Today in our second reading St. Paul speaks about faith and works! This issue of justification by faith or by works has been a contentious issue down through the centuries. We all know that this was one of Luther's biggest issues during the time of the Reformation. He contended that we cannot possibly be justified by our good works, because we are inclined to sin. Rather, we are justified by faith, meaning that God covers over our sinfulness by his own goodness. Our sin remains, says Luther, but we are justified by a gift of grace. Now, the Church has always taught that justification comes by a gift of grace. But, the Church has also taught that while we have certainly inherited original sin, we have concupiscence, which is the lasting effect of original sin, a disordered inclination toward sin. This inclination itself is not a sin. In other words, we might be inclined to sin, but we do not believe that we are fundamentally irreparable. In fact, the Good News of the gospel is that Christ can help us to overcome our sinfulness. He not only can forgive our sins, but through the power of grace won for us on the cross we can change, we can become holy people.
Just for a moment, think about your sins and shortcomings... We all have them! Wouldn't it be great to be rid of them forever! Wouldn't it be nice to have the power to overcome temptation, the power to reform our hearts? Today we read the last of the Sermon on the Mount. During the past several weeks we have been hearing Jesus' vision for the moral life. Jesus calls us to something new, something beautiful, and something terrifying. Jesus says, "you have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy; but, I say whoever looks with lust commits adultery, whoever hates commits murder, love your neighbor and your enemy." I contend that this is what faith and works is all about.
Never once does Jesus say that the things we do no longer matter. He never says: you have heard it said do not steal, I say to you it is ok to steal so long as you are nice on the inside... He never says it is ok to sin so long as you have faith. Jesus calls us to overcome our sinfulness, to avoid those actions contrary to the law. Our works are certainly important: you are the light of the world, let your good deeds shine before all so that they might praise your heavenly Father. When Christ calls us to follow him, and make no mistake we have all received that call, he calls the whole person. It is impossible to be a follower of Christ only with our hearts, only with our external life. No, Christ wants the whole thing.
Now this is certainly a challenge, and we cannot do it alone. This is why Christ says that the one who listens to my words and acts on them is like the person who built his house on rock. Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Whoever takes in this Word and puts it into action will have a firm foundation for life. Faith and works! Take in the word of God, this feeds and strengthens our faith! Act on it, putting the word of God into action makes us into the kind of people we want to be. Carrying out little virtuous actions eventually makes us virtuous people. What a program for the moral life: take in my words and act on them.
Wednesday we begin the season of Lent. This is a privileged season of grace whereby we draw closer to the Lord through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving so that we might be better prepared to celebrate the great feast of Easter. The goal of Lent seems to be accomplished by listening to today's gospel: take in the word of God and put it into action. One great way to do this is by reading the Bible. If it has been a while since you've dusted off your Bible, maybe that would be a great observance for Lent: spend a few minutes a day reading the Bible. If you don't know where to begin, start with Matthew's gospel. He is our patron after all! The more you read the Bible the more you take in the word of God.
Also, make the Mass a big part of your plans for Lent. Every Mass is a chance for us to increase our faith. At every Mass we receive the body and blood of Christ, who is the Word of God. At every Mass we are commanded to Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. At every Mass we take in the Word of God and we act on it. So, here at the Mass we are building our house upon rock so that we will be ready for whatever storms our lives may throw at us.