Summary: “Luther’s expression sola fide is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love.”

Thursday After Epiphany 2018


The action of the Israelites and the response of the Philistines we have heard proclaimed from the first book of Samuel help us see the two primitive and wrong conceptions of the divine. For the Israelites, their God was the God of Moses who had given them mighty victories under him and Joshua due to the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. It was a kind of mighty talisman, the presence of which would guarantee victory even if otherwise the people of God had turned their backs on God. The presence of Phineas and Hophni, the corrupt sons of the high priest, Eli, symbolized this approach.

The Philistines believed this myth even more than the Israelites. They had more fear of the Lord than the people of the Lord did. Of course, they also thought that this ark contained images of many gods–small “g” gods–and so they fought like men literally contending for their lives. The Israelites went into battle overconfident, and so they lost the fight, they lost thirty thousand lives, including Eli’s sons, and they lost the Ark. Later on, when he heard of it, Eli fell off his chair and broke his neck. The Israelites sinned by presumption and nearly lost everything.

Both of these errors follow the pagan belief that the gods were divine beings who were like humans in every way including arrogance, mischief, irascibility, and all the other nasty traits that human beings have. In other words, like abusive parents. Our Gospel today presents the true son of God, God Himself, as one full of mercy, but humble in spirit. Jesus hears the lepers plea, risks touching him, and makes him clean–worthy of entering the Temple and offering sacrifice. The true God is a God of compassion, always ready to forgive and heal. In confession, for example, God always heals the soul by re-infusing sanctifying grace. He also often heals the mind of psychological issues, and even sometimes heals the body. This is the true God.

If someone has a really mean or abusive or even strict father, it’s easy to hear that God is our Father and make the wrong conclusion. My dad was not abusive, but he was strict, so I grew up with an inaccurate idea of God’s attitude toward me. I was good because I didn’t want to go to hell. That’s a motive, but it is not a very good motive.

Martin Luther had such a father–away a lot tending his silver mines, enforcer of high expectations of his brilliant son. Not what we’d call a “hugger.” So Luther clearly grew up with a more or less pagan notion of the Father. Do something wrong and you’ll get smitten. He developed what is called a “scrupulous” conscience, one that saw sin in many actions that were not sinful. He knew sin, but didn’t understand the fundamental definition God gave of Himself in Exodus: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” This explains why, on that fateful journey when he was frightened by a bolt of lightning, Luther prayed to St. Anne and vowed to become a monk if he were saved. That’s the kind of bargaining that is the very opposite of a religious vocation.

That also set him on track to becoming a priest–with inadequate training–and a theologian–with inadequate philosophical background. His talent for languages turned him into a scripture scholar but his poor philosophical and theological underpinnings led him to the doctrine of sola scriptura. So he was keyed by his scrupulous conscience and inability to reconsider his view of God to search for answers in the Bible, answers that more and more led him to distrust the Catholic Church. The Church, of course, preaches sacramental means for becoming free of sin and guilt–frequent communion, regular confession, and daily prayer. Luther, in his search for justification, discovered Romans 1:17: “"For therein is the righteousness of God is revealed from faith, to faith: as it is written: 'The just shall live by faith.'" And he altered that last line from Genesis to read “faith alone,” sola fide.

Now Pope Benedict has famously said: “Luther’s expression sola fide is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love.” To believe what God said, even to proclaim Jesus is Lord, is necessary but it is not enough. St. James wrote “the devils also believe, and tremble.” And Jesus Himself said, in the words of St. Luke: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” God alone justifies, and wants to do so. God wants us to be united with Him forever. But by His grace, we must also love Him in worship and daily prayer, and love our neighbor by doing good. That is the gift we pray for today.

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