James: Faith and Works
Have you ever listened to a person talking on the phone? You can hear only one-half of the conversation. Sometimes, you can tell exactly what the person is talking about. From just one-half of the story, you can figure out the whole. Other times, you might realize that you have no clue what the conversation is about. You know you are missing too much to get it – the part of the conversation you can hear leaves you too little to go on. The worst, I think, is when you’re hearing only part of a conversation, and you are convinced you can understand everything from what you’ve heard, but you’re completely wrong about the conclusions you’re drawing. The part of the conversation you can’t hear holds crucial information, and without it, you jump to all the wrong conclusions.
I think that’s the kind of situation we’re in danger of running into in our scripture lesson today from the book of James. We’re spending three weeks looking at the epistle of James, this letter that James writes. Who is James exactly? We encounter more than one James in the scriptures. One of the twelve disciples is James, and one of Jesus’ brothers is named James. We don’t hear much about Jesus’ brother during his life, but after Jesus’ death and resurrection, James becomes a strong leader in the early church. It seems the events of Jesus’ last days on earth have such an impact that James becomes a most devout follower of Jesus, an apostle who gives the rest of his lift to sharing the gospel. This letter is written in the name of James, brother of Jesus. Biblical scholars disagree about whether it is James himself who writes, or whether it is someone later who writes under James’ name – a common practice in ancient times if you wanted to sort of ground your writing in the authority of a particular teacher or school of thought you admired. Either way, what we get in this letter is the work of someone meaning to ground themselves in the kinds of teaching we would hear from James, brother of Jesus.
Another question we need to ask is: Who exactly is James writing to? All the letters we have from Paul are named not 1 Paul, 2 Paul, and so on. For one – there are too many letters from Paul! And second, it is clear in each of his letters who the recipient is. He tells us that he is writing to the Corinthians, or to the Galatians, or so on. James is different – we have only one letter in the name of this author. And also, James has no clear recipient of his letter. In chapter one, he says he writes “to the twelve tribes in Dispersion.” In other words, James is writing to particularly to the Jewish followers of Jesus who are spread throughout the Roman Empire. So this isn’t actually a letter in the same way Paul’s letters were. This isn’t a letter with a specific recipient in mind. Instead, this is like we might read today on the internet when someone crafts “An Open Letter.” People might write an “open letter” in a blog spot or on facebook with a specific target named, but in actuality, the target is everyone the author can get to read the “letter.” This letter from James is basically an open letter to any faith community, any followers of Jesus who will read it.
It’s also an open letter that James writes in response to some apparent beliefs of the early churches that were spreading, that James wanted to correct. But without getting the whole picture, it can be easy to misunderstand what James is saying. What we find in this particular passage in James is a response from James to people taking the teachings of the apostle Paul and misapplying them, misusing them, twisting what Paul has said. James writes as a corrective. But we can learn the most about what James is writing about if we know about all the parts of this conversation.
Particularly in the epistle to the Romans, a letter written to a group of faith communities made up of a mix of Jews and Gentiles, Paul spends time writing about, teaching about one of the topics most dear to him – how the message of Jesus is for both Jews and Gentiles. Paul wants his readers to know a few things: First, the Israelites still have the gift of beings God’s chosen people. To the Jews, God’s law was entrusted. A covenant was made. That’s the story we find in the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament – God and God’s people, and the gift of the law to God’s people. Second, Paul wants his readers to know that there is a place for the Gentiles, too, even though they weren’t a part of that covenant with God. They’re a part of the story too. And how can they be part of the story? Paul writes that Jews and Gentiles are both a part of God’s story because it is our faith that brings us into a right relationship with God, rather than our adherence to the law. Paul called adherence to the law our “works.” Paul uses the figure of Abraham in the book of Genesis to show that is it Abraham’s faith and trust in God, rather than any deeds that Abraham had done, and devout adherence to the law, that makes Abraham blessed. In fact, Paul says, if it is just adherents to the law that are truly children of God, then God’s promises made through Abraham are void. It is our faith in Christ that matters, and therefore, Paul concludes, God’s promises and blessings are extended to take all of us in – not through the law, through works of the law, but through faith.
Somewhere between the time Paul wrote his letter, and the time James writes his letter, it seems things had gotten very twisted around. Apparently, some people, interpreting Paul’s teachings, believed that as long as you had faith in Jesus, you could call it a day. As long as you expressed faith in Jesus and understood the gift of the cross, your newfound freedom in Christ made everything else ok.
James disagrees, vehemently. The result of such a black and white conclusion, he says, is that people are cold and hungry and in need with no one ready to help, because they feel they don’t need to – they’re already saved by their faith, and don’t “need” to do good works to be square with God. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
He continues, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” James continues by citing some passages from the Hebrews scriptures – pointedly, in fact, using the same example of Abraham – to prove his point. Yes, Abraham believed in God – and that belief spurred him into action of carrying out God’s will. Abraham’s faith was expressed and demonstrated in faithful action.
Can we relate? Is our faith alive with good works? To me, it is easiest to understand James’ arguments when I think about love. We might say we love someone, but if our actions are hateful, or neglectful, or hurtful, the person we claim to love probably won’t believe us. They’ll be on the lookout for our loving actions, which will probably be as convincing as any words we say. I think of my mom trying to tell my two younger brothers when they were teens: it was great to hear from them that they loved her – truly, meaningful to her. But gosh – if they would clean their rooms and do the dishes and pick up the living room and put away their laundry simply because they knew it was important to her – that demonstration of love, those works of love – doing chores they found unappealing – well, that would be love demonstrated in action – convincing and compelling.
Or I think of the musical My Fair Lady. Many of you are probably familiar with the story of Eliza Doolittle, the unrefined flower seller with a heavy Cockney accent. She’s taken on as a project, by a snobby professor, Henry Higgins, to see if he can convince others that she is an upper-class educated woman. Along the way, though, a thoughtful suitor named Freddy Einsford-Hill falls in love with Eliza, and serenades her outside her door. Freddy sings, “Speak, and the world is full of singing/And I am winging higher than the birds/Touch and my heart begins to crumble/The heaven's tumble/Darling, and I'm …” but what he is, we don’t find out, because Eliza, frustrated with the men in her life, cuts him off, singing: “Words, words, words! I'm so sick of words/I get words all day through/First from him, now from you/Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars, burning above/If you're in love, show me!/Tell me no dreams, filled with desire/If you're on fire, show me!” Eliza Doolittle has had quite enough of words. She wants to be able to really see if Freddy loves her. She’s looking for action that supports his claim of love.
James wonders what could be the depth and power of our faith in Christ if it doesn’t evoke a response in us. If we have faith in Jesus, but nothing in our life changes, if it doesn’t change how we live and serve in the world, what does it matter? This might be faith, James says, but it’s dead faith. True faith and that faith expressed in loving, faithful action are inseparable. Full faith, true faith, could never be satisfied to sit back and rest in the face of brothers and sisters in need.
Does that mean we have to earn God’s favor with our good works? Does that mean that if we don’t accumulate a certain number of good deeds, we lose God’s love? Over the centuries, misreading both Paul and James, that’s how some have misconstrued what James is about. We can never earn God’s affection. It isn’t even an option, and any “good works” we do because we’re trying to earn God’s affection may be work but they aren’t very good if being rewarded is our motivation. Thankfully, what saves us, what redeems us, what makes us whole is not our doing, but God’s doing. God’s love and grace is ours, free. What’s up to us is how we respond. God’s grace offered to us is so amazing that it moves us to react! We respond with our faith, our commitment to following in the ways of Jesus. And we demonstrate that faith by living as Jesus lives, walking as he walks – a faith that works to serve others in love, however we can. “[Some] will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” What shows your faith? Amen.