The first verse of today’s Gospel is a favorite with Christians who say nothing more is needed for salvation than that one accept Jesus as his or her personal Savior. There used to be a man whose way of getting noticed was to dye his hair in all the colors of the rainbow. He managed to get before the television camera at every major sports event. You’d see him holding up his sign:
We must understand what St. Paul meant by saying we are not saved by good works, but by believing. In the year 70 A.D. the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. They killed or scattered its citizens, but they allowed the Hasidic Jews to come out to safety.
Settled on the coast at a place called Jamnia, those survivors looked to how their religion could survive without the temple that was the center of everything. They began saying that Judaism consisted of keeping all the rules the Scribes had added to the Law of Moses.
It was against that narrow view that St. John pushed the need to believe. But, later, some Christians began saying that if they believed there was no need to avoid evil, or to help the needy. For those who said that faith alone can save us St. James wrote the following.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not
have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or a sister has nothing
to wear and no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace,
keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the
body, what good is it? So faith, of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Martin Luther brushed those words aside, saying that the Letter of James was a very strawy epistle.
Twenty years ago I had a Baptist boy in my class, and he used to write “John, 3:16” as his answer to every quiz question. I passed him, because he was answering with his conscience. Eight years ago he was in a wedding party at my church, and he thanked me for what he had learned in our Religion class.