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Faith and Works

September 12, 2021 (446 words)

The second reading at Mass this morning was that famous passage from James (2:14-26) about faith and works, the one biblical scholars and religious apologists have been arguing about for centuries.

To hear James tell it, faith without good works toward the less fortunate is no faith at all. In the follow-up homily our priest backed this interpretation. He also got a little historical on us, mentioning how Martin Luther made a big splash about five hundred years ago by claiming faith alone was enough for any believer to earn salvation. Regardless what actual deeds one may or may not perform along the way.

Initially our priest seemed to credit Luther with “starting the reform,” implying a serious reform was called for at the time. Then he quickly pivoted to point out the obvious: Martin Luther played a major role in the dividing of Christendom.

We don’t give that dusty, old theological break-up much thought these days. But the concept of pluralism that resulted from being forced to adapt to a plethora of Protestant denominations is obviously where our cherished ideal of liberal democracy – in which everyone is entitled to their own version of the truth – first got its start.

And this morning it occurs to me that separating faith from works, or juxtaposing the two, might just be when the divisive and counter-productive liberal-conservative dichotomy we are now saddled with first began.

I can’t help noticing how a certain breed of American – usually of a conservative bent – has embraced what amounts to a rather self-serving take on who is their brother’s keeper.

But it’s not just the conservatives who are at fault. Most patriotic souls are now Christian-in-name-only, having traded in religious observance and a concern for the “other” in favor of a strict adherence to upward mobility and the gospel of prosperity. We don’t worry much about eternal salvation one way or the other, as we are focused on making the here-and-now as comfortable for ourselves as possible.

But there are still a handful of religiously-motivated people out there, and they justify the Protestant position of “faith alone” by doggedly pointing out how Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has earned our place in heaven, insisting there is nothing a believer can do here on earth to mess that up.

Without wanting to wade into deep theological waters that are over my simple layman’s head, I would say, yes, Christ came here to redeem us. But that doesn’t mean what we do – or fail to do – isn’t factored into the final “salvation equation.”

James was writing about what he knew to be true. Actions always speak louder than words.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
September 12, 2021

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