1 Jun 2008
“‘Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who builds his house on rock.’” (Matt. 7:24)
In the name …
A father drops his son off at Sunday School for a little religion. Afterwards he picks him up and asks, "So what did you learn today son?" The boy turns to his father and shaking his head says, "If I told you, you wouldn't believe me anyway." That sums up basically the whole message of this afternoon’s Mass. St. Paul writes to the Romans that all a Christian need to do is believe in Christ. He goes on to say that no one can earn salvation independent of that faith. There is no amount of good works that anyone can perform to earn entry into heaven independent of our faith in Christ. Now this is all well and good, but the Gospel message clarifies this teaching so that people don’t go out and try to intentionally misread it for selfish reasons. Paul is not saying that if we have faith in Christ we can do whatever immoral act we like and excuse it as unimportant, or put another way that we can do as little as we like that is moral and spiritual. What Paul is saying is that with faith in Christ our works will fall into place as an expression of that faith.
The Gospel reading follows-up on this theme. The one who says to Jesus “Lord, Lord” is not necessarily the one whose faith is sincere. If deeds don’t reflect faith, then that faith is suspect. Just saying what is expected and memorized from childhood, but not doing anything about it probably means that the faith is more act than reality. Jesus goes on to say that the one who hears His word and then acts upon it is like the man who builds his house on a firm foundation. It will stand through any test. But the one who hears the word and does nothing, builds his house on a flimsy foundation that cannot support anything built upon it. The house collapses. We can’t earn salvation on our own, but faith on its own, a faith separated from any evidence that it is something more than just words, also cannot bring us to salvation. There has to be a union in our lives of faith in Christ and works for Christ. Faith leads to works, and works testify to faith. They can’t be separated.
The father who drops his child off at church and then disappears himself for a coffee and the newspaper is what both Paul and Jesus are talking about this afternoon. When the son replies to the father’s question of “What did you learn today,” by shrugging it off and saying, “You wouldn’t believe me anyway,” he’s just reflecting the real nature of the man. The son could tell him all about what he learned in Sunday School, the father could nod his head politely, but because the son sees that the father never follows through on any of these words with his actions, the son is right on the mark to observe that the father will not believe him because the proof of faith is what we do.
But there’s another nuance to this story that is often left unmentioned. It’s kind of delicate in religious circles. After Jesus warns that all those who merely say to Him “Lord, Lord” are not necessarily people of a sincere faith, their protestations to Jesus can be worrisome. These are people who back-up their faith with works. They prophesied in Jesus’ name, and they performed mighty acts. They had faith in Jesus as evidenced by using His name, and they had positive results because they could boast of performing mighty deeds. All of this seems to point in the direction of sincerity of faith, yet Jesus still says to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me you evildoers.” (Matt. 7:23) It now seems that faith is proved by works, but also that works need to be proved by why they are done. It may go back to Jesus’ comments in the Sermon on the Mount when He says, You may have heard the commandment do not kill, but I tell you do not hate; you may have heard the commandment do not commit adultery, but I tell you do not lust. It’s not just what we do; it’s what we feel that is also important to Jesus. Motive matters. I may not go out and actually harm someone, but if I fervently hate someone, in Jesus’ eyes, it is still wrong. I may not actually break my marriage vows, but if I passionately lust after another woman in my heart, in Jesus’ eyes, it is still wrong. Motive matters.
So even though these people who say “Lord, Lord” can back-up their voice with action, their action is motivated by a wrong reason, and because of this Jesus still calls their faith insincere. This is worrisome because it is one thing to divide faith from faithlessness on what is observable. The son observing that the father leaves him off at church and then disappears can figure out for himself even as a child that the man doesn’t really believe. But who can judge an unseen motive? I know the answer is God, but that’s to cheat the question a little bit. At some time in our own lives we have to make a judgment about faith. We can’t always wait for God to sort it out. Do we listen to this sermon or should we think twice about it? Should this parishioner be on the Parish Committee or teach Sunday School? This church says we should worship like this, but that church says we have to do it like that. Which one should I go to? Or even more unavoidably, why do I believe and practice my faith? What are my motives when I say “Lord” to Jesus?
It seems to me that the what and why of our faith are equally important. And the why, I think, must be based on the purity of our reason for believing in Christ. The more there are ulterior motives, the more we believe because of what we can get from belief, then the more suspect is our faith. Just as faith is expressed by works, faith also is accompanied by wondrous gifts of peace, hope, strength, and so much more. They flow together; they’re inseparable. But the motive has to be the faith not the gifts, just like the works cannot be separated from the motive of faith. This is the difficult message of Jesus’ two simple stories. May we hear them, and also act upon them so that we may build spiritual houses on a firm foundation. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo