Two Elements of Faith
By Fr. Robert J. Carr
The Apostle James I always read as the old fire and brimstone preacher of his day. If you read what he has to say, you can see that he is strong, to the point. Martin Luther called the letter of James a straw epistle. He even denied that it was written by St. James or any Apostle because of his emphasis on faith AND works. Since then it has been determined that in fact the Apostle James did write this letter. James' teaching on faith and works has been grossly misunderstood by both Protestants and Catholics, but it is a simple one, if we are going to live the Catholic faith, we must put our faith into action.
However, there is another part of his admonition that has been missed and it is something when we teach without this part we do serious damage to our faith and to our community. In fact, I think it is this missing part that has led to much of the major problems in our Church today.
Before, I go any further, I want you to notice something that is key. Nothing in our world is self contained and self sufficient, nothing. We reproduce through male and female. We function through left and right and we even drive our country through democrats and republicans. Our parish even runs on Spanish and English. Our cars run not on gas, but on gas and electicity. A car without a battery has to either be jumped started or push started with an outside force or it cannot be started at all. Yet without an alternator it cannot run at all. Nothing is self contained.
Once we understand that we can see that James gives us a formula for living our faith and it has two parts. If we use only one then we are like trying to run a car with gas and without electricity. Such a car is nothing more than a solid block of metal, it will never run.
Look verse 1:27: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction AND to keep oneself unstained by the world. Notice that it has two parts.
These two parts are drawn off of the two elements cited in James' Epistle: faith and works. James explains to us that faith without works is dead. Saying that you believe in God without living your faith is no faith at all. It is nothing more than empty words. However, today's reading reminds us of the polar opposite. Works without faith is destructive.
James reminds us that there are the two parts. However, in our world we are trying to work too much on just the one part. We care for widows and orphans but are we concerned about being unstained in the world? If you do not focus on both parts, your faith will fall apart.
There is a fascinating element to faith and people do not fully understand it. Despite teachings to the contrary, Jesus is correct in his words by their fruits you will know them. When we are doing what we are supposed to be doing our work is blessed by the Lord bringing not prosperity to our wallets, but prosperity to our work. That means, we may not make lots of money, but we will save lots of souls. However, if we are not doing what we are called to do, we will not bear much fruit. We may even makes lots of money, but we will not save many souls. This is the element that has to be watched. We will bear fruit when we are doing what God calls us to do and when are rooted in the faith to which he also calls us.
Therefore, James makes it clear that one of the elements of our worship is to keep ourselves unstained from the world.
Our world is filled with people who are doing what they consider to be good works, but they are not unstained by the world. James reminds us that both are required. Well what does that mean? Simple, that we need to be people who are infused with the wisdom of God and we make our decisions using that wisdom when doing our service to God and his people.
If we choose to do one or the other then we are living a false faith that is dead. Trying to be unstained by the world, while not doing good works is exactly what James defines as faith without works and says it is dead. Yet, at the same time he also makes it clear that the opposite is also true. It is this second message that is lost to this generation.
Part of the problem may be that we are dealing with the exact opposite problem that Martin Luther addressed. Martin Luther railed against any thought that one had to earn his way into Heaven. This would mean that although Jesus died on the cross, my good works must still outweigh my bad works. This is an incorrect understanding of James' teaching. In fact, I know one priest explaining how that teaching is wrong told of a lesson that he learned as a child. That when we die God will bring out a big scale and if our good works outweigh our bad works we go to Heaven and if our bad works outweigh our good works we go to Hell. Yet, notice in this model that we don't have to believe anything, we must only do good works. This is the model of faith that has gripped our society even among unbelievers. As Catholics that makes no sense. Therefore, we get lost into the belief that as long as someone is doing good things then he is by default a good holy person. Yet, we have not defined what good works are.
This sounds like the old joke of the girl who tried to defend her new boyfriend to her parents. They saw what to them appeared to be a thug. She said, that he had to be a good person after all he was doing 150 hours of service to the community.
The whole concept that all we have to do to get to Heaven is good works has destroyed many elements in our faith. We need also to be unstained by the world. It is actually the latter which is more important for it allows us to do the right thing, not what appears to be the right thing. Many people say that our world has gone crazy and indeed it has. This week as reported on Catholic Online, Fr. Gabriel Amorth spoke on Vatican Radio. An exorcist, he warned that demonic influence is strong in our society and it is strong because our Christian faith has been weakened. It has become stained by the world and the occult. Just think about how much the occult surrounds us here in New England.
If I were to ask everyone in this church individually what your sign is, what would you answer? If you answered with an astrological symbol, you would be stained by the world. That is because as Christians we do not believe in astrology, it is a violation of the first commandment. If you were to say to me, that you read your horoscope everyday in the newspaper but you do not take it seriously, I would respond with what James says: Keep oneself unstained by the world. If I eat a spaghetti dinner, and drop some sauce on my shirt, which I am known to do, I did not absorb the spaghetti sauce, but I am stained by it. If you read a horoscope, even if you do not believe in it, you are stained by it.
However, there are other elements that taint our faith. Social Justice that does not root itself in God's wisdom is not social justice it is a form of manipulation that benefits one part of society and not the other. One of the greatest problems we need to watch out for is how much our world has been tainted by a false appreciation of education. Education is essential, but when it becomes more important than faith, then education is stained by the world. Our faith enhances our education. Our education cannot replace our faith.
I am going to tell you one that may shock you. If you read the bible well, you will see that Jesus is not looking for us to be perfect, but repentant. How many good Catholics get discouraged because they are not as good as they want to be. Jesus tells us that God makes us perfect, but that he came to heal the repentant sinner and not the non-sinner. The world teaches that people can be perfect. Jesus never teaches us that. When we look down upon the sinner, or we become easily discouraged by our own sins, we are stained by the world. Likewise, when we do not have a good sense of sin. We are stained by the world.
Bishop Fulton Sheen said that in many homes, a man can get drunk, get into a fight, and drive home drunk. But as long as he did not have sex with anyone but his wife, he committed no sin. When we do not have a good sense of sin that leads us to be repentant, we are stained by the world.
James calls us to get rid of every stain that the world puts upon us and to live a pure faith. That means we need to relearn our faith and get rid of everything that draws us away from being filled with the wisdom of God.
We need to see in what philosophies that we embrace are those things that are stained by the world. One of the philosophies that has destroyed many people's faith and I am talking as Catholics in general is the one that says we need to run from suffering, sacrifice and service. The stain of the world is upon us when we focus on making sure our life is perfect here. Indeed, this is the place for us to be if we are not living a perfect life or if we choose to sacrifice a perfect life in the service of others. The world teaches that there is nothing beyond here so make this life the most perfect you can. When we live that philosophy, we are stained by the world.
Clean yourself from the stains of the world by seeking Christ more and more and allowing him to clean your vision of holiness. Allow him to transform you with his word.
I cannot emphasize enough the need for Catholics to know and read the bible everyday, especially the New Testament. Knowledge of the word of God helps us to understand God's truth. That is the light that shows us the difference between the things of the world and the things of God. That light helps us to live the pure religion of which James speaks.
St. Benedict Parish
http://stbenedictsomerville.catholicismanew.org MA, US
Fr. Robert J. Carr - Pastor, 617 625-0029
Faith and Works, social justice, occult, St. James
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