Today’s readings get us to the heart of a very sticky matter. What is it that is most important in terms of our salvation? Is it faith in Jesus Christ? Or is it doing good works? This question has been the lightning rod of the faith for a long time now. Disagreement over the answer contributed to the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, and it is only recently that Catholics and Lutherans have come to some sort of agreement on it. So let’s see if we can come up with the answer in five minutes!
Ironically, today’s readings present both sides of the issue. On the one hand, there is the teaching found in the first reading from the book of Deuteronomy. Here, Moses tells the people that they have a choice. Live the way they want and turn away from God, or remember all that God has done for them and follow the Law. In the second reading, Saint Paul writes a contradictory opinion to the Romans: a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. So hearing that, what are we supposed to do? Do we just have to believe and have faith and let that be our salvation, or do we follow the Law?
So here’s the rule of thumb: in Catholic theology it’s never either one or the other, it’s pretty much always both/and. Jesus, of course, gives the answer in today’s Gospel reading: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Yes, we have to believe and have faith, but we also have to act on that faith. Saint James tells us in his letter in the New Testament that faith without works is dead. The essence of it is that if we really believe, then our faith will move us into action.
That’s what the Gospel is all about really. We believe in Christ and have faith because of his great love for us, because of the saving sacrifice of his life on the cross. That’s what brings us to salvation. But if we really do believe in that, then we also have to do what Jesus did. Maybe not in such a radical fashion, but we do have to lay down our lives. We have to forgive when forgiving is hard to do. We have to reach out to the poor and marginalized when we would rather not. We have to live as people of integrity when it would be easier to do what everyone else seems to be doing. That’s living the Gospel. That’s what people of faith do.
We gather here on the precipice of Lent. As we enter that holy season on Wednesday, we are called to take that time to become more authentic people of faith. The Church gives us the traditional ways to do that: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. What do we need to let go of so that we can be closer to God? We should fast from that. How can we give of our time, talent or treasure so that others can live better lives? That’s our almsgiving. And what do we need to do in our prayer and worship life to reconnect with God in ways that we have been lax on during the past year?
A lot of people say that you don’t have to give something up for Lent – that’s so old fashioned; you should just do something good. Well, again, it’s not either/or. You can do both things, and you should. We all need to give something up for Lent: unhealthy relationships, addiction to drink or drugs or food, time-wasting habits – all of those things keep us from God and don’t really make us happy anyway. Give them up at least for Lent!
And who knows, giving them up may just give us energy to do something really good for Lent too. Maybe giving up our Starbuck’s addiction will help us to give those dollars to the poor. Maybe cutting down on our television intake will give us the time to spend with our families in important ways or have more time for prayer or reflection on Scripture. Maybe getting up a little early to attend daily Mass will make our work day more peaceful.
The message for us on the precipice of Lent is that we all need to do something. None of us is in the right place with Jesus right now; we can always grow in faith and get closer to God. This Lent is the gift of time to do just that. So let’s go into it with a plan, and it doesn’t have to be grandiose. Let’s have an idea of fasting, almsgiving and prayer that works for us and helps us to make even one small step forward in our faith.
So Jesus tells us that our faith has to be grounded on belief in him and has to yield good things. We have to take that rock solid foundation of Christ and build a life of faith that reaches out to others in their need and witnesses to others how much our God means to us. We never want to hear those words, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” And one great way to get there is to make the most of these upcoming forty days.