Ordinary Time 24, Year B

God was pleased ... to reconcile all things to himself through Jesus Christ, ... by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Col. 1:19-20)

James’ insistence that faith without works is dead seems to refer explicitly and directly to Paul’s insistence that “a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28; cf. also Rom. 4:2; Gal. 2:16; 3:8). Such reference is perhaps indicated by the fact that both James and Paul make use of Gen. 15:16 to bolster their arguments. And yet the conclusion that the former draws from the cited text differs from the conclusion the latter draws (Jas. 2:23-24; Gal. 3:6, 24). James teaching, it has been alleged, contradicts Paul’s teaching.

But following many exegetes, I not believe there is a contradiction between the two New Testament writers, both inspired by God and moved by the Holy Spirit. In fact, Paul acknowledges that faith works through love and that it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God, but it is those who do it who will be justified (Gal. 5:6; Rom. 2:13). And I do not think James would consider Pauline faith dispensable, faith in the sense of trusting commitment to God through Jesus Christ and not only in the sense of belief that there is God, which demons can also have to their detriment (Jas. 2:19). Precisely for James, good works presuppose faith as genuine commitment of oneself to God through Jesus Christ and are founded on it. It appears, then, that the most one can say about James’ teaching is not that it contradicts Paul’s, but rather it is a corrective critique of those who, citing Paul’s teaching that they misinterpret, live as though faith makes no moral demands on the faithful.

As I see it, however, what unmasks the falsity of the dilemma “either faith or works” is a life lived in accordance with the Christ’s saying:

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes
to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his
life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.

For I do not think there is anyone more trustingly committed to God through Jesus Christ, Yahweh’s suffering servant, than the person who, imitating the one and only mediator between God and human beings, does not rebel, turn back, or despair, regardless of the torture, the buffets and the spitting he is subjected to, and goes on to commend his spirit into the Father’s hands by virtue solely of the promise, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” And, on the other hand, can there be a greater and more effective work of love than that of someone who lays down his life for his friends in imitation of Jesus who bridged the gap once for all between faith and works?

Indeed, there is no opposition between faith and works and they coalesce James’ insistence and that of Paul for the person in whom is realized the Vincentian ideal: “We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ.”