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Today, as we did last week, we read from the catholic Epistle of Saint James. The word “catholic” is prefixed to the title of a few epistles, meaning that they are “universal”—directed not to any one person or to any one local Church, but are intended for the entire Church at large. They differ from the epistles written by Saint Paul, which are all directed either to individuals (e.g. Titus or Philemon) or to specific Christian communities (e.g. the former Hebrew Christians, or those living in the city of Corinth, or Thessalonica).
We also find an important difference of emphasis when we compare Saint James to Saint Paul. Paul speaks repeatedly of the need of faith for salvation, and often goes on against the “dead works” of the Mosaic Law. One is not saved, according to Saint Paul, by keeping the kosher food laws, nor through circumcision, nor through the offering of the animal sacrifices of the Temple, nor through any of the other ritual ordinances of the old Law. One is saved by believing the truths which God has revealed.
Paul speaks of “justification,” the process by which a person is radically transformed from a fallen sinner into a son or daughter of God, living in sanctifying grace, capable of doing things which are holy and pleasing to God.
This “justification,” then, is a free gift of God, who approaches a man with His divine grace, inspiring him to consider the truth of God’s revelation, and to accept that truth because God is incapable of deception—because God is Truth Itself. Even in the Old Testament, justification came through faith. Saint Paul quotes the Book of Genesis: “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God: and it was reputed to him unto justice.”[iii] With a great economy of words, our Lord said much the same thing: “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned.”[iv]
Yet, almost instinctively, we know that this saving faith cannot be just a one time, transient sort of belief. It must be enduring over time, quite unlike the beliefs of our childhood (say, in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny), or the passing fashions and fads that we humans are so quick to seize upon. And very likely—almost necessarily—this saving faith, an interior thing, will be manifested in an exterior manner by the way in which we live our lives.
Saint James tells us (not contradicting Saint Paul, but rather complimenting him) that our good works are necessary demonstrations of our saving faith. These good works, are not the dead works of the ritual Law, but rather the very much living works of charity and obedience to the moral law. Elsewhere in this same epistle, Saint James wrote:
So then, what are the good works of which saint James speaks? In abbreviated form, we heard them this morning: “to give aid to orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep one's self unspotted from this world.” Our Lord said much the same thing when He spoke about the separation of the good and the bad on judgment day; with those going to heaven who had fed Him when He was hungry, clothed Him when he was naked, or visited Him when He was sick; which He equated with doing these things for the “least of His brethren,” the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden.[vi] He would also say, “If you love Me, keep my Commandments” including His new Commandment that “as I have loved you, you should love one another.”[vii] As a summary, we might refer to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, as well as to the Commandments of the Decalogue.
Hopefully, you all know the Commandments, and I’ve already mentioned most of the Corporal Works. There is also a spiritual dimension to mercy:
Faith—the belief in God and what He has revealed—is of the utmost importance, the very beginning of salvation. But one has to allow those beliefs to shape one’s life. “The devils also believe, and yet they tremble,” Saint James tells us![viii] The devils know God and His revelations and His moral law with absolute certainty—with a degree of clarity and surety that we will not possess until we know God in heaven—but their knowledge is worse than useless to them, and indeed has worked their eternal damnation.
Finally, one last point. In today’s Gospel our Lord invites us to call upon the Father for the things we need: “Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.”[ix] But people are sometimes scandalized by this very verse. They pray for things—sometimes for things which the believe to be very good—but their prayers seem to be answered with a resounding “no.” Sometimes that “no” comes because we ask for things which we sincerely believe to be good and holy, but which God in His divine wisdom knows will be bad for us, or for those whom we pray, or bad for some unknown and unforeseen bystander, who might be hurt unjustly by our good fortune.
But, Saint James suggests also that “You ask and receive not: because you ask amiss, that you may consume it on your concupiscences.... God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.”[x] We ought not to be drawn to the things of earth—to the bad things or even to the good things—lest we might accidentally be drawn away from the things of God.
So, let me just close now with Saint James’s excellent advice:
[i] Epistle: James i: 22-27.
[ii] Romans iii: 21-24, 28.
[iii] Romans iv: 3, quoting Genesis xv: 6.
[iv] Mark xvi: 16.
[v] James ii: 14-18
[vi] Cf. Matthew xxv: 31-46.
[vii] John xiv: 15; xiii: 34.
[viii] Cf. James ii: 19.
[ix] Gospel: John xvi: 23-30.
[x] James iv: 3, 6.
[xi] James iv: 7, 8, 10.