“Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
John Weems considered these words from the Bible’s Book of James. We explored the challenge of facing our hypocrisy and ensuring our faith reflects Christ-like words AND actions.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 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, 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? 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? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 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. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
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.
Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey are in the club. So are Jon Bon Jovi, Kanye West, Mike Tyson, Alec Baldwin and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even Kermit the Frog is in the club. You can call them all Doctor. All are recipients of honorary doctorates, in the case of Kermit, a Doctor of Amphibious Letters.
Are you impressed by honorary titles?
While many world changing people have earned honorary doctorates, the degree isn’t exactly a credential most world-class universities accept a ticket to serve on their faculty. Most of the time, it is a ploy to get a celebrity to speak or sing or simply gain media coverage for a school.
We tend to dismiss a degree or title that one doesn’t appear to have truly worked to earn.
Sometimes this comes into play in matters of faith.
The author of the Book of James in the Bible was not impressed by honorary followers of Jesus.
In today’s passage, we encounter the challenging words, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17).
We have some strong statements from James. No one is absolutely certain of the authorship, scholars such as Douglas Moo of Wheaton College theorize that the driving force was James, the brother of Jesus. The Greek text is a little too polished for someone of James’ limited education, so it appears that a later editor might have helped. It’s important to note that James was likely not a follower of his brother during Jesus’ time on Earth. Maybe it was like Michael Jordan’s brothers trying to play on his basketball team. It just wouldn’t have worked. After the resurrection of Christ, however, James became the first bishop in Jerusalem and was quite powerful. Perhaps because he was now continuing his brother’s legacy, James wants to make it clear that action is a natural outcome when one has received Christ’s grace. James knew that his brother didn’t just use words about feeding and healing people. Jesus modeled action.
It is important to note that Jesus did not provide a check-list of actions that save us or punch a ticket to heaven. Reformer Martin Luther had real problems with the Book of James because he had seen the church swing too far toward works, in which people were told if they paid enough to the church, they could buy forgiveness.
Not so. We are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Christ.
We are saved and set loose in the world to live as Christ’s light, not saved by our works.
As the passage builds to the faith without works sentiment, James challenges us to avoid showing partiality, prosópolémpsia. In his case, he is reprimanding the new church for showing preference to the wealthy with preferred seating and favored treatment. He insists that ranking degrees of sin is out of line with God’s intent and that all are called to show mercy: “ . . .mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
Over the past week, we have been inundated with a barrage of words about what it means to live as a Christian. I have heard too much preaching from both sides.
And Jesus said to them, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, . . . and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)
Rowan, Kentucky Country Clerk Kim Davis and the couples whom she refuses to grant marriage licenses are neighbors.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are neighbors.
Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow are neighbors.
The annoying person in your building or school or office is your neighbor.
Our faith lives when we actively love and seek understanding. Our faith lives when we follow the example of Jesus, who even in his darkest hour on the cross at Calvary, looked at his persecutors and said “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus welcomes us with open arms, and calls us to do the same for others.
May we go forth as more than honorary Christians.