Isaiah 50:5–9a; James 2:14–18; Mark 8:27–35
Our epistle reading comes from James and is one of the well known statements in scripture on faith and works. Sacred Tradition attributes this letter to the apostle James the Less, son of Alpheus (also known as Cleopas) and his wife, Mary, who was called the sister of the Blessed Mother Mary. It seems unlikely to me that a family would have two daughters named Mary. I think it’s more likely Mary of Cleopas was the sister-in-law rather than a sister. Aramaic was not very specific in these distinctions.
That relationship is why James the Less is called the brother of the Lord. Aramaic didn’t have words for cousin or uncle either, and this lack of distinction very likely carried over into the Greek text when the early Christians transmitted these traditions. So this epistle is attributed to James the Less, the brother of the Lord. Sacred Tradition also identifies him as the first bishop of Jerusalem, and the Acts of the Apostles suggests the same.
Martin Luther didn’t care for this letter and called it the “epistle of straw” and “unworthy of an apostle.” He particularly didn’t care for this letter because it explicitly links faith and works to each other. Luther wanted to say that works were of no use, and that faith alone is what saves. But this entire letter talks about the necessity of joining our faith to our actions—that faith with no movement toward justice is not true faith. Faith, if it does not result in works, is dead. Our action is what demonstrates whether the faith we proclaim is the faith we truly hold.
James is saying, “Walk the walk. Don’t just talk the talk.” We have to do both together. Catholics are not either/or people but both/and people. We must both have faith and demonstrate it with works. I have to admit that I fail at this on many occasions. Fortunately, I am in good company.
In the gospel reading from Mark, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The Gospel of Mark is frequently understood to be the first-hand experience of St. Peter essentially dictated to John Mark, a disciple and follower of Peter. Mark is also mentioned in the book of Acts as the son of yet another Mary.
That name Mary was number one in the Top 10 list of Jewish baby girl names in year 2 AD.
Anyway, what is unique about Mark, and what differentiates his presentation from the same accounts in Matthew and Luke, is just how harsh Jesus is with the twelve apostles, and the unflattering light in which Mark portrays them. In this passage, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am,” and Peter responds correctly, “You are the Christ.” But moments later, when Jesus explains what His anointing really means, Peter tries to correct Him, and Jesus comes down hard.
“Get behind me, Satan!”
That’s not much of an endorsement, and it’s nothing like how Matthew presents the same account. Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus says, “Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah…. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”
Well, that’s St. Peter, God bless him. He sometimes reminds me a bit of Joe Biden, but more often he reminds me of myself.
Why does Matthew have the whole “gates of the kingdom” business and why does Mark’s account leave that statement out? Why would an account from the perspective of the first of the apostles, Peter, only portray that same apostle in such a negative light?
I suggest that this difference subsides in St. Peter’s desire to walk the walk first and foremost—that he had no interest in being the first of the Twelve. He wanted to live his faith visibly and be an example. If you recall, this Peter when first confronted by Christ in Luke 5:8, says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” In 1 Peter 5, he refers to himself as an elder among elders. Peter is clearly the leader of the Twelve, but anywhere in scripture that his story is told, he is presented as a bumbler and a sinner. And I think that was by choice. He recognized his need for redemption, and he responded by making himself less, by trying to divert attention from his role as the first of the twelve and by letting his actions be the measure and example of his faith.
Now, I can say unequivocally that that is not my tendency. Heck, I used to be a nightclub musician and spent a good portion of my young adult life on stage saying, “Look at me!” I have to make a concerted effort to make myself less.
But of course, seeking all that attention does no good whatsoever, if the whole point is my personal glorification. If I act simply to draw attention to myself, I’m just a clashing symbol or a noisy gong, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians. Why do I act at all? Why do I attempt any good? Is because of my faith? Is it because I believe what I profess? This point cuts both ways. Our faith must be borne out in action, and our actions must… must reflect our faith. There is not either/or for us in this case as Catholics. Our faith and our action must be one, or neither is sufficient.
Christ wants our hearts, heads, and bodies. We have to give ourselves completely to Him. After all, that’s what He did for us up there and what He does for us weekly right there.
St. James doesn’t give us a whole lot of wiggle room, nor does our Savior. He’s the one who says in this gospel, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Well, what else does that mean? Does it mean that we simply say, “WORD, Jesus! You the MAN!” and be done?
Or does it mean something else?
It means something else. It means that we not just say but do. It means that we put our faith and lives, if needed, on the line—whether that means feeding the poor and serving the homeless when it is not permitted, or when it means opposing unjust laws forced on us by our government and Supreme Court.
And believe me… it means both.
The time for sitting on the fence is fast drawing to the close, so we need to climb down to one side or the other. We need to make a choice—whether we will be authentic witnesses of Christ, or whether we will simply offer Christian sounding platitudes.
We need to live our faith in word and deed. Our families need it. Our nation needs it. Our world needs it.