Romans 1:16-17, 3:21-31
Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28
Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24
On my first and so far only visit to
As a Christian priest and pastor for going on nineteen years now, and as a teacher and catechist for another decade or so before that, I certainly have my own “soapbox speech,” that which bears repeating “till I’m blue in the face.” I actually get a little tired of giving this speech at times, but whenever I think of getting off the box, and letting go of this particular issue, somebody says something to make me get back on. Usually, it’s a casual remark in reference to a person’s own impending death or the impending death of a loved one, along the lines of, “Well, I haven’t been perfect, but I’ve lived a good life, and I’ve tried to do what was right, and I’m sure—or at least I hope—that will be good enough for God to let me into Heaven.” It’s the idea that living a “good life” in this world can earn us a “good life” in the next. After all, it seems “only fair,” and we have an endless inventory of “St Peter at Heaven’s gate” jokes to prove it! Only it makes me crazy, because it bears very little resemblance to the gospel of Jesus Christ or the faith of the Church.
Now, as I reflect on the matter, I’m aware that there is also a collective version of this attitude, one that doesn’t pertain to individuals, but to groups, such as the Church. In this version of earning God’s favor by living a good life, the “mission” of the Church is essentially social and political. The Church’s purpose is to “make the world a better place.” Sure, we worship and pray and socialize and maybe even evangelize along the way, but these are only means to the end of energizing us for our “real” mission, which is to bring about the perfectly just society that God has in mind for the world. Now this vision can take either “conservative” or “liberal” forms. A conservative’s idea of a just society tends to emphasize personal morality and individual responsibility governed by a set of universal values, while a liberal’s idea of a just society tends to emphasize economic and social equality governed by mutual tolerance of diverse sets of values. Either way, though, it’s tangible results that measure the effectiveness of the Church—whether that effectiveness is determined by the number of adult bookstores and abortion clinics that are shut down, or by the percentage of minority students graduating from the state university’s law and medical schools, or by the amount of third world debt that gets forgiven by the wealthy industrialized nations.
Yet, the idea that we can earn God’s favor, that we can obligate God in some way by what we do, either individually or collectively, is precisely the attitude that large portions of the New Testament—particularly the writings of St Paul—an attitude that large portions of the New Testament rail against. Today we are confronted with one of these very passages, from the third chapter of
But there’s a flip side to this as well. The “good news” of Paul—salvation by grace through faith, not by works—particularly as interpreted and explained by some of the reformers in the sixteenth century, sometimes is allowed to run amok. This can lead to a problematic theological notion that a serial rapist and mass murderer who says “Jesus, forgive me” with his dying breath goes straight to Heaven, while an ordinary sinner who never cheated on his taxes or was unfaithful to his wife but told an occasional white lie to protect people’s feelings and bounced a check once in a while, and who never “accepted Christ” as a conscious act, will go automatically straight to Hell without passing Go or collecting $200. This, too, is really a distortion of Christian truth.
Now, there is also, I believe, a collective version of this attitude as well. This is the frame of mind that sees the “mission” of the Church as solely evangelistic, solely about persuading people—even if it means resorting to emotional manipulation or thinly-veiled material inducements—the church’s mission is solely about persuading people to “accept Christ,” even apart from any relationship with the Church. Groups that adopt this strategy indeed do often engage in social ministry and adopt a very servant-like posture. But it is not difficult to discern that they do so only as an instrumental means, the way animal trainers use food to train dogs or lions or porpoises to do what they want them to do.
Yet, Scripture is awash in exhortation to good works, both personal and social.
Jesus said, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’
These words of our Lord are recorded for us in St Matthew’s gospel. Note the emphasis on doing, not just talking, and not just believing. Now hear these words of Moses to the people of
Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods which you have not known.”
Today’s liturgy confronts us with the classic tension between faith and works, between believing and doing, between a faith-filled talk and an action-filled walk. The truth, as always, lies not in favoring one side over the other, or in somehow splitting the difference and meeting in the middle, but in honoring both ends of the tension. The Psalmist was right; Paul was right when he wrote to the Romans. The faith that puts us into a right relationship with God, the faith that allows us to even have a conversation with God, is rooted in free and unmerited grace. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. As sinful human beings, there is nothing we can do on our own that would morally obligate God to take even a passing notice of us. We all deserve to be eternally banished from His presence. Yet, saving faith in God’s free gift of grace, if it is at all genuine, necessarily expresses itself in adherence to the high ethical demands of Christian discipleship.
The larger context of this gospel passage today is that long discourse in Matthew’s gospel that we know as the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus talks about “every one who hears these words of mine and does them,” the “words” he’s referring to are all that he said in this “sermon.” We’re talking about the Beatitudes: personal characteristics such as meekness, poverty of spirit, and mercy. We’re talking about foregoing personal justice and forsaking revenge. We’re talking about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile. We’re talking about staying married when we might be inclined not to. We’re talking about loving our enemies, giving to the needy with extravagant generosity, and behaving toward others in the way we would like others to behave toward us. Obviously, ethical demands such as these are likely to cut across the grain of our surrounding culture. I mean, how many best-sellers talk about getting ahead by being meek or merciful?! These are the high ethical demands of Christian discipleship, and they are likely to invite scorn at least, if not overt persecution. Yet, saving faith, rooted in God’s free grace, leads directly to such a lifestyle.
Jesus goes on to give us that compelling image of two houses: One is built on sand and one is built on rock. Works without faith—doing “good” things just for their own sake, apart from a lively faith in the author of all good things, or as a means of earning the favor of the author of all good things—works without faith is like a house without a solid foundation. It can be very beautiful and very comfortable. But when the rains come, and the foundation is compromised, the house vanishes. And faith without works—religious talk and religious observances that don’t express themselves at some point in concrete actions of justice and righteousness and mercy and love—this is like a solid foundation without a house: The rock may stand secure, unmoved by the storm, but who wants to live on a bare rock? A disciple has faith that expresses itself in works. Let’s be disciples! Amen.