Isaiah (63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7) today, the first day of Advent, laments the state of the Chosen People. The history of God’s special ones is peppered with instances of the people falling away through sin, being called back to faithfulness, eventually being punished because they do not turn back to God, then repenting and being restored. In this passage, probably written during the Babylonian exile, 6th century BC) we find the prophet’s plea to God to straighten out a people gone astray. It is as if the author has given up on trying to convince his fellow sinners to repent. Now he turns to the Lord as the only one who can make things right.
I highlight the excerpt in the headline because I have often heard it used by some Protestants as one defense of “faith alone” (St. Paul never uses that term but rather “faith working through love” [Gal 5:6] and “the obedience of faith” [Rom 1:5 and 16:26]. If even objectively righteous acts we perform are like “filthy rags” (“menstrual rags” is the literal translation), then these are less than nothing in God’s eyes. To the Catholic (or any reader of the Gospels) this should sound rather odd. Jesus often talks about the necessity of good works. most famously in the “sheep and the goats” (Mt 25:31-46). So how does this work? Doing a bit of research I went to the consistently reliable Catholic Answers. An excerpt (you are encouraged to read the full text here):
This (Is 64:4-6, 10-11) pertains to a particular historical situation, not to a general condition…It was during that period of continued sin, leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., that they had “become like one who is unclean”–they hadn’t always been like that. In this state, even the nation’s acts of righteousness appeared like filthy rags to God, so he wouldn’t help them.
The whole debate regarding faith and works is intense and involved and I would encourage you to look into it (start here and here), “Faith alone” was called by Martin Luther the “article on which the church stands or falls” so clearly it is critical to understand the issues involved.
A basic principle that helps here and in many other instances can be found in CCC 112 (from Dei Verbum 12): “Be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.’” As has been famously said, a text taken out of context becomes a pretext for a proof-text. The important principle in CCC 112 helps to ensure that we don’t fall into this trap. Does the quoted text work with the rest of Divine Revelation or does it contradict other passages? God’s revelation is a cohesive whole (sometimes challenging to understand, and even more challenging to live, to be sure). Do not be confused or intimidated by random verses fired at you by someone trying to shake your faith. There are many persons and resources faithful to Mother Church that are available for your help, support, and edification.
May this Advent season be for us the most blessed yet.