Good Works: A Jewish Perspective

The last post pondered whether good works are a cause or effect of faith from a Christian point of view.  To appreciate the Jewish perspective, it helps to understand the notion
of shared merit.  Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, there is a “closing of the gates” wherein God makes a judgment on
each person’s life and writes the names of all who have turned to him and lived faithfully in the Book of Life.  It is an
annual opportunity for Jews to reflect on their actions, to make amends for their wrongs, to seek forgiveness from their fellow man first and ultimately to seek atonement with God.

When Jews confess their sins, the vidui in the Yom Kippur liturgy, they confess in community, speaking aloud a long list of sins.  The community aspect of confession is
monumentally important.  It reflects the responsibility that Jews have for one another, so while I myself may not have committed murder, I did share responsibility for my brother’s actions.  Further, if I look deeply within myself, I will find some part of me that identifies with the sin.  My harsh words might have damaged someone’s self-esteem, for example.  In addition to the shared responsibility for sin, Jews recognize a shared responsibility for good works.

That notion of shared merit helps to explain the popularity of the Pharisees among the Jewish peasant class.  Not only were Pharisees generous with tzedakah, or giving what’s fair to those in need, their fasting and other acts of piety accrued merit for the whole community.  This perspective lets us see the Christian parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18) in its original context.

The tax-collector enters the temple racked with guilt for shaking down people in need to line his pockets.  His angst is heightened by the fact that he is not making teshuvah, or turning to God to change his ways.  He knows he will go back out the next day and
shake down more unfortunates.  Without teshuvah, he can’t hope for God’s forgiveness.  Across from him kneels a Pharisee who is moved with compassion for the
sinner.  He thanks God that he was spared tax-collector’s difficult position.  And
then he offers to share his merit—his tzedekah for the tax collector’s taking by force, his fasting for the tax collector’s feeding off his neighbors, etc.  The parable concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”  Ok, which one was justified?  Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament Studies Amy-Jill Levine asserts “rather than” is properly translated “along side.”  In any case, suggesting an unreformed tax-collector could be justified at all would have astonished 1st century Jews.

In the Jewish tradition, Halakhah is the set of laws governing personal deportment.  The
purpose of the laws is not improved health, financial gain or appearance.  Rather, they offer a myriad of daily opportunities to submit one’s will for the sake of honoring God.  Observing Halakhah both strengthens spirituality for the individual through daily practice and earns merit for the community, and hence is at once cause and effect of faithfulness.  In view of shared merit, good works not only benefit a Jew’s fellow man in an earthly way but also lift him up spiritually.

Join the conversation.  What brings you present moment mindfulness for the sake of honoring God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Good Works: Cause or Effect?

Spiritual conversion describes an inner transformation, and good works are the exterior evidence for it.  Do the good works done by sheer
force of will bring about a spiritual conversion, or are they an effortless byproduct of conversion?  This question is a point of contention in New Testament scripture.  Pharisees were the pillars of Jewish life and quite popular among the peasant class.  They were devoted to practicing good works that were widely perceived to benefit all in the community.
Paradoxically, they received New Testament criticism for their commitment to good works.

In the Christian tradition, the cause-or-effect question has a two-part answer.  First, works flow from the natural inclination of one with faith.  God desires relationship, and we act out that relationship in how we treat our fellow man.  Hence, good works inspired by our love for God bring joy to God, our fellow man and ourselves.  Martin Luther wrote that it is “impossible to separate works from faith—yea, just as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.”  By contrast, works done for the sake of correct behavior alone or for the sake of social stature miss the central point of relationship with God, and that is the New Testament warning to the Pharisees.

The second part of the Christian answer lies in the actions we can undertake to develop our spirituality and thereby enhance our natural inclinations towards good works.  The spiritual disciplines which strengthen and prepare us for good works are distinct from the fruits of a strong faith.  The apostle Paul warns the Colossians against following disciplines for their own sake:

If with Christ you died to the rudiments of the world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end.  They are a cause of spiritual strength.  Those who desire the effect of spiritual strength will have great difficulty producing it through sheer force of will without submitting to the process of actual transformation.  It would be like joining a baseball team with the expectation of batting 300 without any practice or training simply because one wills it to be so.  Practice may not make performance perfect, but it does make performance possible.  Thus, spiritual disciplines condition us for good works.

The consideration of good works brings us back to God’s will.  He wants to be in a relationship with you.  He wants you to be a partner in your own re-creation.  He wants to do some heavy lifting for you.  He delights in the fruits of your faithfulness.  We are drawn to do good works not to earn God’s love but because we love him back.

As is often the case, the Twelve Step tradition crystalizes this cause and effect wisdom in a pithy one-liner:  “Fake it ‘till you make it.”

Join the conversation.  What good works do you wish flowed naturally from your faith?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.