Faith and works when belief is hard


Scripture: Mark 7: 24-30; James 2: 1-4; 8-10; 14-18 Nigel Bunce

Faith and works.  A Gospel story about healing a Gentile, and James’ assertion that faith without works is dead.  These ideas come together in today’s readings, with the problem of how to sustain faith in the face of personal disaster.  But these issues are consistent with many of Jesus’ teachings.

Context of the Gospel story

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals a Gentile woman’s daughter. Last year, we read a similar story in Matthew. Then, I focussed on Jesus’ seeming rudeness to the foreign woman. Today, I’m focussing on the context of the interaction.

By the time that Mark wrote his Gospel, Jesus had been dead for more than 30 years. Acts of the Apostles shows that the “centre of gravity” of early Christianity had shifted. From Jerusalem to the Greek speaking world, where Paul had worked.

Mark himself came from that world. He probably included this story to let Gentile Christians see themselves included in his stories about Jesus. It’s similar to why diversity is so important in Canada today.

A troubling question

However, Jesus’ healing stories raise a troubling question. Why did people needed to be cured in the first place? Did an almighty and all-loving God make them suffer? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people, or even allow evil to exist at all?

Theodicy is the technical word for trying to answer these questions. Ancient Israel had a simple answer. Someone had sinned, so God required punishmentt. Because, in Torah Judaism, God “visits the fathers’ sins on the children to the third and the fourth generation …” [Ex. 20:5].

Thus, the sinner might have been the Gentile woman’s daughter, the woman herself, or even farther back. But this answer presents God as judgemental and vengeful. Later Biblical authors mostly discarded that view.

Jesus offered a new “take” when he met a man born blind [John 9: 2-3]. The disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

However, I am equally uneasy with that answer. Because, it also says that God deliberately made the man blind. Not because of sin. But, so that Jesus could cure the man. As a sign of his divinity.

Divine choice or bad luck?

People often say things like, “Why did God allow Mary to get cancer (or other misfortune)? She was always such a good person.” My explanation is that what happened to Mary was plain bad luck. It says that God does not micro-manage the world or the people in it. This doesn’t seem very comforting.

However, we find a version of my comment in Scripture. ‘God sends his rain on the just and the unjust’ [Matthew 5:45]. Jesus comments that rain is a blessing. But, it falls on the fields of both virtuous and evil farmers. God does not pick and choose where the rain falls, farm by farm.

However, we human beings try hard to reject bad luck as the reason for misfortune. We feel intuitively that there must have been a reason. Surely, we could find the reason if we look hard enough. But that sort of thinking is exactly what the ancients used when they said sin is the cause of misfortune.

Ultimately, it’s a losing game. There is no answer. Whether it’s who got an illness. Or, who didn’t survive a suicide bombing at Kabul airport. Again, it’s a matter of bad luck. The victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So can we still believe in God?

However, if God isn’t an almighty Mr. Fix-it, why should we continue to believe in God in the face of random bad luck? I paid my “insurance premiums”. I go to church and pray regularly. So, why didn’t God pay out on the policy? Why does God let bad things happen?

However, theodicy doesn’t try to defend God against these charges. Instead, it tries to show that it is reasonable to believe in God despite the evidence of both natural and moral evil in the world.

Epistle of James: faith and works

Our reading from the Epistle of James adds two more ideas to this picture. James wrote about faith and works. He gave an example. How you might not behave the same towards a rich or a poor person.

Thus, your behaviour towards the rich or the poor person tells about your faith. Is it all words, or is it action? These days, we use the telling phrase ‘virtue signalling’ to describe the person who is all talk and no action.

For example, Ottawa politicians speaking fine words about Afghanistan from 8000 miles away. But doing very little. “Be doers of the Word, and not just hearers.”

Jesus also used the idea of being doers of the Word, and not just hearers. In the famous piece from Matthew’s Gospel, he said that as you do or don’t do various acts to the least of his brothers and sisters, it is as if you did them to Jesus himself [Matthew 25: 31-46].

Faith without works is dead

Later in today’s reading, James wrote that faith without works is dead. James disagreed with St. Paul, who said faith in Jesus Christ was the paramount goal to strive for. James then put this argument. If someone says ‘You have faith and I have works,’ thus my works reveal what my faith is like.

That is also the essence of Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount, “By their fruits you will know them” [Matthew 7: 20]. Jesus compared a good and a bad tree. James wrote about people and their works instead of using the metaphor of trees and their fruits. But the idea is the same.

I can summarize what I have said in the form of three intersecting ideas: James 1:22: “Be doers of the word and not just hearers.” James 2: 17: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Today’s Collect: “Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people, that richly bearing the fruit of good works, we may by you be richly rewarded…”

To sum up

That summary is the essence of theodicy – an explanation for why we might trust in God even in the face of evil and unfairness. But we must be clear. Faith in God is not an insurance policy that nothing bad will happen to you.

In a piece of Scripture that we usually read in Advent, the prophet Isaiah wrote of a glorious new creation. There would be no more weeping or distress, and no untimely death. Everyone would live to a ripe old age [Isaiah 65: 17-20].

It’s a nice dream. But it’s unrealistic. Because, it depends on the idea of God micro-managing a perfect world. In reality, we blunder about our slightly imperfect world, using our free will to make choices that are sometimes good and sometimes bad.