A Homily for Thursday in the Twenty Eighth Week in Ordinary Time
Thursday, October 19, 2023
Holy Ghost Church – 8:00 Mass
Romans 3:21-30; Psalm 130:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6ab; Luke 11:47-54
Protestants and Catholics have long butted heads over the meaning of Paul’s teaching in these verses in today’s first reading. Luther and his followers, on the basis of Rom 3:28, (For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law) have created an extreme contrast between “faith” and “works,” teaching that Christian charity and obedience are incidental to salvation. To be fair, while many Protestants do believe that Christians are saved by faith alone, they typically acknowledge that believers have a duty to live according to the gospel; to live out this faith in their lives.
Listen to what Saint Augustine says about faith and works. “We feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform goods works to be saved.… When Saint Paul says, therefore, that man is justified by faith and not by observance of the law, he does not mean that good works are not necessary or that it is enough to receive and to profess the faith and no more. What he means rather and what he wants us to understand is that man is justified by faith, even if he has not previously performed any works of the law.”
Catholic theologians stress the equal necessity of both “faith” and “works” for salvation. Unfortunately, this historic disagreement has spawned the common misperception that Protestants think we are saved by faith alone and Catholics think we are saved by good works.
A question that needs to be answered in this dispute is what Paul really means by “works of the law,” an expression that appears twice in Romans and six times in Galatians, has challenged the minds of both ancient and modern scholars. Is he speaking about works of charity or some other type of works? Opinions are divided into two main camps, and both are worthy of serious consideration.
One camp of theologians believe that Paul was referring specifically to the CEREMONIAL observances of the Mosaic law, which long defined the Jewish way of life and outwardly distinguished Jews from Gentiles. This camp believes that the “works” in question would include such things as circumcision, dietary regulations, sabbath observance, purity codes, and sacrifices. On this view, Paul denies that the sacrificial and purity rites of the Torah serve as instruments of justification; they have no power to justify the sinner and no longer function as badges of religious identity that mark out the covenant people of God from the rest of the world.
The second camp of theologians argue that Paul is referring to the observance of all the COMMANDMENTS of the Mosaic law. The “works” in question are not restricted to the ceremonial rites of the Torah, but include its moral commandments as well. According to this view, Paul contends that no act of obedience to any of the Mosaic laws can merit the justification of the sinner; we simply cannot work our way into God’s family and earn the eternal life that he offers as a free gift.
Regardless of which camp you subscribe to, the undisputed fact is that Catholicism has never accepted the premise that one can reach heaven simply by being a good person. A staggering number of ill-catechized Catholics may think and act this way, but no such doctrine is taught by the Church. Virtually all Christian communities agree, at least in their official statements of faith, that we are saved by the grace that is received through believing in Jesus Christ.
As Catholics, we need to rediscover the priority of faith in our vision of Christian salvation. Stressing the necessity of good works is entirely proper, since our final judgment will be based on whether we have lived a life of faithful obedience. But faith is even more foundational.
Scripture is clear that “without faith it is impossible to please [God], for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Faith is the front door into a living relationship with God. It is how we embrace God and attach ourselves to him.
Beyond that, faith enables us to see that salvation is primarily God’s work—he does the heavy lifting, even though he asks us to respond to his love with obedience. Good works are crucial to our salvation, to be sure. But we must not minimize the role of faith and our need to grow in faith. No real relationship with the Lord is possible without it.
Dr. Scott Hahn’s commentary on today’s first reading was used to provide much of the text for this homily. I am grateful for the many insights I gain from this entire series of Catholic commentary on the New Testament.
Hahn, S. W. (2017). Romans (P. S. Williamson & M. Healy, Eds.; p. 53). Baker Academic: A division of Baker Publishing Group.