Tough Gospel – The Necessity of Faith

The Gospel reading for today comes to us from Matthew 7:21-27. Quoted below are verses 21-23 (New American Bible):

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
will enter the kingdom of heaven,
but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?
Did we not drive out demons in your name?
Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’
Then I will declare to them solemnly,
‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

On the surface, this appears to be a warning against hypocrisy – saying one thing, while doing another. In other words, leading a duplicitous life. Sure enough, this is what the NAB and Navarre Bible commentaries have to say on the matter, but if we read the text carefully, Jesus seems to be saying something more, something deeper.

As an aside – Perhaps a working knowledge of the original Greek would be of value, but in the absence of such knowledge, we bravely press on with our limitation of the English translation.

The premise of the passage in question is found in verse 21. Not all of those who call upon the name of the Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, except those who do the will of the Father. On this verse alone, the proposed theme of hypocrisy is justified. But if we continue to read verses 22-23, a deeper, indeed challenging, insight may be gained. Jesus gives three examples of “works” people will claim as proof of their deserving (meriting?) to enter the kingdom of heaven. “Did we not prophecy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?” All three of these examples are of external works that will be of no value when our Lord replies, “Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evil doers.'”

Jesus is clearly talking about works, which are presumably accompanied by words, but are lacking something more, dare I say, substantial. That something more I propose to be faith. This interpretation is especially verified when put into context with the rest of the New Testament, not least of all, the letters of St. Paul. Jesus is, therefore, preaching more than simply a warning against external hypocrisy. Certainly, works (and words) without faith is a type of hypocrisy, but not in the usual sense of the word. The popular definition of hypocrisy1, is saying one thing but doing another. To use a more proper definition of hypocrisy, it is actions contrary to words. This is not quite the same as works without faith. As I said, this (works without faith) is a type of hypocrisy, but one that lies at a deeper level than merely leading a duplicitous life. After all, who among us can claim to consistently live up to the moral demands of the faith we profess? We are all hypocrites.

Since Jesus is speaking of works and words without faith, the question naturally arises – what is faith? Faith is certainly more than just confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord”. The passage we have been exploring is proof enough of this. So again we ask, what is faith? Obviously, the theology of faith deserves a book unto itself (many of which have been written), but we can at least say along with the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, that “faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”2 It is clear from this definition that faith involves a deep interior conviction about things which are unseen (i.e. what is hoped for). Now whether or not we can go further and say that faith is therefore ontological (Thomas Aquinas) or not (Martin Luther)3, I will leave for the theologians to decide. And, of course, it need not be said that faith without works is dead, as St. James tells us, but this only says that the fruit of faith is works. St. James does not tell us what faith is, but what faith brings.

If faith involves a deep conviction of our hope – our salvation, our eternal happiness, final justice, etc. – and from this deep conviction springs forth works, it can be asserted that faith must have a “performative” aspect. Faith, properly speaking, animates our being and transforms who we are, or better yet, perfects who we are. In short, the life of faith is a life of holiness. In this passage, Jesus is saying something that is at once self evident, and yet challenging. Only the holy will enter the kingdom of heaven4. Works are not enough. Words are not enough. Even the combination of words and works are not enough. Only holiness – performative faith through full participation in the life giving grace of God – is enough. This is the way which leads to life.

1- Of course, a popular (i.e. modern) definition is an inadequate definition when interpreting a first century text.
2 – Hebrews 11:1 (NAB)
3 – See Spe Salvi, paragraph 7
4- Whatever eschatology is implied by “the kingdom of heaven” – N.T. Wright’s literal “new heaven and a new earth” or the now “traditional” understanding of the beatific vision – it is obviously meant to allude to a state of happiness and peace reserved for the righteous.


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