On your last day of life on earth, what will have really mattered? In the face of a myriad daily demands for time and energy, what is most worthy of our attention? “My faith,” you say. “Spiritual matters. Things that last for eternity.” But what is the core of our faith? What is the essence of Christianity? Not in a theoretical sense but in terms of every-day life. What does God want most from us? Can we possibly get a handle on human existence at its best — an earthly life that brings joy to God and satisfaction to us?
What about a life devoted to others, a charitable life of good deeds? Unquestionably that is very important. Jesus said that when he comes as Son of Man to judge the world, those he approves will be those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, relieved the sick and imprisoned and showed mercy to strangers (Matt. 25:31ff). Jesus warned against the vanity of forfeiting one’s very self through a life spent pursuing material possessions (Mark 8:34ff).
The Old Testament prophet Micah charged ancient Judah to do “justice” and love “mercy” — Hebrew theological terms describing fundamental fairness and lovingkindness appropriate within God’s covenant community. The New Testament prophet James summarized pure religion first of all as caring for orphans and widows — symbols of the most powerless and vulnerable victims in any society (James 1:27). Like Dickens’ early Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the self-centered person who regularly ignores the needs of others will face death miserable and unfulfilled.
Yet benevolent deeds do not necessarily please God or bring joy to the doer. Jewish tradition acknowledges this fact by ranking good deeds on a scale from negligible to meritorious. For example, the person who does an act of kindness, but who does so to be praised by other people, finds very little favor with God. Jesus affirmed the same truth to those who would follow him (Matt. 6:1-4). Even giving one’s entire possessions to feed the poor, unmotivated by love, finally amounts to nothing (1 Cor. 13:3). A charitable life is not in itself the essence of human existence.