“Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters” (James 1:2).
Jas 1:1-11; Mark 8:11-13
A man is in a diner, trying to decide if he wants a coffee refill. The waitress stands at the table with the carafe ready to pour, but he keeps withdrawing his cup, then offering it., then withdrawing it. She retreats, shaking her head.
St, James begins his letter to the churches with a similar image. God wants us to pray and is ready to bless us, but if we keep hesitating, doubt interrupts our faith, and our prayer goes unanswered.
Our relationship with God depends on two things: unwavering trust and an openness to show our faith in acts charity, or good works. Thus begins the debate that fueled Martin Luther’s decision to drop the Letter of James from the New Testament. Faith, not works, is the foundation of our salvation. No act of personal virtue, sacrificial offering or church ritual can make us worthy, only God’s pure gift. The debate goes on: Is it “either or” or “both and?”
The Pharisees approach Jesus to test his claim that he is from God. But they will not trust him unless he proves this by giving them some irrefutable sign. They want faith without faith, to believe but only after they are certain. They want a no-risk guarantee, which obviates the essence of real trust, that what you say and who you are is true because you say it. Acceptance of Jesus’ teachings is secondary to accepting Jesus himself and entering a relationship with him.
Jesus’ response to this deliberate conundrum is one of profound frustration. These sophisticated scholars and models of legal perfection are eager to test his theology, his grasp of the Scriptures and the Law, but they ignore his acts of love and deep compassion for the suffering of people. They focus on abstract questions but are blind to Jesus’ sincerity and empathy, his obvious holiness and his ease at instilling joy in ordinary people.
What seems ironic in this short passage from Mark is that though Jesus says he will not give them a sign, he is already preparing to reveal the messianic secret of the Paschal Mystery. This is the sign of Jonah. As Jonah went down into the belly of the fish, then reappeared, so Jesus will disappear in death and rise again to deliver God’s call to repentance and salvation.
What the Pharisees refuse to see now will confound them when they see Jesus hanging on the cross, as the psalms and words of Isaiah, the events of Passover and the Exodus come true before their eyes and minds. If not then, later as reports that Jesus is alive and appearing everywhere to strengthen his joyful followers. They will again be brought to the threshold of faith and have to decide if they will join them.
We may come to faith by study and reason or by experience and prayer, but the important thing is to believe in the person of Jesus, to call him by name and welcome him into your mind heart. If he lives in you, you will be alive and bound for glory.