There is a commercial running currently on television; it advertises a national take-out pizza restaurant. The commercial is a series of vignettes, one of which makes me laugh every time I see it.
In the commercial a waiter in a fine dining restaurant places an entree in front of a well-dressed customer. The plate is huge, but the entree is a tiny lump of stuff that doesn’t amount to a spoonful. The disappointed customer remarks sarcastically, “Hearty!” The waiter turns away, and pretends to be bored.
The vignette is comical because it’s such a graphic depiction of disappointment. We have a similarly graphic depiction of disappointment in today’s second reading. The Letter of James asks, “What good is it, my sisters and brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14)
The Letter of James is often misunderstood, but it is easy enough to clear away the misunderstandings. The Letter does not propose the notion that charitable works are superior to faith in Jesus. When the author of the Letter of James wrote, “Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (James 2:18), he meant, “You claim orthodox beliefs, but you do not live a righteous life; my orthodoxy is proved by the evidence of righteous living.”
The Letter does not deny the saving power of faith in Jesus; rather, it warns against claiming to have faith when one does not live a life consistent with real faith in Jesus. The contrast is not between faith and charitable works; rather, the Letter distinguishes between a faith that is growing and a faith that is dead.
The Letter of James says the same thing that today’s Gospel reading says. Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) Taking up one’s cross, and following in the footsteps of Jesus, are precisely what the Letter of James means by “works.” “Works,” in the Letter of James, denote the kind of life that is lived in accord with the teaching of Jesus; “works” are the daily, routine consequences of a living, growing faith. The Letter’s message is that, unless one embodies one’s faith in daily acts of fidelity to God and neighbor, one’s faith is dead, if not non-existent.
The practical application of all of this above is rather simple. It is very easy to call oneself a Catholic. It is a simple matter to have the appearance of being Catholic. Unlike physicians, lawyers, nurses, CPA’s, therapists, and a whole host of professions, the baptized are not required to maintain a minimum number of Continuing Education Units every year. Catholic parishes don’t issue identification cards that have to be renewed periodically as driver’s licenses require.
It’s easy to claim to be a Catholic, but being a Catholic is not merely a matter of claiming it. Being a Catholic is entirely a matter of living it.
There is a saying in Tampa, the town where I was born and grew up: “He’s all sizzle, and no steak.” The saying is used to describe those who claim competency, but don’t produce results. The author of the Letter of James was making this same accusation against some of the members of his congregation: “Your faith is all sizzle, and no steak,” that is, “You are all talk, but no action.” Talking about being Catholic, without living a Catholic life, is as satisfying as sitting down to eat, and having no food on the plate.
If your life was depicted on a restaurant menu, what would be listed there? Would there be a variety of offerings, or would the menu be limited to a few items? Would the menu be filled with healthy things or indulgent things? In keeping with the theme of today’s Scripture readings: would your menu consist of spiritual fast-food or the full, hearty Catholic life of participation in your parish, daily Scriptural prayer, repentance, forgiveness of others and loving service to those in need?
It is not possible to be Catholic if there is no evidence in one’s life of the effort to be faithful to God and neighbor. (James 2:18)
A note on the Scriptures
The Letter of James asks, “What good is it, brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14) Some people understand this passage of Scripture to suggest that by performing “good works” they can entice God to grant them favors or answers to their prayers, or even forgiveness. Others bristle at the notion that faith has no power to save; Martin Luther was so scandalized by this passage of the Letter of James that he suggested that the entire Letter should be removed from the New Testament.
The assertion, on the part of the Letter of James, that faith is not sufficient for salvation is easy enough to misunderstand. St. Paul’s letters seem to say the polar opposite of what James asserts. In the Letter to the Romans, for example, Paul wrote, “we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
So, which is it? Are we justified by faith? Or, can we win salvation for ourselves by our own efforts? Jesus seemed not to be confused or conflicted about how salvation worked; according to his teaching, salvation is the result of having faith in him. (Mark 4:40, 5:34, 10:52)
The apparent confusion here is the result of the fact that the word “faith” has multiple meanings, and can be used to denote multiple, distinct realities. Jesus used the word “faith” to denote personal loyalty to him. For Paul, “faith” was the public affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this section of the Letter of James, the word “faith” has a meaning very similar to the definition of faith used by Catholic neo-scholasticism (the theology that was popular before the Second Vatican Council). In neo-scholasticism, faith was defined as intellectual assent to revealed doctrine.
The Baltimore Catechism said, “Faith is the virtue by which we firmly believe all the truths God has revealed, on the word of God revealing them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” (q.122) Faith, in neo-scholasticism, was an affirmation of propositional truth; it was an intellectual act aimed at an abstraction. Faith, in this sense, was almost entirely passive, and could be accomplished without any interaction with another person.
This section of the Letter of James uses the word “faith” to refer to the passive affirmation of a belief or a teaching. In this section of the Letter the author is drawing a distinction between the passive, intellectual affirmation of a revealed truth and the active expression of one’s beliefs.
There are a number of unanswered questions about the Letter of James. It was very likely written to a Jewish/Christian community living outside of Palestine, but the exact location and date of the Letter are impossible to know. The discussion about faith and works that figures prominently in today’s second reading could have been prompted by any one of several situations. It is possible that the Letter was written at a time when some of the basic beliefs about Jesus had been solidified, and were widely accepted by the baptized. In that case, the discussion about faith and works was directed to a church congregation which took for granted those beliefs, and had fallen into a pattern of laziness with regard to living those beliefs.
It is also possible that this discussion was addressed to a problem that cropped up in many early Christian communities. There was a widespread religious phenomenon in the ancient world that today is called gnosticism. There were almost as many gnostic cults as there were adherents to those cults; they existed not only in great number, but in great diversity. Some leaders of gnostic groups adopted selected aspects of Christian beliefs. These syncretisms were particularly destructive of church communities because they taught that it was unnecessary to practice Christian morality in order to be faithful to Jesus.
Regardless of the exact circumstances that precipitated this discussion about faith and works, the Christian Church is fortunate to have this teaching included in the canon of Scripture. It is easy to fall into complacency, and easier still to fall into self-righteousness. The author of the Letter of James reminds us that faith is never a hidden, private or individual act; rather, faith is a public and communal commitment to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.