For by grace, you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10
These verses are difficult to understand. On the surface, it seems St. Paul is contradicting Himself. On the one hand he says we have been saved by faith and not because of works. Then he goes on to say that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” and that we should walk in them. So which is it? When St. Paul typically mentions not being saved by works, he usually refers to works of the law such as sacrifices, avoiding certain animals etc. But what does he mean by being in “created in Christ Jesus for good works?”
To answer this question we need to turn to the Parable of the Good Samaritan that we just heard this past Sunday in our churches. It begins with the query of an “expert in the law” who seeks to test Jesus regarding what he must do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus talks about loving one’s neighbor, he asks Him, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then goes on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. The question of the lawyer is a minimal and legalistic one: “What do I have to do to get in the kingdom?” And when Jesus answers his question, he comes up with another question to justify himself: “Who is my neighbor?
When we give directions to our kids, the testing of those limits immediately follows. “So I can’t do this, but can I do this?” As people, we always seek to know the “bottom line.” What is the least thing I can do to satisfy the authority figure? But this way of thinking has nothing to do with being “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
To answer the question about faith and works, I want to refer to St. Cyril of Alexandria:
Human beings choose their own way of life and are entrusted with the reins of their own intelligence; so as to follow whatever course they wish, either toward the good or toward the contrary. But our [original, created] nature has implanted in it a zealous desire for whatever is good and the will to concern itself with goodness and righteousness. For this is what we mean by saying that humanity is in the image and likeness of God, that the creature is naturally disposed to what is good and right. (Comment on Ephesians 2:10)
I think it is wonderful that we hear the gospel of the Good Samaritan right around the beginning of the Advent Fast. It offers us the opportunity to get to a real sense of what it means to be human. We need to rediscover that we, who have been created in Christ Jesus for good works, are naturally disposed to do what is right and good. But to do so we have to get rid of the “stinking thinking” of our lives and fight the passions that so often get the better of us. We must learn to think in terms of what we need and not what we want. We need to discover that when we sin, it is wrong to say, “I am only human, cut me some slack.” This is not what it means to be human. By practicing the spiritual exercises the Church gives us, we take steps toward finding this natural disposition in us to do what is right and good. When a tree produces fruit, it doesn’t struggle to do so. It is in the nature of an orange tree to produce oranges. The story of the Good Samaritan shows us how it is natural for a human being (the Samaritan as the image of Christ) to what is good and right. May we come to experience this reality in our family life as we journey towards the advent of our Lord.
The blessing of the Lord be upon you,
The unworthy +Paul