We have likely been caught in the conundrum of faith vs. works. It’s always more comforting to witness faith clearly spelling itself out in works, than trying to see the presence of faith in someone, when the only evidence of it is in the church attendance on the part of a "believer", or, on the other hand, when trying to any sign of faith in someone who never or seldom darkens the door of a church. But the scriptures today help us out in this difficulty, at least regarding the presence of faith in someone not notable for darkening the door of a church.
This James whose letter is assigned as today’s scripture reading was an early martyr in the history of the nascent church, so his credentials in this matter are stellar. Right off the bat he challenges someone to demonstrate his/her faith without providing any evidence of "works" (v. 18) since he reckons he is on solid ground in being able to see evidence of faith in the works that a person does. This is an interesting inversion of the formula most of us go by, namely, that the faith we profess clearly manifests itself in the works that we do-the way we live. Then James goes on to spell this out in that great icon of faith, our father Abraham. For James asserts that this faith of Abraham came to light in the greatest "work" imaginable, when Abraham "…offered his son Isaac upon the altar" (v. 21). So we should be concerned, not only that faith becomes evident in works, but also that works can be indicative of one’s faith. James is firmly convinced that works justify a person (v. 24). This goes a long way toward solving the concern about those "good people" who are known for their kind and generous spirit, but apparently practice no faith, leaving us to wonder how they stand in the sight of God.
Jesus too has some interesting remarks on this kind of situation. He lays down His terms of discipleship in saying: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me" (Mk. 8.34). Here Jesus ascribes salvation ("save his life", v. 35) to one who takes up his cross and follows Him. Such a one will "not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power" (9.1), which could likely mean His death on the cross not many months forward. So, taking up one’s cross, living by one’s convictions, means that "they see the kingdom of God has come in power". In other words, salvation comes by the way one lives.
So what do we gather from all this? It seems that "works", the good things we do, are seldom a challenge to faith. In fact, they strongly suggest faith must be at work deep down in anyone who does them. On the other hand, it often happens that the quality of faith can be challenged by the absence of any commendable works on the part of a believer. There’s a void here that proves detrimental to one’s profession of faith. Of course, the ideal is for a marriage of the two: a life that both manifests a strong sign of faith by a person who is a constant, regular church-goer, and at the same time is a dedicated "worker" on behalf of the kingdom of God. Our best examples of this combination, of course, are the many saints who grace the pages of our calendars on every day of the year, such as St. Peter Damian today. But, without being too critical of those church-goers who give little evidence of serving others in their needs, let us at the same time be slow to weigh in against many others (perhaps even in our own families) who manifest no closeness to the church, but who display clear signs of a kind and generous heart, thanks to whom this world is a better place than it would be without them.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.