There is an old story about a woman with a beautiful set of valuable pearls. The story goes that the woman wanted to keep them safe so she contacted a bank for a safety deposit box. A concern was raised due to the fact that pearls need to be worn in order to keep their luster. So the woman made arrangements for a bank secretary to wear them once a week. The secretary with two guards would go into the vault each week. She would put on the pearls then go to lunch with the guards every week. In doing this the pearls retained their luster and were kept in good condition.
Today St. James reminds us that our faith, without good works, is dead. It would be akin to the pearls sitting in a vault not getting any use; they would lose their luster. St. James is exhorting us to see faith and works together as integral to each other. Faith in Jesus and the “living out” of that faith have to be connected or else the faith or works become empty and shallow.
Jesus Himself speaks similarly of this reality. One example is the parable of the sower. The seed that fell on good soil produced much fruit. When Jesus explains the parable He says: “But those sown on rich soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit thirty and sixty and a hundred fold” (cf. Mark 4:20).
Another example would be the tree that does not bear fruit. The owner sees this tree and thinks of cutting it down so it will not deplete the soil of nutrients. The gardener suggests giving it extra attention and care so that it might indeed bear fruit in the future (cf. Luke 13:7-9).
The integral relationship between faith and works is seen perfectly in Jesus Himself. His faith in the Father is lived out in His life. This is especially evident in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
In today’s Gospel account Jesus’ identity is the central question. Jesus raises this when He asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The responses come: “John the Baptist,” “Elijah” or “one of the prophets.” Jesus is a prophet but so much more so that the answers are not good enough. He then directs the question to the disciples. Peter answers on behalf of all, “You are the Christ.” This is the correct answer. Jesus then orders them not to tell anyone.
The reason becomes clear with the next section of the Gospel passage. Jesus wants them to have a correct understanding of His messiahship. His is not one of earthly power or rule as many were hoping the expectant messiah would be. Rather His is one of humble submission to the Father’s plan for salvation. He then says that the “Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.”
This is the first of three explicit references to His passion, death and resurrection. Peter objects, which elicits the rebuke of Jesus: “Get behind me Satan. You are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.”
Jesus calling Peter Satan reminds us that Satan was the one who tried, and was trying, to lead Jesus away from His mission; to tempt Him to forgo the impending passion; to abandon the will of the Father; to forsake His mission. Jesus does not succumb to this temptation; indeed, He professes the integrity of His person and mission.
Next Jesus teaches the disciples and the people who He gathers stating that: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Carrying the cross is part of discipleship. The “work” of faith in this case is to carry the cross; to lay down one’s life for the sake of all, to empty oneself for love of others.
Hence St. James can say, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” Living the faith entails the good deeds that dying to self produces to be authentic and integral. One who does this is the one who “loses his life for my [Jesus’] sake and that of the gospel” and thus saves it.
The life of faith is one of communion. Jesus came that we might be one with Him and with the Father. He came that we might also be one with each other through our union as adopted children of God. The integrity of faith and works becomes a powerful witness to the Gospel. Like the pearls that need to be worn to retain their shine, we need to do good deeds so that the faith may shine and attract others to its beauty.
Msgr. Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.