The Mediate Role of Virtue

Love mercy and true judgment, justice and righteousness; for the Lord delighteth in such. Consider these things in time, and take heed how ye spend your time. Now ye have time, prize it; and show mercy, that ye may receive mercy from the Lord: for he is coming to try all things, and will plead with all flesh as by fire (Works, 1:115)

This statement is from a letter that Fox wrote in 1651 while he was being held in Darby jail. In this letter, Fox admonishes local judges to love virtue, specifically “mercy, true judgment, justice and righteousness.” Notice that he does not reason with the judges about their duty, nor does he argue that virtuous behavior would benefit society. Both of these arguments would call upon the judges to choose virtue so that some ideal of character or society could be met. Fox, instead, gives different reasons for being virtuous: 1) the Lord delights in virtuous behavior; and conversely, 2) the Lord will judge and punish harshly those who refuse virtue, “[he] will plead with all flesh as by fire.” Fox is claiming that virtue is a necessary mediate condition for receiving the proximate favor of God, not a practical measure for achieving some human ideal.

Implied in this understanding is the belief that there’s some advantage to receiving God’s favor and avoiding his wrath. Convincing people of this who are without the fear of God (that is to say, the knowledge of God) is difficult. It seems natural and obvious to the reprobate mind that each person must chart his own course toward maximum personal advantage, navigating around or conquering whatever obstacles impose themselves, even when those obstacles are the demands of virtue. Choosing virtue over opportunity for personal gain often does not seem wise to the man who does not know Christ: “for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light”(Lk. 16:8).

That this worldly wisdom is, in fact, not life-enhancing but instead is life-inhibiting ignorance that can and must be contradicted is the primary theme of Scriptures and seventeenth-century Friends writings. Both sources hold up the pursuit and acquisition of virtue as an intermediate and necessary step that prepares one to receive eternal life, knowledge of the living God. This assertion is reinforced repeatedly throughout these writings, one example being the sixteenth chapter of Luke.

At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus tells a story of a man who is lacking in virtue: a steward who has been wasteful of his master’s goods, and as a result is fired. In straits for how he will live, the steward decides upon a plan: he will curry favor with those who owe his employer goods by reducing their liability. Not only does this steward lack prudence and economy, he also lacks the virtues of honesty and righteousness:

How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, an hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore (5–7).

Once the man no longer has the job of steward, he will call upon these people for return favors: quid pro quo. The text then has the steward’s employer evaluate the scheme: “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”(v.8). How reasonable is it to praise fraud that has been injurious to oneself? The master praises the steward who cheated him; in a world devoid of virtue, reason also is in short supply.

This praise of the dishonest steward accelerates the chaos that began in the first line of the story: we were told that the steward was not doing what a steward does, which is care for his master’s goods. When a word no longer signifies its meaning, confusion results. When a steward no longer cares for his master’s goods, when a master praises his servant’s thievery, chaos and confusion abound. In verse nine, this chaos crystallizes into a maxim:

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fall, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

At this point in the story when confusion is rife, having gained the apex and planted a senseless maxim as its flag, the narrative voice shifts. Suddenly appearing in the passage’s final verses (10–13) are cogent, inarguable assertions that follow one upon another. One senses that Jesus, having finished his story, is now presenting its moral:

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much(10). If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches(11)? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own(12)? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon(13).

With the exception of the first part of verse ten, all these statements are put into a negative rather than a positive form: “…if ye have not been faithful” (11, 12); “No servant can serve…,” “Ye cannot serve…” (13). One may state with assurance that a sinful (negative) condition will not enter the Kingdom, but one cannot positively state that behaving virtuously will ensure entry; for that entry is determined by God alone (Mk.13:32). We cannot assess whether we ourselves are virtuous; God alone, who is a consuming fire, tries the heart. Lack of virtue prohibits receiving Christ, but even one’s very best effort to be virtuous does not guarantee the coming of Christ. For that, one can only prepare oneself, and then wait and watch(37).

Last First-day in worship at a meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there were five messages given during the hour. Each contained a personal narrative which held up a particular virtue: benevolence, bravery, tolerance, empathy, and helpfulness. All the messages followed the same narrative arc: virtue was exhibited and virtue was rewarded. Embodying virtues is often rewarding, useful, and practical in shaping and improving our individual lives and of that of the social groups to which we belong. That is not, however, the reason for embodying virtue that either Jesus or first Friends give. For them, the condition of virtue is a mediate state, which is neither accommodated in the world nor yet given entry into heaven. Virtue’s purpose and value is that it prepares the heart to be acceptable to God. Virtue affirms and signals a desire and humble willingness to sacrifice and then to wait upon the coming of the Lord. It is faith before faith is given.


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1 Response to The Mediate Role of Virtue

  1. Pingback: The Rose That Bare Gesù | Abiding Quaker

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