Catholic.

The second way this same viewpoint has come up is from a couple of Mormons who like to remind me that “by their fruit you shall know them” which is a gospel quote which means, “See how nice and kind and respectable and hard working and patriotic and wonderful these Mormons are? Their religion must be true.” Both of these viewpoints would seem to be common sense, and they appeal to the public, after all, don’t we all know bad Catholics who are hypocrites, and isn’t it really better to behave well than to hold to some arcane belief and be a stinker?

Then at Mass this morning we had this gospel: Jesus had just fed the 5,000 and walked on the water and the people were all excited. They wanted to know how he did the miracles. They were impressed with the signs. He was showing some pretty impressive “fruit”. They wanted more from him, and they wanted to do that stuff too.

He pops their balloon and says:

“Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you.
For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”
So they said to him,
“What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

Let’s take this apart line by line: “Do not work for food that perishes.” This is not just telling them not to be concerned about money or how to make a living. This is telling them that the obvious work here in this world that we think is so important and so vital–the work of making the world a better place and all that–it’s a food that perishes. It won’t last. Go ahead and make the world a better place, then you’ll die and the next generation of sinners will mess it up again.

“Instead work for the food that endures to eternal life” or as he says elsewhere “Seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else will be added to you.” In other words, get your priorities right. Work for the next world and you’ll end up making this world better despite yourself. Work for this world and you might just lose this one and the next.

“The food that endures is the food that the Son of Man will give you.” Here’s where it gets interesting. These words are part of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, and are the beginning of what is called the Bread of Life discourse. This passage from verses 22-59 discuss the “sign” that Jesus will give for them to believe. It is the sign of the Bread from Heaven–which is his body and blood. This is where he says, “I am the Bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world…whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”

“So they said, ‘What must we do to accomplish the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them,”This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

Straight from the gospel: Belief in the Jesus Christ the Son of God who is the Bread of Life. That’s how you accomplish the works of God.

A religion that does not proclaim Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God, yet claims to be a Christian religion is a false religion. It teaches other than the simple truth that Jesus Christ himself taught.

A religion that claims to be a Christian religion but denies the truth of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus himself claims that he is the Bread of Life and that his flesh is the bread that comes down from heaven and that anyone who eats that flesh and drinks that blood will have eternal life and those who do not do so do not have life within them–any religion that claims to be a Christian religion and denies these truths does not do accomplish the works of God.

They might do good works and they might be nice people, but they’re following a religion of their own invention and are trusting in their own good works–which according to all orthodox Christian theology–will get them nowhere.

UPDATE: Mark Shea comments more forcefully on Mormonism being bogus here. Mark’s point is that Mormonism is an answer to a non existing problem: they say Mormonism is the ‘real’ church of Jesus Christ to replace the one which went bad long ago. This is a common thread throughout American revivalism–especially that of the early 19th century. It has a name. It’s called Primitivism: Here is an article I wrote some time ago for This Rock magazine called The Problem with Primitivism. I encourage you to read it.

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  • Robyn

    Excellent, excellent post Father! Thank You!!

  • Gail Finke

    Excellent piece. My parish has adopted the slogan “Building God’s Kingdom: united in faith, alive in the spirt!,” which distresses me to no end. Because we are NOT building God’s Kingdom. That’s a Protestant notion, as Pope Benedict himself has said on more than one occasion. And the reason is just as you wrote: concentrating on “building God’s kingdom” and trying to do so is eating the food that perishes. Christ announced God’s kingdom, it’s already here. We don’t have to build it. I know what they MEAN by it, and social justice etc. are not bad things. But they are not what the Church is about. And yes, I did express my dismay at the time and it did not turn out well.

  • Christian

    I would say that good works are how a believing soul manifests itself in the physical world.

  • john d. towle

    The problem is that the message becomes, “Just worry about yourself. Get yourself into heaven.” I wonder if that was really the message. I know, I know, if we believe, then naturally we will do right by everyone. Maybe, but the messae is not supposed to be maybe. Your view has been part of Catholic doctrine since day one. Has it done any good?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Has it done any good? Consider the millions the Catholic Church has educated, healed, rescued, restored and helped. Consider the Catholic achievements in art, architecture, music, literature, sciences, justice, law and learning. Has it done any good? Consider the lives of the saints, their accomplishments and heroic stature. Consider the marriages kept together, the children brought up and loved, the families nurtured and the joy manufactured.

  • Ben

    Is there a Mormon running for President or something? There seems to be a sudden interest in Mormonism on this blog and, apparently on Mark Shea’s as well.

  • Lori

    But what about the last judgment, in which Jesus separates the sheep from the goats? He doesn’t give a welcome to those who have believed, but rather to those who have fed, clothed, visited or comforted Him – in other words, to the doers of good works. I’ve never really understood this paradox.

  • Vladyk

    Ironically Father, you come off as having a very enlightenment notion of truth as reduced to empirical observation. The pre-modern notion of truth saw it as being intertwined with the good and the beautiful, so that the true religion wouuld out of necessity also be good. If someone cannot discern in Catholicism the goodness and love of God then no amount of knowledge about empirical facts can justify its him/her accepting it, and you can’t provide an empirical proof of the love of God anymore than you can provide one of your love to other people.

    You also seem to confuse belief with knowledge. There are no empirical facts that correspond to the major claim of faith “Jesus is Lord.” You can say that you trust the witness of the church, but that does not mean that you have knowledge of what really happened. Even if you could empirically prove the ressurection you couldn’t prove the preservation of the church from error by the Holy Spirit across time. We have very few writings of the ancient heresies(pelagius, marcion, arius, the iconoclasts), even only the orthodox portions of Origen were preserved and the rest burned. Imagine if 1,000 years from now all that was left of writings about Christianity was Richard Dawkins’ books, and some documentaries made by the Jesus Seminar. We can have reasons for believing in the guidance of the Holy Spirit but we can’t have proof in any empirical sense. We can have belief but not knowledge.

    Finally, ironically, most Catholics alive and who have lived have believed without cold, rational, discernment of the facts, but rather by custom and by heritage. It’s a deeply insulting and arrogant stance. An illiterate old mexican woman wouldn’t have any idea how to respond to a Mormon or Evangelical and lose in any sort of discussion. I guess her faith isn’t as good as yours because i’m sure you came to belief through a cold, critical, computer like deductive process.

  • Bender

    what is more important, what you do or what you believe?

    It depends upon what one means by “do” and “believe.” Merely engaging in various actions or works and/or a mere intellectual assent to some theological proposition is not enough. Ours is not a faith primarily of doing or thinking, ours is a faith primarily of being. What matters is what you are. What matters most is that you “believe” not so much in your head, but in your heart, that you work a change (convert) not in what you intellectually hold in your head, but that you change your heart, that you take Jesus into your heart and thereby change your very state of being.

    “The Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book’: Christianity is the ‘religion of the word of God,’ not of ‘a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.’” Verbum Domini 7.
    “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction.” – Deus Caritas Est 1.

    The Faith is not a mere philosophy or way of life, it is establishing and maintaining a loving relationship. It is having a relationship not with words on a page, but having a relationship with the Living Word. It is a living faith that we are called to.

    If you have that living faith, that is to say, if you love God and others, then go and do what you will.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    You have to believe AND do the good works, but the good works alone are not enough.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Mark and I are ticked off that we have to put up with big glossy banner ads for the Mormon faith on our blogs so we’re using our own space to expose this ridiculous false religion.

  • Dandini

    How can a man enter into heaven? According to Christ, by obeying the commandments… at least that is what he stated in the Bible… it still requires a physical action in this world… correct to say that faith without works is dead… and by their works they will show their faith… and their works will determine their rewards in heaven… all so very simple… but requires actual effort, both spiritual and physical…

  • William H

    True, but comparing the writings of St. Augustine and Origen who were theologians and apologists to Joseph Smith who was trying to make a new religion, are two different things. I do not have to accept the teachings of St. Augustine or Origen in complete faith or belief as if they have the whole truth, but a Mormon has to accept all the teachings or beliefs that an angel really visited Smith as my whole backbone of faith. That is very wide chasm of what is necessary versus what is something I can study and critically examine.

    Plus, all that you wrote is moot. The Church would exist even if all scripture, books, or theologians/apologists/bishops never wrote to their respective churches. The proof of the Church does not come down to fragments of papyrus or scrolls. It is a living breathing Church.

  • Dandini

    Of course good works alone are not enough… but your faith is justified by your works…

  • Dandini

    “proclaim Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God”… then the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints easily qualifies because that is what they proclaim in their teachings and doctrines around the world… that Jesus Christ is the Only begotten Son of God, born in Bethlehem of a virgin, Mary, that he suffered and died on the cross for all, that he resurrected with a “glorified” and “incorruptible” body of flesh and bone, that he lives and sits on the right hand of God the Father, that Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life, Lord, Savior and Redeemer for all mankind.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    It’s not the truth they proclaim which worries me–it’s the error they proclaim with it.

  • Ben

    Ah. I have ad-block installed so I rarely notice the ads. Makes sense.

  • TeaPot562

    Note that both Matthew Ch. 25 and Luke in Ch. 16, in the story of the rich man and the beggar place some importance in the followers of Jesus taking care of others. In another place, Jesus says that not everyone who says to Him “Lord, Lord” will be saved.
    The tragic thing is that so many Catholic Christians are, by their lives, such poor witnesses to others about their faith. If I claim to be a follower of Jesus, is there enough evidence of that in my actions to convict me?

  • FIRE

    Better to be a good Catholic, than a bad pagan.