24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sept. 13, 2015
James 2: 14-18
Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2: 14).
Many of you know that Martin Luther’s religious revolution—the Protestant Reformation—was ignited by the issue of indulgences. Technically, an indulgence is the remission (or forgiving) of all or part of one’s “temporal punishment” in the afterlife; or, to put it colloquially if not theologically precisely, the shortening of one’s time in purgatory.
|Selling indulgences (woodcut Jeorg Breu Elder, ca. 1500)|
So an indulgence isn’t exactly a shortcut to heaven or the purchase of salvation. But it could appear that way. Luther carried the point further by insisting that not only can we not buy our way into heaven—by making a financial contribution to the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome, in the case that aroused his anger—but nothing we do can earn our salvation. “Justification by faith alone” became his slogan—justification meaning our being made holy or filled with divine grace, our being made just or righteous in God’s eyes. Only our faith in Jesus Christ opens up heaven for us. Only faith saves us.
So Luther was no fan of St. James’s letter, which emphasizes so much the importance of good works—works of charity, like feeding the hungry or clothing the naked, which James mentions today; or any of the corporal works of mercy. In these days we’re hearing Pope Francis insist on the Christian’s responsibility to welcome the stranger, to offer hospitality and assistance to refugees from war and persecution and economic disaster. Luther even contemplated discarding the Letter of James from the NT canon, as he did discard the OT books written originally in Greek and not Hebrew—Sirach, Wisdom, Tobit, Maccabees, etc., which to this day you won’t find in Protestant Bibles. But James survived the cut.
What does St. James actually say about good works? He doesn’t say that they’re a substitute for faith or that on account of our goodness God must welcome us into heaven. He says that good works are evidence that we have saving faith. He asks whether a faith that is empty of charity is really faith: can that faith save you?
Faith is a gift from God. All believers agree on that. We can’t account for why some people receive this gift and some don’t, altho we may find it incredible that someone can’t see the evidence of God all around us. Faith in God, of course, isn’t necessarily faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and savior of the world; there are more than a billion non-Christians who believe in the one God, creator of the universe and lord of the human race. So faith in Jesus Christ, also, is a gift that we’ve received.
We all know that when we receive a gift from someone we have to acknowledge that gift. If we have any kind of manners, we say or write a thank you, and then we display or use the gift (or at the least, when we re-gift it, we don’t tell the original donor we didn’t care for it). So Christian faith has 3 aspects to it, according to long theological tradition.
1st, there’s the intellectual component, the doctrine or dogma—the creed. This is what we believe about God the Father, about Jesus Christ his Son, about the Holy Spirit, about the Church that Jesus founded as the agency for preaching the Gospel and uniting people with this God who loves us.
2d, there’s our 1st way of responding to God’s gift, viz., worship. We say thank you by praising God as a Christian community and as individuals. We celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments and the Liturgy of the Hours (the Church’s daily round of God-praise) and private prayer. Our liturgy is a verbal and visual expression of our faith.
3d, there’s our 2d way of responding to God’s gift, viz., practice. We live day by day what we believe: Christian morality, Christian charity. We do what Jesus taught us to do. We keep the commandments, we share our goods with the poor, we tend to our neighbor in need, we educate people, we comfort the suffering, etc. Taken all together, this practice makes up what we call the social gospel or the social teaching of the Church—the gospel applied in practice to society, which includes such teachings as those that deal with the rights of workers, with abortion, with war and peace, and most recently with care for the environment.
|St. Dominic Savio and other boys of the Oratory tending people suffering from cholera (Nino Musio)|
Doctrine, worship, practice—these 3 have been compared to the 3 legs of a simple stool. Take away any one leg, and the stool falls over. Take away any one aspect of our faith, and faith collapses. I believe what Jesus and the Church teach, or I don’t really believe in Jesus. I worship with the Church, or I don’t really belong to it (which means my faith is lacking something). I live a moral life of practical love for my neighbor: “if faith does not have works, it’s dead” (James 2:17) and is useless and doesn’t lead me to salvation, to an eternal union with God thru Jesus Christ.
As our Collect today says, we pray that we may experience the working of God’s mercy thru our serving him with all our heart: which means in our service of divine worship and in our service of one another.