A meritocracy is a political system in which political power and economic goods are bestowed upon citizens based on their achievements rather than social standing or wealth. In short, people get what they deserve. We Americans tend to like this idea: people should not be rewarded just because they were born into the right family, but because they truly earned it! Many a medieval king gave wealth or choice property to friends; they bestowed important government positions to family. We look askance on this unenlightened political system. Rather, we assert that wealth ought to be a reward for hard work, not for friendship; government roles ought to be bestowed based on one’s competency, not one’s family ties!
Christ is a king, and like any king, he has a kingdom: the “Kingdom of God.” Is this Kingdom of God a meritocracy? One could be inclined to think so. Not just anyone gets into the Kingdom of God, but only those who live good and upright lives! The kingdom has laws one must follow if he is to be a citizen: give alms to the poor, know the faith well, don’t bury your talents, go to Mass on Sundays, do not eat meat on Fridays of Lent, etc. If you want to be saved, it’s not enough to be born into a Christian family or to inherit a Christian culture. No, you have to earn salvation yourself, right?
No, of course not. Salvation is a free gift. It is impossible for man to earn it. As St. Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Here we have a classic case of trying to fit God into our human categories. A human king can bestow favors in response to the good works of his subjects, but he lacks the power to enable his subjects to do these good works. God, on the other hand, not only bestows favors after our good works, but also gives us the ability to do the good work in the first place so as to deserve the reward. Thus, in a certain sense, God’s kingdom is a meritocracy, for we do truly merit rewards from him on account of our good, free actions. However, at its core, God’s kingdom is not a meritocracy, for all our merits are principally God’s gifts. They stem from the grace he gives. The king himself says to us, “without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).
For God, human categories break down. On the one hand, having status in his kingdom is about being in the right family. In making us his subjects, he adopts us into his own family without our deserving this gift. On the other hand, God is not guilty of nepotism, for he also transforms us in such a way that we are truly subjects worthy of our places in the kingdom. God does not want us to try to earn his love. Christian life in the kingdom is not principally about what we accomplish for God. Both our adoption and our merit follow upon the free gift of God’s grace. In response to his grace, more than anything else the Lord wants us to do simply this: rest and rejoice in his love for us.
This piece was originally written by Br. Dominic Koester.