24th Sunday Year B
Do I possess true faith of the heart? Or is my faith a superficial intellectual faith?
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus asked His disciples a question: “Who do people say that I am?” (verse 27). They answered, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” (verse 28). Then, seeking a personal answer from the disciples, Jesus asked again, “But who do you say that I am?” Indeed, my brothers and sisters, Jesus is asking us the same question, “Who do you say that I am?” So we ask ourselves: Who is Jesus to me? Like Peter, we might answer, “You are the Messiah.” (verse 29). Messiah is a Hebrew word meaning “the Anointed One”, translated to Christo in Greek, from which we derive the English word “Christ”. Indeed, Jesus is the Anointed One of God. In Matthew’s account of the story, Peter provided a more vivid answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16) These text-book answers are not new to most of us. For us Christians, we proclaim Jesus as the Christ all the time – at our church services, in prayers, through songs, etc. The question is: As we proclaim with our lips, do we mean it in our hearts?
They say that words are cheap. This is certainly in the case with Peter. He proclaimed Jesus as “Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Later, at the Last Supper, when Jesus said, “You will all become deserters because of me this night” (Mt 26:31), Peter boldly declared, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:35). And denied Jesus he did, not once, not twice but three times (Mt 26:69-74). Why did Peter deny Jesus? Did he not understand what he said when he proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”? Did he not mean what he said when he declared, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you”? In truth, Peter understood what he was proclaiming; he meant what he declared. The problem with Peter was that his faith was an intellectual faith, and intellectual faith is superficial.
What about us, my brothers and sisters? Let us ask ourselves: Am I like Peter? Do I mean what I say yet my faith is weak? Is my faith merely an intellectual faith? Is my faith superficial? We know that faith in Jesus is the gateway to our salvation. Before his conversion, St Paul was a Pharisees who believe that we can earn our salvation through scrupulous observation of the religious laws. Later, he realised his mistake and said, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16) Yet simply knowing that we are justified by faith is but an intellectual exercise. And as we can see from St Peter’s experience, intellectual faith is shallow. So like the young man who came to Jesus, we asked our Lord the same question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mt 10:17)
Some of us believe that proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah is all that is necessary. We believe in the “prosperity Gospel” – not just monetary prosperity but earthly prosperity in all forms, that God will grant all that we desire on earth if we simply believe in Him. That as we proclaim our faith verbally, God will grant us wealth, protect us from harm, hold our enemies at bay; and on the last day, receive us into heaven. Such faith is not only superficial, but dangerous. It opens itself to the devil’s deception. For what happens when God does not grant us our wishes and we become disenchanted? This was Peter’s problem in the Gospel this week. Peter wanted salvation without the cross. That is why Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (verse 33) Sadly, many Christians have stopped practising their faith for exactly this reason.
My brothers and sisters, the Christian faith does not guarantee us earthly fulfilment. It grants us heavenly fulfilment. And heavenly fulfilment is not just fulfilment when we go to heaven. Our heavenly fulfilment starts on earth by us leading a fulfilled life – by giving ourselves in service to others; by sacrificing for sake of love; by forgiving and loving those who wronged us; and by enjoying life-giving, loving relationships with our loved ones. A fulfilled life in faith manifests spiritual fruits. As St Paul said, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
But, how do we learn to do that? In truth, there is no instruction manual for faith. We must learn through mistakes, through experience, and through following others’ example. The greatest example of this of course is our Lord Jesus Himself. He literally loved us to His death: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) Of course, there are also the examples of the great Saints in our history. St Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1987), better known as Mother Teresa, gave up her physical comfort to attended to the poor and dying on the streets of Calcutta. St Lawrence (225-258) called the poor people of Rome the treasures of the Church and was martyred by being roasted alive. The truth is, living a fulfilling life in faith does not mean living a comfortable life. Living a life in faith is not a passive state. It does not mean that we just verbalise that Jesus is the Messiah and expect good things to happen to us. True faith calls for action, true faith requires a response. In the Second Reading, St Paul said, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (verse 14) True faith will always drive us to act – to sacrifice, to serve and to love. It is through our faith that we touch hearts, that these hearts too will in turn be moved by faith and prompted to act. Otherwise, if we simply verbalise our faith and urge others to do the same, then all we are doing is spreading an intellectual understanding of faith, we are not spreading faith itself. Hence, St Paul said, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (verse 17-18)
And one of the great works of faith is the docility to accept sufferings as God wills it, as Jesus and the Saints showed us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of Jesus’ suffering and death, He prayed to the Father, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42) In the First Reading, a passage we often hear leading up to Easter, the suffering servant said, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (verse 6-7) Often, it is through our docility to accept the sufferings, especially sufferings unjustly inflicted upon us, that we soften those hardened offending hearts and convert them to faith. It is our docility in accepting sufferings that we may look beyond the creature comfort of our flesh and look to our eternal destiny. St Paul said, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:24) As Jesus concluded in the Gospel this week, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (verse 34)
There is no truer faith than faith manifested in works of charity, sacrifice, service and docility. May the Holy Spirit guide us in our faith. Amen.