Sunday, August 7, 2016

Faith and Works

                                    19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

All three readings today deal in one way or another with the great virtue, "Faith." The author of the Book of Wisdom says the Hebrew forefathers gained courage from the "sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith."  In today's second reading the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews concludes with the famous statement about Abraham.

            By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac,
            and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son...

Faith is one of the three great virtues along with Hope and Charity. Unlike the latter two it has been the source of much controversy in the history of the Church. You could almost say that it was the single great issue in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther criticized the Church of his time for its failure to see that faith was the key to salvation and not good works. In his arguments Luther referred to the very passage in Hebrews that we read today. Even today, Protestants still speak of "justification by faith alone."

But what exactly is Faith? We've all heard the word used in so many ways. We speak of our "Catholic faith," and sing of the "faith of our fathers." We say that something is an "article of faith" or ask someone to "take something on faith." For most of us faith is the same as belief, especially a belief in something that we cannot otherwise understand.

However, the word "faith" comes from the Latin word "fides" from which our word "fidelity" is derived. In this sense it is not a belief but a habit of loyalty, of doing one's duty. The motto of the U.S. Marine Corps is "Semper Fidelis" or "Always Faithful." I believe that this motto means that a Marine will never leave his post or shrink from his duty. He would certainly never betray or let down a comrade or his country.

In today's gospel our Lord makes it clear that "Faith" means doing one's duty especially when no one is watching or forcing us. He calls us stewards meaning that until He comes it is up to us to care for our brothers and sisters. He says,

            Blessed are those servants
            whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival....
            You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
            the Son of Man will come.

Now one of the major themes of our faith is stewardship. How many times does our Lord refer to stewards, both just and unjust? How many times does He tell us not to hide our talents or squander them? How many times have we heard Him say that we have to use our gifts to the full? Even today,

            Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
            and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.

Faith, then, is itself a kind of good work or more correctly, it is a habit of doing good work on a regular basis. That is why we speak of "practicing" our faith since we must work on it each and every day. The opposite of faith is infidelity or unfaithfulness. For example, when a husband or wife is unfaithful, we all know that it's not a question of believing in marriage, but that they are not living up to their vows.

Even though Protestant leaders like Martin Luther placed such a reliance on scripture, they still had to reject the "Epistle of St. James" largely because of its emphasis on works. That's where we find the famous words, "Faith without works is dead." It's not just that epistle however, for whether it's Jesus, Peter, John, or Paul they all agree that no one can say they love while failing to actually perform the work of love.

It's not lack of belief but the failure to do the work of the Lord that will assign us "a place with the unfaithful." The unfaithful mistreat those who have been placed in their care, preferring to live only for themselves.

In today's reading St. Peter asked, "is this parable meant for us or for everyone."  Isn't it obvious that it's meant for all of us?

Our newspapers tell us that a growing proportion of teenagers have no religious faith. For those who get through high school with their faith intact, college is often a faith-shattering experience. In the same place we read about the high incidence of teen suicide. Fidelity in the workplace seems to be a thing of the past on the part of both employers and employees. Of course in politics anything goes. Just don't get caught.

In no field of endeavor would we take such little care as we do with our own lives. Athletes and musicians must practice every day to keep in shape. The good ones are "religious" about training in order to reach their goals. When our Lord says, "Gird your loins and light your lamps," He is talking about getting ourselves spiritually in shape. What's our goal? What do we really value?

            For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.


Reading 1. Wisdom 18: 6-9
Reading II. Hebrews 11: 1-2, 8-19
Gospel. Luke 12: 32-48 (where your treasure is).

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