Many years ago, when I was a Seminary student, it was popular to poke fun at serious issues such as the meaning of the Scriptures. I’m sure that same thing goes on in medical colleges, law schools, and other academic settings. The appeal of ‘gallows humor’ is probably the result of the desire to make a daunting situation seem somewhat less intimidating.
In seminary, one of our favorite misuses of the Scriptures is a line that occurs in this Sunday’s second reading. If a seminarian wanted to cut short an unproductive conversation, he would quote the biblical author’s caricature of an uncharitable person, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well.” (Jas. 2:16) It was a roundabout way of saying, “Get lost.” In its original context, of course, that statement had a very different meaning.
The biblical author’s caricature of an uncharitable person in verse 16 was an attempt to sting the consciences of a group of people who were making claims that were not backed up by any actual evidence. There were people in the congregation who were claiming to believe in Jesus’ teaching while behaving in ways that rejected Jesus’ teaching.
The biblical author wrote, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (Jas. 2:14)
“Faith,” in this context, refers to making a claim. For example, anyone can claim anything on a blogsite or in web advertising; if you believe all those claims, without examining their veracity, you will end up misinformed, defrauded, and possessed of massive amounts of useless products.
It’s easy to claim to have faith. I hear it all the time from people who call the parish office to request “last rites.” On one occasion, I was greeted at the door by someone who asked me to say Mass in the dying person’s apartment; the concerned family member handed me a nearly empty bottle of cooking sherry and a mostly eaten sleeve of Ritz crackers. I am rarely at a loss for words, but on that occasion, I couldn’t formulate a response. The claim to be “very Catholic” on the basis that your aunt’s cousin’s neighbor’s dog’s second owner was briefly a housekeeper at a Convent is not a believable claim.
In these few lines that comprise our second reading, the Letter of James uses the word “faith” to refer to a claim that needs to be proven by complementary actions. It’s easy to claim to have faith, but that claim is an empty one without accordant evidence. For example, if you claim to believe in the God that Jesus preached about, then you are obliged necessarily to grant to others the perfect forgiveness that God grants to the world. If you claim to believe in Jesus as Savior, then you are obliged to embrace faithfully the Cross that Jesus embraced. If you claim to believe in Christianity, then you are obliged to imitate the unselfish concern for the poor, suffering, and marginalized that was the hallmark of the life of the founder of Christianity. If you claim to believe in Catholicism, then you are obliged to live a Catholic lifestyle, consistently and daily, until your final breath.
The author of the letter goes on to say that if, on the other hand, you make the claims above but demonstrate no evidence that you live according to those claims, “what good is it?” (Jas. 2:16) The claim to have faith, or to be devout, or to be a Catholic is the equivalent of making a promise. Promises that remain unfulfilled are renamed betrayals.
The betrayal identified by the Letter of James is as evident in the Church today as it was when the Letter was composed. The ongoing clergy misconduct scandal in our country is wholly the result of Church leaders who claim undying allegiance to Church teachings but fail to practice any of what they preach. The growth in nationalism, racism, and xenophobia is the result of people who claim to believe in Jesus but don’t believe with sufficient conviction to imitate his example. The roughly hundred-year-old trend of declining church attendance is the result of people who received Baptism but refused the new life that Baptism offers and requires.
Christianity is more than an allegiance to a collection of ideas. It’s easy to claim allegiance to ideas. Ideas are abstractions; they have no physical existence and require no accountability. Being a Catholic, on the other hand, requires personal allegiance to Jesus and his way of life. The Divinely renewed life that Jesus taught is much more difficult to embrace than mere ideas because it requires daily, concrete actions that express love for God and neighbor.
In a few moments, we will recite the Creed; we will claim to believe in the Trinity, redemption through the death of Jesus, and the value of the Catholic lifestyle. Unless we have proclaimed those beliefs through our actions thus far today, we should ask ourselves, “what good is it?” (Jas. 2:16)