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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (16.09.18)
How do you, for example, sympathise?
A phrase in frequent use is ‘I do sympathise’. But perhaps consider if the users of the phrase appreciate that an emotion is not something in which to luxuriate but something that, with human cost, toil and self-discipline needs to be converted into action? Sometimes this will involve a physical engagement of some type, where appropriate and welcomed. Always, for the people of faith, it will involve intercessory prayer. Sympathy that equates to only a feeling isn’t real.
The Apostle James, the Church’s first Martyr, makes the point this Sunday’s in a 3rd consecutive extract from his Letter (2:14-18):
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says they have faith but do not have works? …. So faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
People sometimes describe a good happening or event as ‘a moment of grace’. God’s grace is unchangeable and continuously available to us. Our recognition of it may be momentary because we are tempted to be distracted. Unlike the prophet Isaiah, in this 24th Sunday’s first Reading (50:5-9), we do rebel and repeatedly block the flow of the Lord’s grace. How many realise that every time they block, or allow to pass untouched, God’s continuously graced invitation, they become ever less likely to respond positively?
The fact that a person’s claim to faith must be ethically demonstrable is an essential part of Christian teaching throughout the New Testament. St. Paul, whom, some might argue promotes the idea that a person is ‘saved by faith alone’ (Romans 3:28), also emphasizes (Romans 2:6), that “God will render to each according to their works”. And in 1 Corinthians 3:8 says: “Everyone shall receive their own reward (from God) according to their labour”.
However, purely intellectual beliefs do exist. For example, those skilled in mathematics will say that: ‘the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the squares on the other two sides’. And they can prove it in reality. I believe them but I do not understand them. My belief in the correctness of the mathematicians makes no difference to my life and how I live. It has no effect upon me
There is another kind of belief that, for example, two plus two equals four. No amount of clever argument that two plus two equals something else will change my belief. This belief is not only in my mind but it is also in my daily activity. If something has the price tag of 4p. I will refuse to pay 5p.
James is claiming that for a person’s belief to be true it must have a visible or related expression. For example, we believe that the Devil believes in God and the evidence is in the Devil’s continuous behaviour in tempting us to abandon God.
James’ letter is focused on the enslaved Christians, themselves converts from Judaism, trapped with other Jewish exiles in servitude to their captors far from their homeland. The temptation not to antagonise both their captors and their fellow Jews with external manifestations of their new faith must have been strong. It’s possible, even, that their fellow Jews blamed the Christians for their joint predicament. James encouraged each Christian not be afraid and to let her/his strength of faith be visible, not as a point of conflict, but as clear encouragement to all and especially to their fellow fledgling Christians.
Could a comparison be drawn between those early fledgling diasporan Christians and their 21st century counterparts in Europe?
The Diasporan fledgling Christians would have been exhaustively and unremittingly aware, in terms of daily pain and harassment, of the cost of their faith in Jesus of Nazareth that touched every aspect of their daily life. They would have had to hold on to their new faith and relationship with God, received through Baptism, in a doubly hostile environment. James urged them to live each day as people justified and sanctified by the life, suffering death and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. They were to show themselves to be such people without concern for the hardships it brought them.
The dangers facing European Christians in the 21st century is very different. They are not external but internal. European Christians are already disappearing, not through physical or mental persecution, but by being subsumed. Many of our Baptised brothers and sisters are being cleverly yet ruthlessly absorbed by corrupted nations and societies ruled by selfish greed. If a person truly grasps that God really loves them unconditionally, however unworthy that person considers themselves to be of God’s love, their response will be to try to love God by striving to prove to him that he is not loving them in vain. True love always gives rise to action.
That is why Jesus specifically cautions about Satan attempting to steal what is sown in the heart. When we yield to temptations we damage our capacity to nurture God’s Word, lessening the spiritual fertility of our hearts. Not only in Europe but throughout the world there is ample evidence of Evil being at work in the growing hopelessness with which many people feel overburdened. Society seems unable to stem the tide of violence, discrimination, the abuse of power and the disregard for human rights and dignity. People of faith in God must not only recognise the stealthy role of Evil but work to sow and cultivate God’s love as the only antidote to such evil.
The remnant ‘shells’ of Christianity, dotted across our landscape, have been left as a deliberate deception. It’s as if the Devil would even fund the upkeep of empty church buildings to make all peoples, including Christians, believe that ‘all is well’. The Baptised still resort to the external trappings of Christianity with less and less knowledge, let alone reverence, for their meaning and history.
The UK, for example, still professes to be a Christian nation listing Christmas, Easter and Pentecost on its official publications but, for the majority of its peoples, these are now no more than labels for public holidays. They have long since ceased in any sense to be ‘holy days’.
In any well-proportioned life there must be both faith and deeds. It is only through deeds that faith can prove and demonstrate itself. It is only through faith that good deeds will be attempted and done. Faith, true faith, will always overflow into action. Faith-inspired action begins only when a person believes in a cause or principle that God has presented to them. In the well-proportioned life there must be prayer and effort.
The 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel gives us three of Jesus’ parables on faith in action – The Wedding Attendants, The Talents and The Last Judgment – each supports the words we find in James’ letter
“ So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” (2:17)