To ‘be right with God,’ we must show it through our actions

  • August 28, 2012
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Sept. 16 (Isaiah 50:5-9; Psalm 116; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35)

What sort of person allows the sort of abuse experienced by the Suffering Servant of Isaiah? People would have various interpretations: he is paralysed by fear; he is a coward; he is a masochist; he is crazy; he is a victim. When we look at the text carefully, however, we see an individual who set his face like flint (think of Jesus in Luke 9:59) rather than a passive victim. He allowed the violence against him because he knew that it was due to what he taught and stood for. It is always important to separate ego from the will of God, especially when we claim to speak on God’s behalf. He was absolutely sure of himself — not in the manner of a fanatic or megalomaniac, but one who had experienced the God of Israel and knew that God stood behind him. He knew that he would be vindicated by events that would unfold in the very near future — the release of the exiles in Babylon and their return to Jerusalem.

The prosperity gospel — the dubious gift of TV evangelists — has a long history. Some form of it was probably evident in the community to which the Letter of James was addressed. This distorted theology focuses on “what God can do for me” and does not expend time and energy meeting the needs of others. There is another version of this theology — one that is only concerned with personal salvation. As long as I am “right with Jesus” and therefore saved then the needs of others are of merely peripheral interest. Added to this is the Christian tendency to valorize suffering for its own sake — “the cross” becomes an excuse for tolerating the presence of gross inequality and injustice. James took aim at all of these tendencies with his insistence that following Jesus — being right with God — means faith plus action. Faith, as well as love, is always expressed in deeds. It is not a matter of winning God’s favour or earning one’s salvation. Simply put, faith is not genuine and complete unless it finds concrete expression.

How do we arrive at the truth about anything? This question has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians for millennia and there is no easy answer. It does seem, however, that the truth is not necessarily found in either the academy or the marketplace. Many people are content to echo uncritically whatever they hear from politicians, the media, authority figures, communal traditions or conventional wisdom. In so many of these cases this amounts to shared ignorance. On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus conducted a little opinion poll. What are people saying about me? The obvious answers came thick and fast: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. There was no consensus except that Jesus was someone extraordinary. Peter had been uncharacteristically silent, but then he spoke up: “You are the Messiah (anointed one)!” He was not merely repeating what he had heard but had reflected on the deeds and words of Jesus and listened to the stirrings of the Spirit within him.

But acquiring a portion of the truth does not mean understanding it or that we have the bigger picture. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Christ, but He quickly disabused the apostles of their misconceptions of the term. Sweeping aside traditional understandings of the Messiah, Jesus insisted that His role was to suffer, die and rise from the dead. The apostles were horrified and a shaken Peter tried to talk Him out of it, offering alternative scenarios and “reasonable” arguments. Jesus raised the bar even further: anyone who wanted to be His follower could and should expect the same. Not exactly an inviting “recruiting poster,” and yet so many over the ages have chosen to follow in His footsteps.

We are probably surprised at the way in which Jesus turned on Peter in fury, calling him “Satan” or adversary. Peter was tempting Jesus, not deliberately, but by his use of conventional human values, opinions and emotional reactions. Jesus probably felt the allure of those arguments and recognized them for what they were.

The will of God or God’s ways should not be confused or identified with human motivations or desires. Our claims to truth should always be tempered with humility and openness to deepening our understanding.