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A means of grace - Ian Hunter

A means of grace

by Ian Hunter
February 26, 2009

The theme of this series -- the virtues of austerity -- requires consideration of both words; according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, "virtue" means "to conform one's life to principles of morality," while "austerity" means "abstinence" or "lack of luxury."

It is true that many of us could benefit, physically and financially, by living more austere lives. But where is the virtue in it?

In the Christian year, it is during the 40 days of Lent when believers strive hardest to realize the virtue of austerity; they do so by giving up something otherwise important or pleasurable. By offering up such a small sacrifice, the virtue is in remembering more acutely the great sacrifice once made for us at Calvary.

But there is another, everyday kind of austerity that Christians find leads to virtue. It is the austerity of self-sacrifice. Why do Christians believe and teach that self-sacrifice is virtuous? Because they were so told by Christ himself.

In the 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to tell them what the coming of God's Kingdom will be like. And Jesus tells them of a day when the Son of Man returns, and when all people are gathered into two groups. To the first group, the King says: "Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." To the other group: "Depart from me, I never knew you".

Throughout history many Christians have acted as if they believed that what happens on the Day of Judgment will depend upon a profession of faith, or on a denomination, or a church, or whether they were baptized or on the precise formulation of a particular creed. But that is not what Jesus said. Jesus says the outcome depends on austerity.

The theme of Matthew 25 is surprise. Those who are presumptuously moving forward, counting on their piety to push them up to the front of the line, are the ones who hear: "Depart from me, I never knew you." And those who are outcasts, who eat in soup kitchens and sleep in shelters or under cardboard over the street air vent, are astonished to be told to step forward. Whenever and wherever, they ask the King, did we do anything for you?

Then comes the surprise in the story, for the King says: I was in the soup line; I was in the next prison cell; it was me over there in that bed next to yours on the public ward. "When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was sick, you came to me; when I was in prison, you visited me." Hearing this, the people are bewildered. "When did we ever see you before"? Then the King explains: "Whenever you did this to the least of my brethren, you did it unto me."

This is a vision of God's Kingdom that comes from Jesus. The parable exemplifies the virtue of austerity, for it is in embracing a little austerity to relieve another that we apparently discover the path to God's Kingdom. I do not understand this to mean that by helping others we automatically become virtuous; rather we are recipients of virtue. To become virtuous solely by our own efforts is to risk becoming a self-righteous do-gooder, an insufferable prig. But by being a means of grace to others, we receive grace.

Austerity that comes upon us unexpectedly, say from a suddenly collapsing economy, may be grievous; that which we embrace enriches us. God's economy somehow works in this mysterious way.

---Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario. This story first appeared in the National Post

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