Top-Down Legalism Contradicts The Spirit of Charity

Top-Down Legalism Contradicts The Spirit of Charity March 13, 2012

Abba John the Dwarf said, ‘A house is not built by beginning at the top and working down. You must begin with the foundations in order to reach the top.’ They said to him, ‘What does this saying mean?’ He said, ‘The foundation is our neighbour, whom we must win, and that is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one.’[1]

All the commandments of Christ depend upon the command to love. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we see God as the tri-personal God, when we see God the Son incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, we can see how the two commandments are also, in the end, one: God is also our neighbor. We are to love our neighbor, and in loving our neighbor, we love God. We are to show our neighbor compassion. We are to welcome them with hospitality. Strangers are to be given our love – indeed, the greatness of Abraham, and the salvation of Lot, can be found in the way they rendered service and respect to strangers.[2] It builds the foundation of our own salvation; and once built, we can let our heavenly mansion grow as we accrue eternal rewards. “So don’t spurn such wonderful profit accruing to you from hospitality, but day in and day out exert yourself to gain this fine merchandise, in the knowledge that our Lord looks for generosity of spirit, not great amounts of food, not a rich table but a cheerful attitude, not simply attention in words alone but also love from the heart and a sincere mind.”[3]

Love is the foundation of all the commandments, and doing what we can for our neighbor by love is what will win them over. It is love which saves. It is love which forgives a multitude of sins.  So many forget this. They think they can argue someone into submission. They think all they need to do is show all they know, to confound their neighbor with the height of their intellectual superiority, and that will force their neighbor to admit defeat and submit to whatever it is they want their neighbor to believe. “The saying is sure. I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men. But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile” (Titus 3:9 RSV).  We are to apply ourselves to the good – this profits us and those around us; useless debates which seek self-glory help no one, least of all the declared victor of said debates. It is good works which profits us and those around us, following the example of Jesus who came to show the world what it means to be a good neighbor to all. “Having considered the care and exceeding love of God for man, he thence exhorts them to almsgiving, and that not in a common and slight manner, but that they may be careful, he says, to maintain good works, that is, both to succor the injured, not only by money, but by patronage and protection, and to defend the widows and orphans, and to afford a refuge to all that are afflicted. For this is to maintain good works. For these things, he says, are good and profitable unto men.”[4]

This is not to deny the role of the intellect and its needs in our lives. We are to have a faith seeking understanding. But this is to show that we are still seeking understanding. We are still seeking to know more, to comprehend better. This means we need others to dialogue with.  We need our neighbor if we want to learn and understand, just as they need us. It is not in debate, but in searching together that we can come to apprehend a little more of our faith. We are to share it in love. We must realize how difficult it has been for us to come to the point we are today, and so we should not expect others to heed our claims without exploring them further themselves. If we welcome them, they are more likely to welcome us in return, and consider our faith. If we go around insulting those who don’t think like us, it is most likely that we will keep them away from us, turning them away from what it is we wished them to believe. Yes, concupiscence gets the best of us, and in our frailty, we can and will get frustrated with others, and we might indeed insult them in the midst of such frustrations. We might lose people due to our own weakness. What is obvious to us seems so obvious we have difficulty understanding why others don’t believe as we do. But yet that is where love comes in, that is where the foundation established by love is necessary. It opens us up; it helps us see with the eyes of another, to understand where they are coming from. Through such understanding, we might appreciate the difficulty they have, indeed, we might come to understand why debates with them will end up being futile. Hospitality, kindness, communion (of any level) is able to transcend such division – people will begin to see things in our eyes even as we see it in theirs, and that is where true dialogue, true conversion can be found. And the likelihood is that the conversion will not be one-sided; in dialogue, everyone has something to gain. The prophet Isaiah, indeed, shows that God works in this fashion: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18 RSV). We are to come together and reason and through it, we can find conversion of the heart, so as to leave all that is sin behind.  This is exactly what a foundation of love is all about. We can’t do top-down management, demanding actions, but rather, we must reach people within and so motivate them to act rightly, not because they are forced to do so, but because they want to do so.

A brother asked Abba Joseph, saying, ‘What should I do, for I do not have the strength to bear evil, nor to work for charity’s sake?’ The old man said to him, ‘If you cannot do any of these things, at least guard your conscience from all evil with regard to your neighbour and you will be saved.[5]

Even if we find it difficult to do good for our neighbor, even if we don’t have the means to help them, love at least expects us to look at them in a charitable light, to see them as a dignified person and not in accordance with the sins which we would impute on them. As long as we look at someone in accordance to the evils we think they commit, we do not see them, we do not know them, we do not love them. If we want to be saved, we must love our neighbor; we must at least see them for the good which lies within them. We must see the image of God within them. Then we will understand why we can’t ridicule them, for all such ridicule, in the end, mocks the God who made them.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 93.

[2] The three angels themselves represented, in their own unique way, the Trinity of God, showing the truth of what Jesus would later say: What you do for the least of these, you do for me (cf. Matt 25: 40).

[3] St . John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 18 – 45. Trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1990), 416.

[4] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Titus in NPFF2(13): 540.

[5] Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 102-3.

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