Thursday, October 13, 2011

Context is everything

In today's first reading we arrive at the perennial debate over the relationship of faith and works in salvation. Is faith alone enough? Or is something more required?
Growing up in a non-Catholic context, I remember hearing today's first reading quoted on more that one occasion as evidence to prove that being saved consisted in "professing faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior." Here one would quote from today's first reading, "For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works."

The problem with this is two-fold:
1) it is an incomplete quote. The full sentence reads, "For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law."
Those last words are critical to the text. St. Paul is not referring to any works, but the works of the Jewish law, which brings us to second part of th problem. Context.
2) If one looks at the verse in context one sees immediately that the issue St. Paul is dealing with is the possibility of Gentiles being saved without becoming Jews, at not the 16th century debate of faith or works for salvation.

The Letter of St. James chapter 2 seems to strike the perfect balance on this issue.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?
So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

St. Paul is right and so I had crab cakes last night, bacon this morning, and am wearing clothes of mixed fabrics, in violation of the law, because as a Christian my salvation is not linked to a strict observance of the Mosaic law. St. James is also right, and presents the greater challenge to us, to wake up each morning and repeat his words, "I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works."

Imagine if every Christian in the world just did that today.