Friday of week 6 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on James 2:14-24, 26

James comes back to the theme that a true following of Christ must result in actions. It is not that the actions themselves save. Rather, the actions are the proof that there is a faith that is genuine.

At first sight, there seems to be a conflict between the teaching of Paul and that of James. Paul insists that we are saved by our faith in Jesus Christ while James is saying very clearly that faith not accompanied by action is of no value.

The Jerusalem Bible comments:

The different points of view of James and Paul are not wholly irreconcilable. Paul is anxious to rule out the view that a human being can earn salvation without having faith in Christ, since such a reliance on self-made sanctity would be contradicted by the radical sinfulness of unredeemed human­ity and would make faith in Christ, superfluous. But Paul does not deny that God’s chosen one who has been made holy by grace must show faith by actually loving and in this way obeying the Law, i.e. the Law or commandment of Christ and his Spirit, which is the commandment to love. It is perfectly true, however, that in order to teach the same truth as Paul, James in a different context and under different circumstances explains the case of Abraham in a completely different way from Paul.

In other words, our total faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour is absolutely primary. We cannot save ourselves simply by our own efforts. We don’t ‘earn’ salvation by what we do. Salvation is a totally gratuitous gift of God. Through faith we open ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Way of Jesus and recognise in him our access to the infinite love of God for us. This is where Paul distinguishes the Christian from the Jewish way. The Jews believed that by their observance of the external requirements of the Law, they could be ‘justified’ before God. James is not really contradicting any of this. What he is saying is that a genuine faith and commitment to Christ MUST result in our passing on the love that God gives us to others, and especially to those in any kind of need.

So James begins by asking whether there is any good in professing a faith which does not express itself through our behaviour. Such a faith, he says, has no power to save. It is clearly a ‘phoney’ faith.

He gives a practical example of what he means. If I see a person without food or clothes and just say some comforting words, “Good luck to you! Keep warm and eat well”, but do absolutely nothing to help, what kind of faith is that? We find a similar idea in the First Letter of John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17). There is an indivisible and unbreakable link between faith and love (agape). “Faith of itself, if it does not have [loving] works, is quite dead.” A faith that does not flow out into love and compassion for the brother or sister is simply a dead and useless faith. Works of love and compassion, however, are an indication of an underlying faith. In fact, faith and loving works cannot be separated.

It is no argument, notes James, to say “I have faith and you have works” as if there was an option between the two. A caricature of Catholics and Protestants is to say that Catholics depend on works and Protestants on faith. The irony is that many Protestants who proclaim “Faith alone!” often put Catholics to shame in the good works that they do! One thinks of the Salvation Army for instance. Genuine faith will always be accompanied by loving actions but it is our faith in Jesus that really saves. Faith is our being grafted on to the vine that is Jesus and only when we are so grafted are we able to produce fruit. “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5) But, if there is no fruit, we will be pruned and rejected. Am I a living or dead branch on the tree of Christ?

Faith alone can sincerely believe that there is just one God. But even the demons believe in God and live in fear of him.

James then gives the example of Abraham offering his son Isaac. Paul also uses this example but from a different angle. Paul emphasises the extraordinary faith of Abraham in God’s word when he showed he was prepared to sacrifice his only son, even though that son was the only link with God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore. It was a command that, on the face of it, made absolutely no sense. Yet Abram said, ‘Yes’ to God’s command and he was justified by that act of complete trust in God’s word.

James basically agrees with this for he quotes: “Abram believed the Lord, and it was credited to him as righteousness”. The faith of Abraham preceded his act of obedience to the Lord’s command. And that is why he is called “friend of God” (2 Chron 20:7) and father of all believers.

But the point is that Abram’s faith did result in action, in his preparing to carry out what he was told (even though it was countermanded before it could be carried out). Paul, too, qualifies his emphasis on the priority of faith when he says elsewhere, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6). If Abraham had SAID he believed in God but had taken no steps to carry out God’s command, we could have reason to doubt.

So, James concludes, a person is made right with God not just by proclamations of faith but by actions which flow from that faith and are the proof of its genuineness. “Faith without works is as dead as a body without breath.”

This reading can be a wake-up call to many of us Catholics who can so easily confuse our pious exercises (‘good works’) with a true living out of our faith in Christ. It is easy to think we are “good Catholics” because we go frequently to Mass, make novenas, go on pilgrimages, say the rosary and lots of other prayers and engage in many other devotions. These are, of course, good things but they are certainly not the “actions” that James is talking about.

For him faith-inspired actions mean reaching out to brothers and sisters in need, joining in the struggle for justice and such activities, being loving, forgiving, reconciling and peace-making persons.

If we look into ourselves, we may find that, on that basis, our faith still leaves much to be desired.

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