02 May 2021

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 2 May 2021

You hear it everywhere. In Ancient Rome they said ‘Operibus credite, et non verbis’ (‘Trust in deeds, not in words’) – a slogan adorning Palermo cathedral to this day. ‘Deeds, not words’ was the Suffragette slogan and modern-day Italians say ‘Fatti, non parole’. Spaniards tell you ‘Las palabras se las lleva el viento’ (‘Words are carried in the wind’). The Chinese quote Confucius to similar effect and in Swahili they say ‘Muungwana ni tendo’ (‘A gentleman is deeds’). The Anglophone version is ‘Actions speak louder than words’, a proverb attributed to many from Sts Francis and Anthony to the philosopher Montaigne and author Mark Twain, from President Lincoln to Demi Lovato the pop singer.

No surprise, then, that it’s also in Scripture. The Epistle of James is very clear. “Be doers of the word, not hearers only who deceive themselves” (Jas 1:22-4) for “faith without works is barren… dead… a corpse” (Jas 2:17,20,26). In our first reading we see Saul, newly converted to Paul, go straight to work preaching (Acts 9:26-31), for he thinks the fruits of the Spirit are not just new beliefs but a new man marked by “love, joy and peace; patience, kindness and goodness; faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:16-24; Eph 4:22-32). John is equally adamant in today’s Epistle: our love must be “not just talk, but something real and active” (1Jn 3:18-24). “Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars.” (1Jn 4:20; cf. 2:9)

James, Paul, John… all said actions speak louder than words. Jesus is equally clear: faith is not just for thinking, or speaking, but for doing. He uses the Old Testament image of Israel as God’s tree or orchard that is expected to be fruitful.[1] He tells His disciples to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” and that “by their fruits ye shall know them”.[2] In today’s Gospel He insists that communion with Him is more than a feeling or assent: it is expressed by “bearing fruit, fruit aplenty” (Jn 15:1-8; cf. Mt 21:18-22 et par.). But of others He says, “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”: they are barren like the accursed fig-tree (Mt 15:8; 21:18-19).

So the New Testament resonates with the wisdom of many cultures about words and deeds. But, as always, the Jesus take on things is a little different…

For Jesus’ point is not simply that actions are important, nor that our words and actions must align lest we be hypocrites. No, His point here is that our inner and outer lives are inseparable. On the one hand, He tells us, good hearts cause good actions and, on the other, good actions shape good hearts.[3]

To take the first: Christ teaches that our external acts tell the story of our inner lives. Of course, we can hide what we’re feeling, dress up for an occasion, put on a happy face. We can assume fake online personas or occasionally act out of character. Some people even live a double life, for years on end, or are radically hypocritical:[4] Jesus chillingly calls them ‘whited sepulchres’, externally beautiful but full of corruption within (Mt 23:27). In what sense, then, can we say actions reveal the inner person?

Well, Our Lord suggests today that, if a branch is rotten on the inside, that will soon be obvious on the outside: but baldly, a rotten tree will be fruitless, good for nothing, best chopped down and burnt. Those with evil in their hearts may behave well for a time and keep telling themselves they are good ‘deep down’, but eventually their darkness will out. “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, nothing hidden that will not be made known.” (Lk 12:2) Maintaining an identity demands integration of all dimensions of the person, between the seen-and-heard you and the hidden, unseen you. Without such integrity we experience troubled conscience, fractured relationships, messed-up personality. Such a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mt 12:22-28).

So when St. John calls for active love rather than mere talk, he’s calling for integrity, without which we’ll be damaged. If you say you have faith and love, James and John, Paul and Jesus say, do what faith and love do!

Good hearts cause good actions. But, secondly, good actions shape good hearts. Our choices predispose us to more of the same. We get into a groove, a habit, set on a particular course. Virtues are the residue of good choices, the after-effect on our character. Further good choices are more likely, even easier. We call some people ‘life-savers’ and others ‘murderers’, some ‘lovers’, others ‘rapists’, because our choices make us who we are. If we mourn evil and behave meekly, are just and merciful in all our dealings, if we endure persecution and are peacemakers, then, Jesus says, we will be Blessed – we will be saints (Mt 5:3-12).

Thus, our inner and outer selves are intrinsically connected. As John insists, real love acts real lovingly; but “living the kind of life God wants” also changes us. It makes us “children of the Truth”. Do what faith and love do, and faith and love will grow in you!

So, on Jesus’ account good deeds make for a good heart and vice versa. So far so good, even from a secular point of view. But why does every culture have to insist on deeds over words? Because it’s rare and hard to achieve a perfect integration of character and integrity of life.

We best ask a saint how it’s achieved. St. Teresa of Avila says good works are more than good, kind, or even necessary: they cause and effect true union with the Lord and His will.[5] Divine grace expands, purifies and redirects our hearts so our actions are focused, effective, for-the-good. In a word: it makes for godly people who do godly deeds.

We must decide: do I want that for myself? If I accept the life of divine grace, I will be more and more firmly grafted onto the True Vine that is Jesus. I will bear fruit. But if I say no to grace, the opposite will occur, and I will be spiritually barren.

Which makes cultivating a sound conscience and a good spiritual life hugely important! John says today that if our love is alive and active, our behaviour in accord with the commandments, then we’ll be truly children of the truth and our conscience be at peace. Our practical intellect must be trained, honed, educated so it is truthful, for “children of the truth”. Our will must be aligned with our best judgments, for “children of the commandments”. Our actions must then reflect such a mind and will. As we become more godly doing anything ungodly will become less attractive, unthinkable, even repulsive. To consult another saint, the Venerable Bede, “May God be your house and you God’s house. Dwell in God that God may dwell in you. God dwells in you to support you: you dwell in God in order not to fall. So keep the commandments and have charity!”[6]

[1] Jud 9:8-15; Ps 1:3; Isa 3:14; 5:1-7; Mic 7:1; Jer 8:13; 12:10; 17:8-10; Hos 9:16; Ezek 17:2-10; 19:10-14.

[2] Mt 3:8-10 and 7:16-20; cf. 13:8; ch. 25; Lk 3:7-9; Jn 4:36; cf. Heb 12:11.

[3] See NT texts on cause of good actions and effect of good actions of a pure heart (Mt 5:8; Jn 1:47), contemplative heart (Lk 2:19,51), humble heart (Mt 11:29), honest heart (Lk 8:15), courageous heart (Mt 14:27), forgiving heart (Mt 18:35), believing heart (Jn 7:38), burning heart (Lk 24:32), joyful heart (Jn 16:22) or God-loving heart (Mt 22:37). On the cause and effect in bad actions of a hard heart (Mt 19:8; Jn 12:40), dull heart (Mt 13:15), proud heart (Lk 1:51), doubting heart (Lk 5:22; 24:25,38), troubled heart (Jn 14:1,27; 16:6,22), adulterous heart (Mt 5:28; 15:19), violent heart (Mt 15:19), suspicious heart (Mt 9:4), dissipated heart (Lk 21:34), defiling heart (Mt 15:18), evil heart (Mt 12:45; 15:19; Jn 13:2), heart far from God (Mt 15:8).

[4] Mk 7:6; Mt 6:1-4,16-18,37-42; 7:1-6,21-23; 15:7-9; ch. 23; Lk 6:46; 16:10-15; 20:46-47.

[5] St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, 5, 3, 11.

[6] St Bede, In 1 Epist. S. Ioannis, ad loc.

Introduction to Mass for 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B

Welcome to our St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica for the Solemn Pontifical Mass of the 5th Sunday of Easter. To all those present, whether visitors or regulars, live or virtual, a very warm welcome!