Faith, works, and works of the law

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11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: June 13, 2010
2 Sam 12:7-10, 13; Ps 32:1-2, 5, 7, 11; Gal 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36-50

We hear St. Paul say, in the second reading: “that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

We have several Sundays here when we are hearing from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And I would expect that many, maybe all, of you here today, if you have ever been in conversation with a particular kind of energetic Protestant, have probably heard some reference to this passage of St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians, or perhaps in his letter to the Romans. And they’ve said to you: “We believe we are saved by faith. Don’t you Catholics believe that you are saved by works? This salvation by works is horrible. How can you believe that? It goes against the Scripture!” And I wonder what you thought or said.

Now this is a matter that we need to sort out. So let us start by realizing that the way that the question is framed by such a person is actually misleading and sets it out wrong. For notice that they have set against each other “faith” and “works.”

Now that word “works”: the underlying Greek word is ergon, work, singular; or erga, works. And if we look throughout the New Testament at all the ways that word gets translated—it is used very frequently—we see that it gets translated different ways; not because it means different things, but just according to how the sentence flows. So sometimes we will see it translated as “works”; sometimes as “deeds”; sometimes as “actions”; sometimes as “the things we do,” “what we do.” Because this concept is really ordinary. As we live our lives we make choices, we act, we don’t act, we do things, we don’t do things. To live is to act in one way or another. These erga, these deeds, these works, we are constantly producing.

And so when we look at the New Testament as a whole we see this word erga, works, deeds, actions, the things we do, used sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way, sometimes in a neutral way. And that is what is to be expected: because our actions are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes neutral.

The problem, of course, is that when it gets translated different ways—and especially if the translators do it intentionally, so that every time it gets used in a negative way it’s “works,” but every time it gets used in a positive way it’s “deeds” or something else—then people can form a distorted image.

And on this general level we have to recognize—and this would be, perhaps, the first response—that, since we’re always acting, always doing, always working on one way or another—then what would it mean to deny that our works, our actions, have anything to do with our salvation? To say that what we do doesn’t matter? For that is what a denial would mean—if our works, our deeds, have nothing to do with salvation.

And then we have arrived at what St. James said in his letter [2:14-26], where he said, if you tell me you have faith, but have no actions to show it, no works, then why should I believe you? If you tell me you have faith but no actions to show, then there must be something wrong with your faith; it would seem your faith is dead. Because to live is to do one thing or another; and if you’re not doing things that faith does, then your faith must be dead.

But beneath this general usage, of works in general, we have two special cases. And that is where we have two special phrases that are used, in just a few places. One of these is the phrase “dead works,” which is found in the Letter to the Hebrews, and only there; and that is used in a negative way. The other is the phrase “the works of the law,” and that is the phrase that we hear in today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians; and he also uses it, saying similar things, in his letter to the Romans. And this phrase, “the works of the law,” is also used in a negative way.

So the real question is not: are we seeking to be saved in a way that involves works; but: are we seeking to be saved in a way that involves the “works of the law”? Which therefore should make us ask: well, what are these “works of the law”?—as opposed to just a general way of speaking of the way we live, the things we do in our actions?

In this letter to the Galatians, Paul is writing to people in the region of Galatia, which was in the center of what is now Turkey. These were people who had become Christians through his preaching, and perhaps that of others; who had been baptized; who had been confirmed; who were participating in the Mass; who had received the Holy Spirit. And these people, primarily, had not been Jewish. Perhaps they had learned from Jewish people, but they had not been raised Jewish; they had not converted to Judaism; they had not adopted all of the Jewish ways and laws and customs for themselves.

So, in a sense, they had started with Christ. And now people have come through—Jewish Christians—who have said, “You know, you have to fulfill these works of the law if you want to be right in the sight of God.” And so they are saying, “You know, you need to be circumcised. You need to follow the food laws. You need to follow the ritual purity laws.” And St. Paul is saying, “If you move from your faith in Christ to these works of the law, you are moving backward.”

Because these works of the law were of great use in the history of the People of Israel. They helped them to grow—in learning about God; in learning how to live. They helped them to become more attached to him. They pointed forward to the greater fulfillment that Christ would bring. They taught them what holiness was like. But to move from that to the fulfillment that Christ brought was a step forward.

For the Galatians, it would be a step backward to return to these works of the law. For the Galatians have started with what St. Paul describes, this life in Christ, as he says: I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God. For Jesus had lived a life of faith in the Father, as the Son of God; a life of openness to him in prayer; of trust in his will; of love, of obedience. And St. Paul had responded to Christ in the same way; and then entered into that relationship of sonship with the Father, through adoption. And so it was that his life was changed, and that his day-to-day, even minute-to-minute life, was transformed, as he was filled—in his heart, in his breathing, in every one of his thoughts—by this faith that characterized Christ and that now characterized him as he entered into this union. And so it was that he was very much right with God—this phrase “justification” or “justified”—as he stood in this relationship of sonship, with and in Christ.

And the Galatians had started there too. But if the Galatians should retreat to the works of the law, then it would be a retreating away from this living faith, from this relationship, from this moment-to-moment communication, from this trust. And it would instead be a retreat to say: okay, rather than being in this living relationship, I am going to step back and take these written rules from God; and if I do them, I’m told, then God will see me as being right; I will be right with God. And St. Paul says: Don’t step back. Stay in that living relationship.

Now, we might well think, “Well I’m not tempted to turn to circumcision and the food laws and the purity laws! No one is telling me that I have to do that in order to be right with God! So I’m fine; no problem.” But this description of the function that the works of the law had for the Galatians can very well fit things in our lives. And notice: these works of the law were not bad in themselves; they had a place. But for the Galatians to embrace them would have been a step back. So let’s consider just a few examples. And this could be anything.

Let’s say, for example, the rosary. The rosary can be, and is, a wonderful and powerful tool of spending time in prayer; in meditating upon the mysteries of the life of Christ and of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But it is also possible, if someone wants to, to recite it completely mechanically. And if someone were to say, “You know what, I’m going to step back from this living relationship I’ve had, and I’m just going to pray the rosary; because I have these promises here of what will happen if I pray the rosary. So, without really entering into it in my heart and spirit, I will say these words once a day and that will make me right with God.” Well, then, that person would have taken the rosary, which is a good thing, and made it a work of the law in their life.

Now, let’s say someone else, perhaps that person’s son or daughter, having seen that example, says: “Whoa, you know, I don’t like this whole Catholic way of living. You know, I have this pamphlet that says, if I pray this prayer of faith, that I’m saved, and that’s good enough for me. So, I’m going to pray this prayer of faith, and then that will be fine: I’ll be right with God.” Now, again, that prayer of faith is a wonderful thing. But for a person who uses it as a way of stepping back, then that prayer of faith also becomes a work of the law for that person—

—which would be an interesting thing to say to an energetic Protestant. Did their prayer of faith actually function as a work of the law in their life? Are they actually living the life of faith; or are they depending on what is actually a work of the law, even as they speak against “works”?

And there are so many ways, so many good things, that any one of us can make into a work of the law if we decide that we want to step back from this living relationship of faith and retreat back to something more separate, more safe, more distant, from that relationship of faith that Christ invites us into.

We find an illustration of the two possible positions in the Gospel. For we have the Pharisee and we have the sinful woman. The Pharisee, we read, had invited Jesus to dine with him. But having invited Jesus to dine with him, he then behaves rather strangely. For, as Jesus ends up saying to him, he did not do the normal, customary things that one would do for a guest when they arrived. He did not give him a kiss of greeting; he did not wash his dusty feet from the road; he did not give him a little bit of perfumed anointing to help to make his stay there more pleasant. And indeed, as we see in this story, he isn’t even talking to Jesus. Now, it doesn’t seem that he’s antagonistic towards him, but we find him thinking in his own head, observing critically what is going on. And Jesus responds to his thoughts, not to his words.

This Pharisee invited Jesus in, but he seems not to want to have anything to do with him. And this can be the case in our lives—where we have invited Jesus, but then walked away at a distance. Or even done something like come to Mass but only because the Church says we have to. So we check it off as a work of the law; and if we do that then we’re like the Pharisee.

In contrast to the Pharisee is this woman, who was engaging in some sort of sin, some sort of publicly recognizable way in which she was not living the way that she should have been. But we see that she engages in contact; that she pours out something that is very precious to her, her ointment; that she pours out all the emotions that are inside her, in her tears. And that, whereas the Pharisee stays at a distance, this woman enters into constant contact, constant expression, constant communication.

The Pharisee is depending on what is, for him, some sort of work of the law; but the woman has entered into faith and love, being receptive to Jesus, communicative with Jesus, trusting him. And so Jesus can say to that woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

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Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 8:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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