March 6, 2011 - Sunday of the Ninth Week in Ordinary Time

At a quick glance, the second reading, from St. Paul, seems to disagree with the words of Jesus in the Gospel. St. Paul says that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Jesus says that “only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” “will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Obviously, if St. Paul and Jesus really disagreed, we would follow Jesus. Even St. Paul would side with Jesus in such a disagreement. However, we are not speaking here about the personal opinion of St. Paul, but the inspired Word of God, coauthored by St. Paul and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit and Jesus are not going to disagree, because they are both going to be right and truth cannot disagree with truth.

It is important as we contemplate the Word of God that we consider the meaning of the individual words. St. Paul uses the word “justified” in the second reading today, and this word is often defined loosely in our mind, but it has a very specific meaning. The “fy” part means “to make”, so “Just-ify” means “to make just”. A just person is someone who does what is right. So, when we are justified, we are made into people who do what is right. St. Paul is saying that we are made into people who do what is right by of our faith, not because we are following laws. Jesus is saying that we will only enter the kingdom of heaven if we do what is right. There is no disagreement at all between them. Sometimes the most important part of theology is just making sure we understand what everyone is saying.

St. Paul is letting us know about a change that took place because of Jesus. In the first reading, Moses is telling the Hebrews how important the law is: “Take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead.” The Pharisees took this literally; perhaps you remember when Jesus admonished them for widening their phylacteries. A phylactery is a small pouch that contains some words of the law. The Pharisees would tie one pouch on their arm and one on their forehead. The words of Moses, the Torah, the Law, was the center of Jewish religion.

St. Paul is telling us that the works of the law cannot make us just. As long as a person needs to be told not to kill their neighbor and not to commit adultery, they are not just. A truly just person does not wish they could commit murder or adultery but then not do so because of the commandments. There is an obscene film out right now, that is being advertised all over. The premise of the film is that husbands are just waiting for permission from their wives to commit adultery. What a sad marriage that would be! Someone who wants to commit adultery, not just is tempted to but would gladly do it if they could get permission, is an very immature person.

All of the laws are for the immature. So long as we need to be told, “Thou shall not steal” we had better listen to it and follow it. So long as we need to be told to honor our parents, we should remember that commandment. But the Christian life should not consist of walking through this world aimlessly, trying not to step in any sin. A good person just honors their parents. A good person does not steal. A good person does not commit adultery or murder. And a good person does not spend their life wishing they could disrespect their parents and steal and kill and commit adultery. We need to be good people. We need to be just.

No matter how hard we try, though, we can never make ourselves just. We need to be justified. We “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus.” Justification is not something we do; it is something done to us. We are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Does this mean that all we have to do is believe in Jesus, and he will justify us? No. There are many examples throughout history of believing Christians who were not good people, and if we doubt the examples, Jesus confirms the possibility. He says that there will be many people who call him Lord, who prophesy, who drive out demons, who do mighty deeds in his name, but are not just, are not doing what is right.

Actually Jesus never says that these people were really doing the great works; it was their opinion that they had accomplished such things. Whether God chose to use them as his instrument for good despite their lack of real faith, or if they were deluding themselves with false prophesying and false casting out of demons, we have no way of knowing. What we do know is that, either way, we do not want to be like them. We want to have real faith; we want to be justified.  Faith trusts God. Faith does not believe in him and then wish he was not always getting in our way. When we have faith we are not afraid, not afraid that we are going to miss out on some experience or fun because we are following God. Faith believes that God can and will fulfill his promises, and God has promised us everything good.

Justification is a process. We are not going to go to bed tonight and wake up perfectly just tomorrow. We will not be perfectly just until we get to heaven. For many of us, justification will largely take place in purgatory, where we “will be saved, but only as through fire.” This does not mean that we should put off justice until then, but only that our work here will be imperfect. In truth, we ought to be anxious to be just. When see the progression of justice in ourselves, not only as we begin to do good and avoid evil, but also as we realize that we hate sin, we are happier people. We begin to be repulsed by the idea of committing a sin, rather than begrudgingly obeying a law we do not understand. Life begins to have meaning. We Christians are not aimless wanderers through this world but adventurers. We have a destination: heaven, perfection. We should have begun the journey already. We should not waste any more time.