of Ordinary Time
Sept. 16, 2012
James 2: 14-18
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2: 17).
2 Sundays ago we began to read from the Letter of St. James, which has a strong emphasis on attention to the poor. For instance, 2 weeks ago we heard, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27). That note struck a balance between attention to the needy and one’s personal purity of life and attitude. Last week we heard James admonish us about making favorable distinctions toward the rich and unfavorable ones toward the poor, and then ask us, “Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?” (2:1-5).
Today, he reminds us that our faith has to include practice: not only talking the talk but also walking the walk, as they say. Again, this is in the context of sharing our worldly goods with the poor: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day,” what good does it do the poor person if we offer him nothing but a good luck wish? (2:15-16). If our faith is living, if our faith means anything, if our faith is real, then we have to act!
As it happens, studies of charitable giving in this country have shown repeatedly that the most generous givers are religious people. They give to their churches, of course, but also to other religious and charitable organizations like missionary fundraisers, United Way, the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts; to public philanthropies like hospitals, libraries, symphony orchestras, volunteer fire departments; and to special needs like earthquake or storm relief. The least generous people are the most secular people, the ones with little or no religious connection. So, collectively, Christians (and other religious people) seem to be practicing what St. James urges upon us.
What about us individually? That, of course, is a question we have to ask ourselves. Do I share my resources, my time, my talents with the less fortunate: the poor, the hungry, the unemployed, the immigrant, children, those in nursing homes, et al.?
Good works means more than care for the poor and unfortunate, however. As I noted, St. James also refers to our purity of life and attitude. In chapter 3, he speaks of sins of the tongue—something I’m sure we’re all familiar with, things like lying, slander and other gossip, swearing, boasting. In chapter 4 he mentions envy, physical violence, adultery.
|Paul preaching (Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome)|
If we turn to St. Paul’s letters, we find other sorts of works that should be avoided. He asks the Corinthians, “Don’t you know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (I, 6:9-10). Likewise, he reminds St. Timothy that “murderers, the unchaste, practicing homosexuals, kidnapers, liars, perjurers” also are under condemnation (I, 1:9-10).
On the contrary, our faith ought to lead us to be pure in our thoughts and conduct, faithful to our spouses, honest and kind in our speech, modest and sober with food and drink, etc. Is this hard? As a certain former vice presidential candidate might say, “You betcha!” And in the gospel reading today, Jesus told us precisely that if we would belong to him—if we would inherit the kingdom of God, in St. Paul’s terminology—then we have to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. Whoever would save his life in this world—and his reputation and his worldly goods—will have to lose it, sacrifice it, for Jesus’ sake (Mark 8:34-35).
What do I mean? Take for an example Tim Tebow. Doesn’t an awful lot of society think he’s a bit odd? You know, preaching (quietly) and apparently practicing sexual purity? Isn’t most of the world—so we’re led to believe—more like Lindsay Lohan or Prince Harry? (Probably not, actually, and I suspect most people are glad of that. But you wouldn’t know that from all the media attention they, and the sorts of antics they engage in, get.)
And Jesus says, don’t be concerned about what the world thinks! Take up your cross and follow me! Be pure. Be honest. Be forgiving. Be patient. Be modest. Give of yourself to others.
There’s another sort of work that has to be motivated by our faith. You may have noticed that this is a political year? Every 4 years the bishops of the U.S. publish a somewhat long guide to the major issues that Catholics and other people of faith should be looking at. Last time around, and again this time, it’s called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizens.”
The bishops tell us, “The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith” (n. 9). “The Church” doesn’t mean just the bishops. It means you and me. One of the works of faith that we must do as followers of Jesus is to “shape the moral character of society.” They say a little further on, “Participation in political life is a moral obligation” (n. 13).
The defining factor in the character of our society, they say, “is respect for the dignity of every person” (n. 10). So everything they we do as citizens, as political persons in our democratic society, has to be based on human dignity. The bishops add, “We are called to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and votes, to help build a better world” (n. 14).
As their document goes on, the bishops make distinctions between fundamental moral values and secondary matters, or matters that might be judged to be the means toward a more fundamental goal. They identify certain things that are always wrong, must always be opposed, can never be supported—in our personal behavior, obviously, but not in our voting either. At the top of that list is “the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death” (n. 28). In other words, you can never, never support abortion, the destruction of human embryos, assisted suicide, so-called mercy killing, or the intentional killing of non-combatants in war, nor vote for a candidate who favors those grave violations of human dignity.
Then the bishops list “racism and other unjust discrimination,” the death penalty, unjust war, torture, war crimes, “the failure to respond to those suffering from hunger or a lack of health care” (sounds like St. James), and “an unjust immigration policy” (n. 29).
Something else worth mentioning here is this: “The family is the basic cell of human society. The role, responsibilities, and needs of families should be central national priorities. Marriage must be defined, recognized, and protected as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, and as the source of the next generation and the protective haven for children” (n. 70).
The document goes on a great length: 30 pages of text in my printout from the USCCB Website.
So—one of the works that we as Catholics are obliged to do this November is to vote. But before that, we are obliged to know where candidates stand on various issues, and then vote not for a party or a gender or a race or a religion or the most telegenic persons; but for the candidates who will best defend and promote human dignity for Americans and for everyone else—those universal, God-given human rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that you’ve heard of. That’s how we need to size up the candidates for President, for U.S. senator, for U.S representative, for the state legislature, for the state courts, for whatever office.
May we be able to say together with St. James, “I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (2:18)—in our private, personal lives and in our public lives as citizens.