The second reading this week from James seems to set up an opposition between faith and works. The text has been read often in such a manner that some claim we need only faith without works. Others, however, assert that works are more important. Both positions in their pure form are considered heretical by the church. In the case of faith without works, faith supersedes works to the extent that no matter what we do we need only believe. In the case of works without faith, good deeds supersede faith to such an extent that we achieve salvation by our own efforts. Each position depends on a false dichotomy like, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”
The author of James would repudiate this chicken/egg separation. A middle ground allows for a genuine interdependence between faith and works which is actually the position taken by the author of the second reading. If one starts with faith, one can acknowledge that belief apostolically results in good works. One performs good works because of the gift of faith. If one starts with good works then one recognizes that there must be a God who urges me on to good works. Both faith and works have their origin in the activity of God. This middle position puts the emphasis on God’s salvific activity rather than our efforts either to believe or to work.
The more significant part occurs in the description concerning how the believer approaches the works. One who believes must not only show verbal concern for the person in need, but also must take actions to alleviate the hardships of the person. I had a missionary friend in South Korea who once told me that when Christian missionaries came into the area, they most often took care of the poor by starting hospitals or schools. By providing medication and education they allowed those in need to lead more fulfilling lives. They did not merely preach. Preaching alone was words without actions. Caring for the poor was action from deep belief.
Actions that care come from deep within a fervent belief. Consider how St. Theresa of Calcutta had a deep faith that resulted in undying concern for the poorest of the poor in India. Many of the people she served were not Christians or perhaps not even believers. Her faith allowed her to find a common humanity with these people and urged her to care deeply for them. Her works flowed from her faith; and her faith impelled her to serve. Faith and works are intimately bound to each other. One cannot ask whether faith or works come first. Both faith and works intertwine to bring about God’s reign in this broken world.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.