Monday, September 18, 2006

Making Merit

Every Monday night my friends (a Burmese Pastor and a Filipino NGO Christian volunteer) and I made it a point to visit people in our area. Last week we visited a new believer and after we came in and sit down on the floor (houses here usually don’t have chairs) the new believer brought out a basket full of rice and an envelope and gave them to the Pastor. We looked at each other puzzled and with it came the realization that she was doing to us what she usually do to the monks. Buddhists usually give gifts to the monks to make merit. Merit is given to a person for doing good things whether they are mental, verbal or involve the body in expressing these. They believe that it cleanse and purifies the mind of the doer. Merit opens door and provide opportunities. We explain that Christians don’t give to their clergy to earn merits but an expression of appreciation.

The Buddhist idea of making merit is the same with the Catholic concept of indulgences. The Buddhists however believe that the benefit of good works can be experienced here and now and also in the future rebirth. The Catholic Christians usually believe that the benefit of making merit will be experienced in the afterlife. Giving to the church or charity is believed to be one way to earn merit. That is good work that will eventually clear the way for a person to have an easy trip to heaven. And although there had been some reforms in the Catholic Church about this, evidently it is still practice in some Catholic country like the Philippines.

However, I found out that even before the Reformation the idea of indulgences are originally rested upon the idea of the gratitude of the sinner for the forgiveness of sins. When the sinner was assured of forgiveness by the church acting on behalf of Christ, the natural response is to express that gratitude by giving money directly to the church funds. During that time, it was not seen the sinner was purchasing the forgiveness of his sin. The gift of money was the result of and not a condition for forgiveness. However, during Luther’s time giving to the church was misinterpreted as an easy way to earn merit or purchase forgiveness. The idea of forgiveness by grace had become corrupted into that of the purchase of God’s favor.

Evidently, Luther’s protest was actually a protest to return to the original understanding of the meaning of giving to the church. That forgiveness was a matter of changed relationship with God; it was not about making merit or an “easy” way to buy forgiveness. Perhaps during Luther’s time forgiveness became tedious and difficult that people find it easier to buy it.

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