A senior priest I know, I’ll call him Father A, tells this story of his first experience at a healing service:
A skeptic himself regarding the charismatic movement, he was attending the service to humor his buddy, Father B. Father B had suggested that Father A might find some relief for his chronic indigestion. The presider was a well-known exponent of the charismatic healing ministry. After a period of hymn singing and community prayer, she invited people who were experiencing something that needed healing to come forward for a laying-on of hands. A number of the congregation began to form a line, but Father A was not among them. Fr. B nudged him and said, “A, go on up. You've got nothing to lose, and it might help your stomach.” Fr. A finally relented, approached the healer, submitted himself to the laying-on of hands, returned to the pew—and promptly popped a Gelusil into his mouth. When Fr. B responded to that gesture with a look of disapproval, Fr. A explained, “Hey, faith without works is dead
But those who are acquainted with the longer history of Catholic/Protestant debate are aware that the relationship of works to faith has not always been a simple matter. Martin Luther called the letter of James, from which this Sunday's Second Reading comes, “an epistle of straw.” What distressed Luther was the way that James seemed to deny the very teaching of St. Paul that Luther found most encouraging, the assertion found at Rom 3:28: “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Burdened by what most of us recognize to be the Renaissance church's over-emphasis on such external “works” as indulgences, he found release in this teaching of Paul. Embracing that insight, he found James’ apparent denial of what Paul had said in Romans absolutely repugnant.
For the last four hundred years, this issue has been a cause of much misunderstanding between Catholics and Protestants. Now that we are paying closer attention to context in our interpretation of biblical statements, it has become a fairly simple matter to resolve the seeming contradiction between Rom 3:27 and Jas 2:14-26 (which also includes the statement, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” Jas 2:24). Most commentators feel that Paul would have agreed with James. For in Romans 3, Paul uses “works” not to refer to human activity in some general way; he is speaking specifically of “works of the law,” carrying out the 613 prescriptions of the Torah as a means of salvation. He knew well as a Jew that God's saving covenant is a product of divine initiative, and that the human carrying out the Torah prescriptions should be a matter of responding to that loving initiative.
James, on the other hand, was speaking of “works” in another sense. By “works” James meant works of charity, the implementation of the mandate to love one's neighbor. If one reads the whole of the letter to the Romans, it is clear that Paul, too, insisted that such works are essential to the authentic life of faith. See Romans 12-14, which are all about the Christian obligation to exercise one's gifts for the building up of the community. Indeed, Paul devotes the final section of all of his letters to the works that the Christian life of faith entails.
This Sunday's Gospel reminds us that the life of Christian discipleship involves works of a certain kind: “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” (Mark 8:34-35). It is clear from the rest of Mark that the “life-losing” activity to which Jesus refers (the one that really saves) is the laying down of one's life that comes with identifying with Jesus as one's Lord, and with putting others before oneself. Without the works that flow from such an orientation, “faith” is dead.
And the “life-saving” activity (the one that really loses) is lording it over others and clinging to wealth. Works that flow from this orientation are also dead. The self-giving works that flow from a true following of Jesus demonstrate the presence of a living faith.