1My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 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? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
Charles Blondin was a famous tightrope walker, perhaps the most famous and accomplished tightrope walker who ever lived. As the story goes, there was an American journalist who, in his weekly column, expressed skepticism that Blondin had really actually done all the feats attributed to him–things like crossing a thin tightrope with a man on his back, or blindfolded on stilts, or carrying an oven and stopping in the middle of the rope to light a fire and cook an omelet.
Blondin got wind of the journalist’s column and his unbelief, and invited him to come to a well-publicized event where Blondin would cross over the Niagara Falls from the United States into Canada and back again. The journalist accepted the invitation.
On the day of the big event, Blondin announced (in typical fashion as one of his famous stunts) that this day he would cross over the falls on a rope, pushing in front of himself a wheelbarrow filled with 350 pounds of cement. The skeptical journalist was waiting for him on the Canadian side. He didn’t have to wait long. Blondin bounded across the line, pushing the wheelbarrow, in under 15 minutes. Reaching the other side, he sought out the journalist and said to him, “Now do you believe I can do it?”
Still recovering from his astonishment but wanting to be a good sport, the journalist admitted, “Yes, I do.”
“No,” said Blondin, “do you REALLY believe I can do it?”
“Well of course I do,” said the journalist. “I just saw you do it.”
“No, no, no,” said Blondin, “do you have faith that I can do this?”
“Yes,” said the journalist, starting to get annoyed, “I have faith you can do it.”
“Good,” said Blondin. “Then get in the wheelbarrow, because we’re going back together.”
Faith…and works. Can one truly exist without the other? Are they just different sides of the same coin? Or are they two different things entirely? Can you get in the wheelbarrow if you don’t believe? Is it possible to really believe, but still not get in the wheelbarrow? This is the subject that James, the brother of Jesus, explores in today’s text.
In verse 17, which is probably the most well-known (and misunderstood) verse in the entire letter, James says that faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. I think one of the reasons this verse is misunderstood is because it’s taken entirely out of its context, which is the first half of chapter two. James begins the discussion not with a discussion about faith and works, but rather with a discussion about a rich person and a poor person.
Verse 2: “If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
There is no doubt that James, like his brother Jesus, had a special place in his heart for poor people, and a harsh message for the wealthy in his community who dishonored, oppressed, or dragged poor people into court.
But his core message here is not actually about wealth vs. poverty — it’s about favoritism. James could have just as easily used a metaphor about a native-born citizen and a foreign immigrant, or about individuals of two different races or ethnicity. If your actions (which is another way of saying your works) display favoritism toward those who are like you (and remember, James is writing this letter to the Greek speaking churches in the diaspora, to well-educated, Greek-speaking Christians who were far wealthier than those in Jerusalem) then this immediately calls your beliefs (or your faith) into question. Hence verse 1: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”
What’s the solution to this imbalance, this inequity? Just like his brother Jesus did before him, James in verse 8 points to the greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, treat everyone the way you would want to be treated. We call this the Golden Rule.
But James acknowledges just how difficult it is to follow the law. If you break one part of the law, you might as well have broken the whole thing–since all of the law comes from the same God. So what do we do? The advice of James in verse 12: “Speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.” James is talking about a different kind of law here, and most translations call it the law of “liberty” or “freedom.” That’s accurate enough, but it misses the connection between the Greek word for “liberty” (ἐλευθερίας – eleutherias) and the Greek word for “mercy” (ἔλεος (eleos) that shows up in the very next verse.
I would translate both verses (12 and 13) this way: “Speak and act as those who someday are going to need mercy and compassion. Because there will be no compassion for anyone who has shown no compassion; and in any case, compassion is greater than judgment.”
Now, finally, with all those warnings about favoritism, inequality, and the need for compassion in mind, James says his most famous words (14-17):
“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? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
There is a great debate raging through the pages of the New Testament and through the early Christian church. I alluded to it last week when I mentioned the Apostle Paul. The majority of the New Testament is either written by or about the Apostle Paul, so there is a sense in which he ultimately won the the debate. James and his letter are a lone, small voice–a minority report left in the aftermath of this great debate.
But it wasn’t always that way. In the earliest days, James was the undisputed leader of the church, and all of the churches dispersed through the Roman Empire (many of which were planted by Paul) looked to James for guidance and direction. He was, after all, the person who knew Jesus best, and understood the teachings of his brother. What was the subject of the debate? In a nutshell, it was faith vs. works. Is it more important to believe the right things…or to DO the right things?
Here’s Paul, in his magnum opus, his letter to the Romans, chapter 3:
“No human being will be justified in (God’s) sight by deeds prescribed by the law . . . But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed . . . through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe . . . For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works.”
To bolster his argument, Paul turns to the greatest Jewish authority figure of all: The Patriarch Abraham. Paul says in Romans chapter 4, “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to one who works, wages are not given as a gift but as something earned. But to one who, without works, believes . . . such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”
And the great 1st century theological smackdown is on! James is obviously aware of Paul’s argument when he is writing this chapter, chapter 2, because he too, turns to Abraham:
Verse 21: “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
We often like to think, sitting safely in our cushioned seats from our 21st century vantage points, that all those saints in the Bible, all our heroes of the faith agreed with each other all the time; that the Bible always agrees with itself, or at least that it never contradicts itself. I’m sorry to disappoint you.
What do we do when we encounter an impasse like this one? What did the early church do? Did Paul and James just agree to disagree? Did they find a way to patch things up in the end? I’m afraid not. Sometime in the 5th or 6th decade of the 1st century, Paul traveled to Jerusalem with a large sum of money he had collected from all the churches he planted. He called it an offering for the saints in Jerusalem. Biblical writer Robert Orlando calls it “a polite bribe.”
According to the Book of Acts, when Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he meets with James, who compels him to undergo a rite of penance in the Temple–a ritual typically undertaken by confessed sinners. Surprisingly, Paul agrees, but when he is seen at the temple, a riot breaks out. Paul is arrested by the Roman authorities, and taken to trial in Rome, where he was imprisoned until his death some years later.
That would have been the end of Paul–and probably his side of the faith/works argument as well, if not for what happened next. A few years later, James himself is martyred, followed by years of turmoil in Jerusalem, and eventually the destruction of the entire city of Jerusalem, and all of the Jews–and Christians–within it.
At this point, the first and foremost Christian community, the head church that others looked to, is no more. The only Christians left are those in the dispersed churches…those planted by Paul, who continues to write to them from prison. As revered as James had been, he only left behind one letter. Paul left behind many. Paul’s argument carried the day not because it was the most reasonable argument, or the closest to the teachings of Jesus, but because it was the most widely read. Paul was the last man standing.
For what it’s worth, Jesus, in his famous parable of the sheep and the goats, says that God will judge people and determine their eternal destiny not on the basis of what they say or believe, but based on their actions–how they treat the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. To me, that sounds a lot like what his brother James was saying. But Paul firmly believed that his theology was given to him by Jesus as well, in a vision after his conversion experience.
Now…If you leave here today completely convinced that James was right and Paul was wrong, then I’ve actually done you a great disservice, not a favor. Paul’s doctrine, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is a core teaching in Reformed Christian theology. Martin Luther embraced it, and he tried (unsuccessfully) to have the letter from James removed from the Bible. John Calvin also embraced the doctrine of “faith alone” although his approach to James was more subtle–he tried to cram James into a Paul-shaped box, explaining that really they were saying the same thing in a different way.
Most modern theologians take one of these two approaches–they either ignore James altogether, or they jump through complicated hoops to try to harmonize James with Paul. I’m not so sure that’s possible…or even necessary.
Because while Paul and James continue to argue through the pages of the New Testament, so do we. We argue about free will vs. predestination, what color the church carpet should be, who was the greatest quarterback of all time, who should have been elected President of the United States, and whose turn it was to take the trash out yesterday.
We argue. It’s what we do as human beings, and you don’t have to read too much history to realize we’ve been doing that a long, long time.
Some of you knew Martha Peck. She was a lifelong Presbyterian, and a member of this church who passed away last year. Martha Peck was the embodiment of the Presbyterian slogan “all things are to be done decently and in good order.”
But when Martha passed away, and when her seven children gathered in my office to plan her memorial service, things started to fall apart. All seven of Martha’s children were just as strongly opinionated as she was. They had strong feelings about every aspect of the service, and they didn’t always agree. In fact, they disagreed passionately, articulately, sometimes with raised voices and brimming tears.
But just at the point when some other family would have thrown in the towel, and someone would have stormed out of the room and slammed the door, Martha Peck’s children called for a vote. By show of hands they established a majority, the minority voices relented and they all agreed to move forward together.
Honestly, it was one of the most beautiful, most Presbyterian things I think I’ve ever seen in my life.
Some passionate disagreements are settled by vote, or by election. Some are settled through brute force, through clever outmaneuvering, or just the passage of time. Some are never settled at all.
But even when that happens, I believe we are greater, we are stronger, for having had the argument in the first place, for hearing and preserving diverse points of view, even those like James that don’t prevail in the end. And I cherish and value a Bible that doesn’t always speak with one unified voice–a Bible that sometimes even argues with itself.
Most days I probably need to hear Paul’s message–I need to have faith, I need to believe. But just when I start to feel like I’ve got it all figured out, when I start to feel smug in my belief, that’s when James speaks to me and says, “Yeah, but do your beliefs matter? Are you doing anything because of them?”
Or just when I start to feel good about all the things I’ve done, all that I’ve achieved, Paul’s voice comes back to my head saying, “Did you do those things just to feel good about yourself? Are you just going through the motions? Do you really believe it in your heart?”
And maybe, just maybe, if the great Apostle Paul and James the brother of Jesus himself, just a few decades after Jesus walked the earth, can’t agree about what’s the most important thing, if the earliest churches didn’t have it all figured out 100%, then maybe it’s not so bad for us to admit that we don’t always have all the answers, either. We do the best we can with the message of Jesus as we understand it…but we hold our faith gently, not dogmatically or unequivocally. We go about our works humbly, not arrogantly or in self-righteousness.
This is the part of the sermon where I’m supposed to tie things up all nice and pretty with a bow, where I’m supposed to tell you what the correct answer is, what you should believe, and what you should do.
Or maybe not. Let us pray…