Michael Barrett explores whether there really is the deep divide that some have made between faith and works, between Paul and James.
A Life of Integrity: Lessons from the Letter of James
Part 2 – Active Faith, Consistent Love, Deeds of Conviction
Reflections on James 2: 1-17
by Michael Barrett
Let Us pray:
O, Lord You are acquainted with all our ways. You know our shallow motives and hidden thoughts. You are aware of the distinctions we make and the favoritism we express. Yet, still you welcome us, not as strangers to be judged, but as heralds of your Kingdom. Come among us and transform us.
This Morning’s Reflections are dedicated to my Grandmother, Gladys Leiphart.
A Voice from the Early Church – Part 2
Greetings, from James: a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, today we continue our reflections on the message of James, Jesus’ brother by birth.
The writing of James precedes the Council of Jerusalem of 49 AD and is likely the oldest of all the twenty-seven books and letters of the Christian Testament. James is the written record closest to Jesus.
In James, above all else, a faith that is real is a faith that is evidenced in the deeds we do. True faith is demonstrated by the way we live. Faith is practiced.
James’ writing style is chock-full of clear admonitions – warnings, reminders, and reproofs – Listen! Speak! Act! Do this! Don’t Do That! 54 admonitions in one letter!
James often provides first, a case in point to serve as illustration for the necessity of the admonition – the punch line – the main theme, he will deliver later. In contrast, Paul’s style is to provide extensive theological foundation (e.g., Romans 1-11) and then the practical implications (e.g., Romans 12-16).
Because today’s reading James’ case in point and his punch line are each equally so extremely controversial, highly contentious, and profoundly consequential, we need to consider them in a different order.
It is not difficult to become so embroiled in the case in point that the punch line, the importance and essence of James’ real warning, may be lost.
Let us first look at that punch line and then consider the case in point and finally, reflect upon the practical significance of what they both mean.
The Punch Line – Admonition Numero Uno
In the same way, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action is dead [2:17]
The understanding of the value of faith in the Christian Community has been highly contentious. Denominations have gone as far as executing some and leading whole countries into war over the issue. Let’s briefly look at two understandings of faith (those of James and of Paul) and the effect of each.
Sola Fide – By Faith Alone
James has written that faith requires action, deeds, or work same term. Yet Paul writes in Romans 3:28, For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing [the works] of the Law, and then later in Romans 4:13 concerning righteousness that comes by faith, It was not through the law that Abraham . . . received the promise . . . but through the righteousness that comes by faith. Are we saved by faith or by deeds or work prescribed by the Law?
This is one of those instances when all would benefit by considering the context in which each author wrote.
First – the use of the word translated as “work” or ”deeds’ or “actions.” As the Biblical scholar Pheme Perkins points out, “ When Paul speaks of ‘works of the law’ he refers to obeying the commandments found in the law, such as circumcision, observance of dietary laws and Sabbath rules [Galatians 2:16, 3:2-10]. James uses ‘works’ as referring to deeds of charity and mercy required of Christians [2:12-13]. A clear difference in definition.
Another important context reality concerns the intended audience of each writer. Paul, in Romans, is writing to a largely if not exclusively gentile assembly. Many of his listeners may be in the process of considering conversion, but for whom ‘works’ like submitting to circumcision, to difference diets, or to adherence to arcane rituals would have meant little to the faith experience. James is directing his writing to a congregation of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. James’ listeners are already converted.
Consider that Paul and James may not be contradicting each other in this light. They may be supplementing or even conjoining the other. Is Paul’s purpose to assert to a pre-conversion audience that we come to the gift, the grace of salvation, by faith and that no amount of work alone will get you there. Faith is what brings our salvation alive. Is James’ purpose to assert to a post-conversion audience that after Christian conversion, our faith must be manifested in our deeds? Deeds are what keep our salvation alive. Is Paul focusing on how we come to accept Jesus? Is James focusing on what we do after we accept Jesus?
Are saved by faith alone? Are we saved by deeds alone? Maybe we are saved by faith and deeds conjoined. After all, Paul does tell us that the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love [Galatians 5:6b] and James tells us to Humbly accept the word planted in you, which will save you [1:21b]. Now turning to James’ case in point about faith and deeds.
The Case in Point – Observations on a Jerusalem Congregation
James attends a community meeting, in all likelihood a worship service, and observes that deeds are not matching up to professed faith. First, social deference, including an extravagant welcome, is being extended only to the wealthy. Second, well-off Christians are ignoring the needs of their poor brothers and sisters.
Anxiety #1: Social Deference is Paid Only to the Wealthy
James rails against this type of favoritism – a partiality that reinforces unwarranted discrimination. He sees favoritism as a sin of commission – violating God’s law by doing something that should not be done. This admonition by James is radical for the time – such favoritism was considered appropriate manners and good sense. Romans, Greeks, and Jews alike.
A wealthy unknown man, wearing gold rings (a badge of belonging to the knight or equestrienne class) and clad in bright and shining clothes (lampra) is greeted warmly with upraised eyes, cheeks and smiles, is invited to come close, to be comfortable, and is shown to the best seats in the synagogue. A poor unknown person clad only in shabby clothing (rhupara) is summarily shuffled off to the back or told to sit on the floor. Partiality is serving to divide the congregation. The hypocrisy is that people practicing partiality are pretending to focus on their faith, but are “looking in two ways.”
Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love Him? [2:5b]. James’ admonition is Biblical, taken from Leviticus 19:15 Do not pervert justice, do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. The Bible is replete with references about treating the poor and doing social justice [Exodus3; Deuteronomy 10:17, 5:11:1; 1 Samuel 2:7-8; Isaiah 3:15, 10:1-2, 58:7; Luke 1:52; Romans 2:4]
Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical author of such works as America’s Original Sin, The Great Awakening; and God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, relates an experiment he and some of his student colleagues undertook while at seminary. They set about identifying all the Bible verses that dealt with the poor and social justice. They found that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke combined that included one out of every ten verses. In Luke alone, it the count was one out of every seven.
One of the students then decided to scissor out of the Bible all those same verses. Some of the Psalm completely disappeared and much of the Prophets was gone. Taking the poor out of the Bible leaves simply a book full of holes.
Why does God have such a deep affinity for those poor with faith and love in Him? Is it because those poor, those rich in faith and deeply in love with God, have so much less to be grateful for – and yet they do the unexpected and exhibit with courage and daring, trust and love in God anyway? Is this also a warning for we who have so much to be thankful for, to check our own gratitude level? Is this a warning not to interpret poverty as a sign of divine disfavor?
There are two important clarifications inherent in the words of James:
- Christians do not ennoble, esteem, or exalt poor people because they’re poor. Christians honor the poor because of what the Word of God says and because to do so, practices what Jesus taught.
- James is more concerned with practices rather than the principals here. Nowhere does James impugn all wealthy people. Of even the most gluttonous, James writes grace will overcome the avarice of the greedy one [4:10]. There are many poor people who are spiritually poor. There are many wealthy people who are spiritually rich (e.g., Warren Buffet and Bill Gates). Of course, James, in the context of his times, writes about the rich – they then had the monopoly on favorable treatment. If James were writing today he might have included our partiality to those with advanced degrees, famed celebrity, athletic prowess, box office popularity, high position on the social register, or the power of political office. Anytime we automatically favor a person based simply on appearance alone, to be morally superior or have greater intellect or more hardworking or more disciplined or simply to be better than others, we are in trouble. The ground is level at the foot of the Cross. If we are filled with God’s love we should strive to treat all people well.
Anxiety #2: The Needs of the Poor Are Being Ignored
If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,’ and do nothing about their physical needs, what good is it [2:16]
James rails against noticing the needs of the poor and then not doing anything about the distress they face. James finds again, a violation of God’s law – a sin of omission – not doing something that should be done.
James leads into this warning by referencing Leviticus 19:18a Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.
The Royal Law
James is reminding all that his brother conjoined Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5, to fashion a new royal law – a divine edict that summarizes all of God’s commandments and outweighs all the world’s courts and judgments. Luke [10:27] expresses that Great Commandment, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. [Also Matthew 5; 43-44, 22:37-40; Mark 12:31-33; John 13:34; Romans13:9; Galatians 5:14]
We are not allowed to pick and choose here. We don’t get to say, ‘I agree that murder and adultery and stealing are sins; BUT favoritism is okay now and then to get ahead, if I obey the rest of the really important commandments.’ James tells that rejecting the authority of even one commandment is to defy the authority of God. Of course, there is a complete difference between breaking a commandment and disavowing a commandment. We all stumble and sin and pray forgiveness. One might even commit murder or adultery or theft and still be forgiven. That is completely different than claiming that murder or adultery or theft is not a sin.
James now goes on to say that this royal law, this Great Commandment, gives us a new freedom – freedom from unjust, exploitive world powers, freedom from social structures that strive to enforce their own value systems, freedom from dependence on the attitudes of others, freedom from the discrimination of partiality and favoritism, BUT, allows us the freedom to act mercifully no matter what the world thinks. In the first century, these were all brand new freedoms.
The essence of this new freedom, James reminds us, is that Mercy triumphs over judgment [2:13b]. Having shown mercy to others always, in God’s heart, outweighs any judgments that we may deserve. MERCY TRIUMPHS OVER JUDGMENT!!! How about putting that up on a banner around here?
What if it is about so much more than memorized doctrines, ritual conformity, proper creed recitation, rote prayer or even trying to mention the name of Jesus in every conversation? What if it ‘s more about helping each other out in His name?
What Now? – The Practical Significance of James 2
We follow the admonitions of James (Faith).
- We make ourselves aware that both faith and deeds matter, are inter-related, and are testimony one to the other.
- We accept that showing favoritism or partiality is wrong.
- We resolve not to ignore the physical needs of others.
We make our faith active, our love consistent, and infuse our deeds with the strength of our convictions (Deed).
We choose to stand in the TRAGIC GAP.
The world calls us to chose and take a stand of partiality, favoritism to either the rich or poor, men or women, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, free or oppressed, naked or clothed, hungry of fed, progressive or conservative, democrat or republican, us or them. We can choose to ignore that call.
We can, instead, listen to James and choose to take a different stand.
Parker Palmer is a scholar who writes primarily on issues related to higher education in the United States. But, he is associated with the Society of Friends (the Quakers) and also writes spiritually with works such as The Company of Strangers and An Undivided Life.
Palmer writes that we are called to stand in what he calls the TRAGIC GAP. He identifies the tragic gap as that space that lies between the way things are and the way we know they might be.
My sisters and brothers, it is that tragic gap that opens up between all our divisive differences – the haves and the have-nots. We are called to stand in that gap to profess and to prophesy, to serve and to sustain, and to comfort some and challenge others.
We are called to stand in that gap because that gap is where the cross stands.
Dear Lord, Grant us the courage, the compassion, the wisdom, and the faith to stand with Jesus in that cross–shadowed gap between what is and what should be. Amen.