Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Paradox of Discipleship: The 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time


We have been getting a number of rousing challenges from Jesus in the past several weeks, as our Readings have followed the progress of his ministry, and Jesus repeatedly makes clear that following him is not going to be easy in any way.  

 This Sunday we get another challenge from Jesus to “fish or cut bait” in our relationship with him.  Paradoxically, however, if we think we are going to preserve our lives and comfort by turning away from him, Jesus warns us: long term, that’s a bad strategy.

1.  Our First Reading is one of the Servant Songs of the Book of Isaiah 50:4-9:


Is. 50:4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.  5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward.  6 I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.

7   For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8 he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me.  9 Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty? 

The Servant Songs are a collection of long poems in in the second half of Isaiah (Isa 40–66) in which a certain mysterious “servant of the LORD” speaks in the first person about himself and his mission.  Scholars have a multitude of theories about who the servant is.  I believe there are exegetical reasons, when analyzing the final form of the Book of Isaiah, for identifying this “servant of the LORD” as a royal figure (probably also priestly) and aligning him with the promised Son of David of Isaiah 9 and 11.  In other words, the “servant of the LORD” is the voice of the Christ. 

This passage is like a “little Isaiah 53.”  Isaiah 53 is the famous passage which seems to describe Jesus’ Passion ahead of time, and is read during Holy Week.  However, Isaiah 50 shares some of the same motifs and concepts, only more briefly.

In this passage, the servant is resolute.  He has been sent to encourage the “weary.”  He has not shrunk from persecution.  He knows God “has his back.”  Not only is he not fearful, he challenges his adversaries to step forward, because he knows God will vindicate him in any conflict.  He has “set his face like flint,” that is, made an irreversible decision on a course of action.

2.  Our Responsorial Psalm is 116.  We have seen this psalm many times before, and have discussed its significance as a todah psalm.  It is a favorite of ours, and a favorite of the Lectionary:

R. (9) I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
I love the LORD because he has heard
my voice in supplication,
Because he has inclined his ear to me
the day I called.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
The cords of death encompassed me;
the snares of the netherworld seized upon me;
I fell into distress and sorrow,
And I called upon the name of the LORD,
"O LORD, save my life!"
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
Gracious is the LORD and just;
yes, our God is merciful.
The LORD keeps the little ones;
I was brought low, and he saved me.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.
For he has freed my soul from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
R. I will walk before the Lord, in the land of the living.

The plain sense of the Psalm is that the he has been resurrected: he was caught “in the cords of death” and the “snares of Sheol ['the netherworld']” which is the realm of the dead; then God “freed his soul from death.”  The Psalmist doubtless was using hyperbolic and metaphorical language for some condition that threatened his life; nonetheless, the Church saw and sees in the plain sense of the Psalm a striking anticipation of the resurrection of Christ, and of our personal resurrections.  By the way, the sacraments are a participation in the resurrection, especially Baptism and Reconciliation, which we approach in a state of spiritual deadness and leave having been brought to newness of life.

3.  The Second Reading continues its march through the Epistle of James:

James 2:14   What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?  15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?  17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2:18   But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

This is the famous “faith without works is dead” passage, the gist of which was captured in a Rich Mullins song whose refrain ran: “Faith without works, is like a song you can't sing, it's about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

Even when I was a Protestant pastor, actively trying to “de-Catholicize” ex-Catholics so they could become members of my Church, I was unimpressed with all the theological pyrotechnics that were often set off in the debate about “salvation by faith alone.”  I always felt that, by the time you nuanced your understanding of “salvation by faith alone” enough that you could “squeak it by” what James says in this passage, you’ve more or less arrived at the Catholic position on the subject anyway.  Therefore, “salvation by faith alone” was never the big obstacle to my reconciliation with the Catholic Church that is for many others.  My issues were elsewhere.

What James says here is pretty self-explanatory.  Faith, to be salvific, must express itself in action.  Claiming to have saving faith but no demonstrated action is like telling all your friends and neighbors you can really fly, but declining to ever demonstrate your flight powers in person.  No one would take you seriously.  Neither should they take you seriously if you claim to have faith in Christ unaccompanied by the acts of charity (i.e. love) that faith makes possible. 

Nonetheless, let’s keep in mind that we are not “earning” our salvation.  Faith itself is a gift.  Faith enables us to receive grace, which is the power of God enabling us to act.  Salvation is all grace; it is all God’s power acting in us, that is, the Holy Spirit.

This Reading from James, while not chosen to fit with the Gospel, does share themes with it.  Jesus in today's Gospel reading will call us to put our faith into action: "Deny yourself, pick up your cross daily, and follow me."  The way Jesus poses the Gospel message in our next reading does not at all lend itself to a notion of "salvation by faith" in which "faith" is merely in a private belief that one holds, but does not totally transform one's lifestyle.

4. The Gospel is Mark 8:27:

27 And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?”  28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets.”  29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”  30 And he charged them to tell no one about him.

31 And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.  33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

34 And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  35 For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

The Gospel passage falls naturally into three sections.  In the first, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is: “Who do you say that I am?”  This is a fundamental question that every human being will have to answer at some point, in this life or the next: who do you say Jesus of Nazareth is?  A fraud?  A well-meaning but self-deluded holy man?  A failed prophet?  A great moral teacher who met a tragic end?  The son of God?  God become man?
Peter responds, “You are the Christ.”  This is an expression of faith.  Christ is Greek meaning “anointed one” and is synonymous with the Hebrew meshiach, “Messiah.”  The term is used about nine times in the Psalms to refer to the Davidic king: Psa. 2:2; 18:50; 20:6; 28:8; 84:9; 89:38,51; 132:10,17.  For the Jews of Our Lord’s day, “the Christ” referred to the anticipated Son of David, the rightful heir to the throne of Israel, who was expected to return and resume his reign over the nation at any moment.  By identifying Jesus as “the Christ,” Peter is acknowledging him to be the son of God by virtue of the Davidic covenant (Ps. 2:7; 89:3,20,26-27) and rightful ruler and lord of all Israel and the nations (Ps. 2:8; 89:27).  It is not yet a confession of “one person in two natures, fully God and fully man,” but it is a total recognition of and submission to Jesus’ lordship and authority.
            In the second section, Jesus teaches the disciples about his suffering and death, and Peter takes him aside and rebukes him for doing so.  Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, saying he has allied himself with Satan in this matter. 
            Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is, in one sense, a failure to understand Scripture.  Although there were Scriptures, like the passage from Isaiah 50 in the first reading, that implied the Christ would suffer abuse, the disciples, along with almost all Jews of their day, did not recognize the implications of these biblical texts.
            Peter’s rebuke of Jesus also symbolizes our own unwillingness to accept the suffering and death involved in following Jesus.  We would all prefer to follow a Jesus who is politically powerful and successful.  Understandably, we would prefer not to see our Lord mocked, abused, and killed, nor experience those same things ourselves.
            Many of us are fasting, praying, and otherwise working to support the election of pro-life candidates in November.  Well and good—so am I.  Yet even if pro-life candidates are defeated, and the party that has repeatedly shown contempt for the sanctity of life and Christian morality remains in power or increases its power, that is not a sign that God has failed.  Jesus did not promise us a successful political strategy, nor temporal success and power.  The “normal” situation of the disciples of Christ in the Gospels is a situation of persecution.  In a sense, practicing Christians have been “lucky” in America for the past several generations.  Now, things are returning to “normal.”  If we think Christianity must be synonymous with temporal or political success, we are unwittingly allying ourselves with Satan.
            Finally, Jesus concludes this Gospel reading by summarizing his message: ““If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
            This is not a comfortable message.  A cross was an instrument of torture and death—most people in Jesus day did not want to look at a cross or even think about a cross, because it was such a terrible way to die.  The condemned criminal had to drag his own cross to the place that he would be executed by crucifixion.  Jesus is saying, “If anyone wishes to follow me, you have to recognize that you are heading to death.  You have to give up hope in this life, like a man who knows he is going to be executed, and you have to daily accept whatever suffering comes your way because you are following me.”
            But here’s the paradox: it is only by giving up one’s life that one can “save it,” by which Jesus refers to eternal life, life with God in the world to come, which begins in our soul even now.
            If we choose to follow Jesus, it means a path of suffering and even death.
            On the other hand, if we choose not to follow Jesus, we are still going to experience various kinds of sufferings in this life—different kinds than if we followed Christ, but sufferings all the same—and we are still going to die, because no one gets out of this life alive.  And, after suffering and dying, we will not have the hope of eternal life, because we rejected Jesus’ offer of it. 
            Both suffering and death are inevitable in this life.  The attempt to “save” our lives is ultimately futile.  It leads to a lifestyle of fear and desperate flight from pain and discomfort.  The wise choice, even the obvious choice, is to give up our lives, to accept suffering and even death with Jesus, for Jesus, and in Jesus, and put our hope in the life to come, when we can say:
"He has freed my soul from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before the Lord
in the land of the living."
           

7 comments:

fact said...

hi John:
1-on the faith v. works angle: it seems to me that the 'versus' thing is is a false dichotomy, as if what we think is one part of our being and what we do is an entirely different severable part. This thinking is akin to dividing up the trinity into 3 Gods. The easiest resolution of this for me is to believe that faith is something you DO. Intellectual assent isn't faith, it is only the awareness that the demons have.

2-on the ordinary condition for Christians is persecution: a wise observation. Like all others I tend to wonder why God doesn't 'do something'. Yet he calls us into a mysterious fellowship of death instead, having his 'doing' take place within our souls. It's a very helpful observation that suffering and death will accompany us anyway, regardless of our discipleship or lack thereof.

De Maria said...

Hi fact,

I'm not John, but I find your comment intriguing. You said:


1-on the faith v. works angle: it seems to me that the 'versus' thing is is a false dichotomy,

I agree. But I can't quite get a handle on your explanation.

If I may, I believe "faith alone" is a works theology because faith is itself a work. There's no way around it. Faith is something we do and is therefore a work.
So, faith vs works is a false dichotomy.
However, we can't get away from the fact that Sts. Paul and James both adhere to this dichotomy. So there is something special about the work of faith which makes it stand out and apart from works.

as if what we think is one part of our being and what we do is an entirely different severable part.

Well, it is. Remember when God said in Scripture:
Isaiah 29:13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:

So, there is a difference between what we think and what we actually do.

James 1:22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

This thinking is akin to dividing up the trinity into 3 Gods. The easiest resolution of this for me is to believe that faith is something you DO. Intellectual assent isn't faith, it is only the awareness that the demons have.

That is true. But St. James equates it with faith, but makes it clear that it is a weak and superficial faith which does not avail to salvation.

James 2:18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. 19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

2-on the ordinary condition for Christians is persecution: a wise observation.

To me, persecution and suffering are two different things. Suffering, I think, is the ordinary condition. Whereas, we may or may not experience persecution in this life.

Like all others I tend to wonder why God doesn't 'do something'. Yet he calls us into a mysterious fellowship of death instead, having his 'doing' take place within our souls. It's a very helpful observation that suffering and death will accompany us anyway, regardless of our discipleship or lack thereof.

Suffering is a key to salvation. That is why, it is an ordinary or common condition in this life. We will not escape this life without suffering. If we do, wellll, Scripture says it best:

Hebrews 12:8  But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.

If we want to be glorified with Christ, we must first, suffer with Him.

Romans 8:17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

Sincerely,
De Maria

John Bergsma said...

Thanks for your comments, guys.

chris frederick said...

I love yesterday's readings and would like to comment on a couple things. The faith-works issue has always facinated me and seems to often be a stumbling block for many. The Protestants holding tight to Eph. 2:8-9 ("For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.") and Catholics: James 2 ("For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead."). I have noticed a problem arising from both camps and is a serious threat to the induvidual's salvation. Believing salvation is through faith alone can mislead one to stop at professing with their lips and not pursuing an intimate relationship with Christ. On the other side of the coin believing works are what's needed to solidify salvation one can also fail to continue on with an intimate relationship with christ. Faith isn't something that can be merely professed or be earned for it is a gift from God and can only be received by willing participant turning their life over to Christ and carrying his/her cross. Paul in Eph. and James in chapter 2 are describing the same thing in two different ways. Paul is saying that Grace from TRUE faith isn't a result of works and James is saying that faith that doesn't produce fruit or works is not TRUE faith. I feel when one truly opens their heart and becomes a new creation in Christ, a spring of living water cannot help but flow out onto others with Christ's love. For faith is easily professed out of lip service and works can easily be done in the absence of faith.

De Maria said...

Hi Chris,

chris frederick said...
I love yesterday's readings and would like to comment on a couple things....I have noticed a problem arising from both camps and is a serious threat to the induvidual's salvation.


I disagree that problems arise from both camps on this question. Faith alone contradicts Scripture and is not salvific. But faith and works is the anchor which was passed down to us from the Judaic religion and is synomymous with "keep the Commandments". There is no problem there and unless we keep the Commandments because of our faith in God, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Believing salvation is through faith alone can mislead one to stop at professing with their lips and not pursuing an intimate relationship with Christ.

Perfectly correct. Jesus said:
John 14:21 (KJV)
21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me....

On the other side of the coin believing works are what's needed to solidify salvation one can also fail to continue on with an intimate relationship with christ.

Pursuing works ALONE. This is ilustrated by Jesus in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

Luke 18:9-12
King James Version (KJV)
9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. 12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

These people trust in their works and not in God. They are, in fact, more akin to those who profess faith alone. It is they who stand on street corners proclaiming that they are saved by their faith alone.

Faith isn't something that can be merely professed or be earned for it is a gift from God

It is both a gift of God, freely given and poured into our hearts when it is merited.

and can only be received by willing participant turning their life over to Christ and carrying his/her cross.

I'm not certain about that since Scripture says that God rains upon the good and the evil.


Paul in Eph. and James in chapter 2 are describing the same thing in two different ways.

No, they are not. St. Paul is speaking of conversion and justification. St. James is speaking of justification.

Paul is saying that Grace from TRUE faith isn't a result of works

He is saying that the first grace is unmerited. That grace, in my opinion, is faith.

and James is saying that faith that doesn't produce fruit or works is not TRUE faith.

Agreed.

I feel when one truly opens their heart and becomes a new creation in Christ, a spring of living water cannot help but flow out onto others with Christ's love. For faith is easily professed out of lip service and works can easily be done in the absence of faith.

Agreed. This is true.

You might be interested in what I believe is a Sacramental element in St. Paul's teaching of faith apart from works. and what it means.

Sincerely,

De Maria

chris frederick said...

Thank you for your comments De Maria. I would like to say that TRUE faith is accomplished through our vertical relationship with God, while works of Christ spill horizontally over our brothers and sisters bringing our relationships in Him closer together. Both relationships flow through the heart with the Holy Spirit making them complete. TRUE faith is always followed closely by good works and never visa-versa lest any man boast, while good works can easily be performed in the total absence of faith. When true faith and works of Christ are intertwined with grace and mercy, a beautiful tapestry of love flows from the heart via the Holy Spirit and one becomes a true servant of Christ. No amount of works can bring us closer to Christ but pure faith in Him allows His works to flow from the heart. (John 14:12 “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”) For the vessel only containing works will end empty and destroyed while the vessel filled with pure faith in Jesus will overflow with rivers of living water for God. (John 7:38 “Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’” For faith alone is the foundation on which the works of Christ are built, and when one looks with the heart of Christ, what Paul and James are saying is the same thing. Eph. 2:8-9 and James 2 should never divide the children of Christ but rather bring us together in Him. God bless you and keep spreading the light.

Your brother in Christ

Chris.

De Maria said...

Beautifully stated, Chris.

Sincerely,

De Maria