Sunday, January 29, 2012

Grace vs. Works?

Today in the Byzantine Catholic, and Orthodox churches we have the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.  You know that scripture well, don't you?

Luke 18:9-14

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector.12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

I haven't studied in a seminary, and I don't have a Masters or Doctorate in Theology.  I am baptized Roman Catholic, and practicing in the Byzantine Catholic rite.  My understanding, and you are invited to question, or correct me as you wish in the comments is that we can only be made holy, or righteous by God.  Nothing we can do, however good, charitable, self-forgetful, or sacrificial can restore the holiness, purity and beauty that the Creator endowed our souls with when He created them in the image of God.

My understanding is only God can create that which is good and loving.  God created Adam and Eve with untainted souls.  Then through the original sin of idolatry, Pride, the same sin that cast Lucifer and the thousands of fallen angels from heaven, tarnished the souls of Eve, Adam and of all their children save 2:  Mary, the Immaculate Conception, and Jesus, the Incarnation of God, true God, and true man.

Only God can forgive sins, and only Jesus, as our Savior, through his love and obedience and sacrificial death on the cross, could pour out his Precious Blood to cleanse us and make our souls brilliant with the light and love endowed by our Creator.

So we find in this brief Gospel passage several really important teachings:

  • Don't trust in one's own righteousness, no matter how good our works might be.  The pharisee fasted twice a week, gave 10th of his income; i.e. tithed.
  • Don't pray to God in a way that is prideful and boastful, offering thanks focusing on what we like and take pride in about ourselves, rather than focusing on God's attributes, especially his Mercy
  • Don't judge others, and regard others with contempt.  We see in this passage the pharisee is the archetype of someone that is doing the right things, on the surface, but maybe his motivation is a bit off. He has a species of moral relativism going where he is feeling pretty good about himself so long as he compares himself with thieves, adulterers, or government workers padding their own pockets at the financial detriment of those that are paying the taxes.  This is where the Protestants like to remind everyone, sometimes especially the Catholics, that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
  • Do humble yourself before God.  The picture above is from Calvary Curriculum that I used for my 1st and 2nd graders is a coloring page showing the Publican prostrate before God.  I like this one better than the etching at the top, because this is my favorite way to pray when I am most in need of God to act in my life, and to fill me with his peace and love.
  • Our pastor, priest today told us it is so important to work on the virtue of humility because if we don't, Pride, at the orchestration of Satan, just like with Eve and Adam, will work and become predominant in its place.  He recommended we pray the Litany of Humility daily to grow in this virtue.  I do love this prayer, but am WAY far from modeling this virtue.
  • My favorite lesson from this is The Jesus Prayer.
  • Jesus, "I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other."  Hmm, what does that mean?  I would suggest reading from The Diary by St. Faustina to find out.  One of God's greatest attributes is Mercy.  Mercy is undeserved, ineffable, love and forgiveness that restores our soul to the purity, holiness, and beauty that the Father created in us.  How is this mercy available to us?  How was there no priest involved, and no work completed on the part of the penitent, other than falling prostrate before God, and pleading for his Mercy?
  • These answers are there in God's Word.  As our Pastor also reminded us today, the closer we grow to God, the greater we perceive our imperfections, and the more we implore God's mercy on  us.  We also grow more keenly aware of the great love and goodness that is God, that is the source of this Mercy, and the more we desire to grow in holiness, more toward the communion with the Divine for which we were created.
I am a Catholic, and I do believe that faith without works is dead.  Essentially I believe Proverbs 9:10,
"10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight."

Similarly in Psalms 111:10 we read, "10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practise it* have a good understanding.  His praise endures for ever."

Good works lacking the grace of God in the soul will not make a person holy or good, or save that person's soul.  Rather, my belief is as in James, good works are the good fruit that should come from a heart humble before God, conscious of the need for God's mercy, for Jesus as Savior.  

I think that good works, including a forgiving, compassionate, non-judging heart are the good fruit that comes from a soul in the state of grace--the state of God's presence in the soul.  Not that that soul is as brilliant as the souls in heaven after they are washed in the Blood of the Lamb, but that they are rooted in the fear and Love of the Lord, and that the Holy Spirit is at work within them, taking their inadequacy, and weaknesses and through his Grace making the good will, love and humility bear abundant fruit that gives thanks to God, and attracts others to the source of the goodness-->God.

James 2:14-19, 26

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

When Luther translated the Bible into German he put James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation at the end and doubted their authenticity.  There are plenty of other verses in the books he did not doubt that echo the teaching above in James.

Let's listen to the Lord himself in Matthew 7:
21 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?”23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

What do you think?
1/30/12 Update:
Just found this great quote from the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI from in Deus Caritas Est:
in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbour will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal 5:6).


  1. Excellent post Colleen and you bring out many important lessons to keep in mind. I love this reading about the Pharisee and the publican. It is a reminder of the importance of humility. I pray the Jesus Prayer often, especially when I find myself being judgmental. I also pray the Litany of Humility but that one is harder to pray and mean. A priest once suggested praying portions of it at any given time. I also agree that faith and works go together; one without the other is empty and without virtue. This reading along with your post is good preparation as we approach Lent.
    Thanks and God bless.

  2. Karinann, good comment. I know what you mean about Litany of Humility, as I pray the first part--the "from the desire of" section, the fears surface, and then here comes the "from the fear of" section. It is as if I really do not have the desires, otherwise the fears wouldn't be so obvious to me as I am praying the words.

  3. This is really a great post Colleen. The reading of the Pharisee and the publican have so much to remind us of. I was recently introduced to the Jesus Prayer, which has become on of my favorite prayers. It really calls me to conscience regarding pride and self righteousness.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Great job explaining about faith and works. I love the Jesus Prayer too!

  5. Hi, Daily Grace. I love the Jesus prayer and am teaching it nightly to my 1st grader too. I tried teaching the kids in my religious school class that it is a great prayer for all the different times and events during their day.

    Hi, Colleen. Thank you for saying so. I think about it often having gone to Lutheran school for 8th grade, when there is much Lutheran catechism memorization in preparation for their Confirmation, and now with my children in a non-denominational, but clearly Protestant school, this topic is on my mind quite a bit.

  6. Hi Colleen,
    I was just listening to a CD by Tim Staples where he as a former Pentecostal, was having this debate with a Catholic and his eyes were opened at the verses you mentioned. I like this one too "if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." I Corinthians 13:2 2

    Curious as to why your children are in a non-denominational, but clearly Protestant school?

    1. My oldest had finished 7th grade when my husband initiated the move to the other school, Catholic elementary school in our area, a "blue ribbon school". I was extremely torn. I had several friends at the school. I was a basketball coach and a softball coach. But my 7th grader didn't know the 10 Commandments. I had to teach my oldest son and younger daughter how to read because they didn't get assigned to the 1st grade teacher that is good at that. The school didn't replace its gifted higher grade math teacher when he retired, but kept the two that let the parents teach the material. My 7th grader's religion class was biology, not religion. I think there are better schools out there I know two that are in other towns. The non-denominational one they are in has extremely strong language arts program--my 1st grader, youngest reads like he is in 3rd grade. Plus the Bible immersion is awesome. The verses start in pre-school. They have Bible and Chapel every day. Chapel teaches things like dressing modestly. I don't have disagreement on Christ being our Savior, I do however point out their slander around the doctrines of praying "to" Mary and the Saints versus asking for their intercession. The 7th grade history book had me a little hot two weeks ago. I talked to the teacher, former Catholic, and the headmaster about it. They weren't aware of the lack of scholarship behind some of the statements. The kids are great though. The prayers on our team bus, the immediate thought of prayer when someone is hurt, the Bible verses . . . the other coach gave me a weird look when I wanted to pray before our basketball game at the Catholic school. In short, we were in one of the worst Catholic schools, so far from what I attended as a kid, and now all 4 of my kids are going (preschool - 12th grade) an academically better, Bible-based, but doctrinally weak Christian Academy. The one place for 4 kids was big win too. My ADHD son has great male role models at this school too, and I think that is another big win.

    2. Also, I did consult my priest before making the move. I went through some of the reasons and he said that the public schools would only be worse environment than what I saw in the Catholic school. He said to teach my kids the Catholic interpretations of the Bible and Church history. He was prophetic there because the church history is singularly the worst thing being taught at their new school. A great saints like St. Thomas Aquinas is belittled and St. Francis Xavier isn't even mentioned. The Archdiocese has since implemented a better religion program. They started the roll-out, the year after we pulled out of the school. The part of the Catholic school that I miss most were the school masses, especially first Friday of every month. There were beautiful , devoted women, one a music teacher that left the school in anger 1 year after we did, and another an elderly woman that coordinated the liturgy that did a great job. My older son really has fondness for the elderly woman that arranged the school masses. There just weren't enough people like her on the faculty though, nor among the parents and coaches. In the Protestant school I am in there is a mother's prayer group that meets weekly. We talk about God, faith in almost every conversation. That is what is keeping me somewhat content there. Faith is pervasant part of the everyday experience. It isn't just school masses, or Sunday mass.