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“Faith Working through Love”
Sermon on James 2:1-10, 14-17
(Proverbs 22: 1-2, 8-9, 22-23)
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
The question James asks his congregation at the end of the passage we just read is a provocative one: “Can faith save you?” I can hear them thinking to themselves, “Well, yes, actually, we thought it could. That’s what you people have been telling us.” Many of you may well have been thinking the same thing, and you wouldn’t be wrong – after all, the entire Protestant Reformation was based on Martin Luther’s discovery, while reading the Scriptures, that we are saved by God’s grace, through the gift of faith, and not by our own works. We will never be able to do enough good deeds – or refrain from enough bad ones – to measure up to God’s high and holy standards, so our salvation has to come from God alone, through Christ. That is how we understand salvation in the Protestant churches, but here is James saying, rather sarcastically, “Can faith save you?” It is a reminder that the Bible is actually a collection of books, not one book, and does not speak with the same voice about everything.
Martin Luther was so disgusted by the Letter of James that he is rumored to have torn it out of his Bible. We still have it in ours, though, and it is a good thing we do, because we need to hear James’s voice, a voice that connects the teachings of Paul about the free grace of God with the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures about the imperative to care for the poor. The proverbs we heard today in our first reading are just a small sample of many such sayings throughout the book of Proverbs and in the books of Moses and the prophets. The Bible says, over and over again, in both Testaments and in the words of Jesus himself, that a society will be judged by how well it cares for its poorest, most vulnerable members. In fact, the Scriptures suggest that the most reliable litmus test of a person’s professed faith is his attitude toward the poor: if you’re saying the words of faith, praying and coming to worship and studying the Bible, but not showing respect for the poor, then maybe your faith isn’t what you think it is.
That’s what James is saying to his congregation. He’s noticed a pattern of behavior with them. If someone bounces into church wearing designer clothing and a Rolex watch, they fawn all over her, scrambling to find her a seat next to them; but if a shabbily-dressed person comes in, someone who looks like he might be a day laborer, they shuffle him off to a place in the sanctuary where he will be inconspicuous. James has three things to say about their behavior. First, you’re dishonoring God by dishonoring the poor, because we know there is a special place in God’s heart for the poor. Didn’t Jesus himself say, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God?” (Lk 6:20) Second, what does it mean for you to say you believe in Jesus Christ, who showed no partiality toward people, if you are showing this kind of favoritism in your own community? And third, this behavior is crazy! These rich people you’re falling all over yourselves to flatter have not exactly been your friends. Why are you identifying with them at the expense of the poor person?
In James’s world, as in the world of the Old Testament, the “rich” would have been the landowners and the “poor” would have been almost everybody else. There wasn’t much of a middle class in those days. The people James was writing to almost certainly would have had very few personal possessions, as they would have had to spend all of their income on the daily necessities of life. The man who came in wearing the shabby clothes could have been any one of them who had had the bad luck to be laid off from work due to illness or injury or a bad harvest. So in their discourtesy to the poor man, they are showing an appalling lack of empathy and imagination. They are acting, in fact, as if it is the poor man’s fault that he is poor. They know the commandment, what James calls the “royal law”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But some skewed logic has led them to conclude that the rich person is more their neighbor than the poor one, therefore more worthy of their respect and attention.
Well, that is nothing new, is it? That’s just human nature. We call it being “aspirational”: we identify with the people we would like to become, not the ones we’re afraid of becoming. The advertising industry understands this quirk of our humanity: they get us to buy things by flattering us with the idea that we are really like the handsome guy driving the Audi, or the hip, cool people drinking the high-priced vodka, or the carefree couple flying on a private plane to their vacation in Alaska. The only thing standing between being them and being us is buying these products. Advertisers know that we want to emulate the rich, not the poor – who would want to be like them?
James is calling for a fundamental reorientation of attitude toward the poor. He’s not talking simply about charity – it was a given that you were supposed to share what you had with the poor. James’s community already knew what Moses and the prophets and the proverbs said about being generous and open-handed toward poor people. So James didn’t need to elaborate on that point. What James is saying is that if we call ourselves Christians, we can’t simply dismiss the poor from our lives and our consciousness by writing a check – though we should be ready to do that, too. The point is, the poor mean more to us than objects of our charity: they have religious significance. The overwhelming witness of Scripture is that God has a special love for the poor.
Most of you probably remember that parable of Jesus about separating the sheep from the goats at the Last Judgment. It’s the one where Jesus says to the “sheep,” the ones who will sit at his right hand in the kingdom of heaven, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prison and you visited me,” and so forth. Then he says to the “goats,” the ones who are to be sent away to the devil and his minions, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was naked and you gave me nothing to wear, I was in prison and you didn’t come to see me,” and so forth. Both the sheep and the goats are confused because they don’t remember doing or not doing something for Jesus himself, and then he delivers the punchline: “Just as you did – or did not do – to the least of my brothers and sisters, so you did – or did not do – to me.” (Matt. 25:31-46) So God doesn’t just love the poor, God identifies with them. It is among the poor that we are most likely to find God.
In saying this I do not suggest that the Scriptures romanticize poverty or that we should do so. Scripture is very clear that the lot of the poor is miserable. There is no upside to poverty for the single mom working two shifts at Safeway and Walmart so she can feed and clothe the children she hardly ever gets to spend time with. There is no upside for the young man who couldn’t pay the fine for a minor traffic violation so has to spend time in jail. There is no upside for children who are afraid to walk to school because of the drug dealers on the corners. As Proverbs says, “All the days of the poor are hard.” (15:15)
This week marked the 10-year anniversary of the financial crisis that plunged our country, and most of the world, into a deep recession that many people have never recovered from. The malfeasance of the bank executives who were responsible for the mortgage-default crisis seems to have faded in the public memory, and I understand that most of those executives are doing better than ever. In fact, we are in a decades-long period of increasing wealth concentration in the hands of a very few, similar to the “Gilded Age” of the 1890s-1920s.
The Scriptures command us not so much to pity the poor, but to see them in their full humanity; that is, as the ones through whom Christ comes to us. A basic vocation of the church is to see the poor in our midst, to acknowledge that their lives matter, too, and to help others see them as well, so that together we can build a society in which there is no longer a vast, gaping chasm between rich and poor, no longer a world of stark contrast between “haves” and “have-nots.”
As it turns out, James is not as far from Paul as Luther thought. In Galatians Paul writes “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.” That’s really just another way of saying what James is saying: “Faith without works is dead.”
John Calvin, writing about the genuinely faithful, described them this way: “The Lord makes them truly kind and bountiful, so that they no longer seek their own convenience, but are ready to give assistance to the poor, and …every day advance more and more in kindness and generosity.”[i] That is faith working through love.
We are saved by grace. It is by faith that we take hold of this grace. But this grace is given to us precisely so that we may do the works of love, so that “grace may extend to more and more people, to the glory of God.”
Manassas Presbyterian Church
September 9, 2018
[i] Quoted by Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 45.