James 2:1–17 (NRSV)
Warning against Partiality
2 My 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.
Faith without Works Is Dead
(Cp Gen 22; Josh 2)
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.
Of all the books of the New Testament, James is probably the most controversial. I find that very odd because it is one of my favorites, following the Gospel of John. I should rephrase that as being it is the most controversial in the western church and particularly the ones from more protestant variations. The Eastern Church loves this letter mainly because the eastern cultures have a different perspective on many things. I mentioned last week that this book was written by James the Brother of Jesus, and many have argued that James and Paul might have been having a debate while they penned their letters to the churches, while other scholars simply believe that they were speaking to two very different cultural perspectives. I tend to lean more toward the latter. I say this because I have visited a more Eastern influenced culture and found that they think, speak, and act in different ways. Their culture is more community focused than what we have come to know as the west.
East and West, I do not want you to think that I am speaking of current events when I say this. In ancient times we all know that the kingdoms of Israel were conquered by the empires of Assyria and Babylon, and were later assimilated by Persia when it conquered Babylon. All of these empires came in from the East. Then Greece from the west began to push from the west across the Persian Empire, pushing the Persian Empire to their farthest Eastern boarders known today as India. After a time Israel gained their independence from Greece forming the Hasmonian Dynasty which ruled for 123 years until Rome was asked to assist the nation in a civil war becoming a puppet kingdom under the leadership of Herod. Under the Greek and Roman leadership Israel began gaining more Westernized ideas, these ideas were what prompted the revolution from which they gained their independence for a short time. But for most of its existence, Israel has had a very eastern perspective, this is not surprising since Abraham was called out of the city of Ur, which was a prominent city of the Sumerian Empire the first major empire of the Middle East from which Babylon and Assyria emerged.
So we have these Eastern and Western ideologies working among the people of Israel, James was a leader of the Church in Jerusalem while Paul was writing to a cultural perspective that did not have the Eastern influence and was strongly influenced by the Greco-Roman philosophies. When Paul writes his letters to the people in the west they think and speak differently than the people James writes to in the East. This is important to consider because as we contemplate and study scripture the cultural perspective is important. Jesus was born and lived in a timeframe when the East and West were both influencing the area Rome called Palestine, much of the struggles that Jesus mentioned were issues revolving around ideologies that clashed between the two perspectives, and James writes to the people that continued to live where the East met the West. Of these influences the role of the individual within a community were the greatest struggle, mainly which is more important the community or the individual.
This has been a struggle within the church from the very beginning. As Paul moved west taking the Gospel of Jesus to the courts of the Roman Emperor, he was taking along with him a very eastern minded religious perspective, where the community took on a greater importance than the individual. Which was very contrary to the ideas of the west. And as the western ideas of individualism pushed East James was reminding the believers that they could not neglect their community. This struggle is most vividly seen in the passage we read today.
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Israel was founded on equality. No one tribe was seen as greater than the other in respect to their inheritance. Each tribe was given land in accordance to their numbers. There was no favor was given. It remained this way until the people began to desire a king to fight for them. Favoritism is not from God, favoritism deems that one individual is greater than another. God warned Israel about this saying that a king will demand your sons and daughters, your produce and your flocks. Why because the king has the right do to their position of ruler over the people. Now once they had a king, your position in respect to the king gave people status over others. No longer were the people equal but they were guided by the rules of favoritism and hierarchy. People begin to strive to find favor with the king, to rise in favor, where does this leave everyone else? There can only be one king, the community begins to take a back seat when the king is not God.
The Kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of men. In God’s eyes we are all equal, no one person is greater than another. It is the kingdoms of men that cause oppression, it is the kingdoms of men that rule over other and demand allegiance. But the kingdom of God calls us to love Him with all we have and to love our neighbor. This is what James calls the royal 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.” The concept of mercy comes out of justice, which come from the concept of equality. Mercy or justice does not take into account favoritism, it does not put one person higher than another but all members of the community are held at the same level. To live merciful lives we must look outside of ourselves and treat those around us as equals. Mercy and justice build the community where judgement based on favoritism cuts it away. James urges us to become a people not just of faith but of mercy.
This is where the controversy comes. Most Evangelicals hold very tight to the premise that we are saved by faith through grace, not by works. This is a concept that was strongly held at the time of the reformation and continues today. James says, “What good is it.” And people like Martin Luther tense because he goes on to say, “Can faith save you?” This is not so much about theology but theology in action. Remember James is writing from a perspective that the community of great importance. He gives an example that faithful looking at those in need and saying to them have faith and stay warm and fed. Yet these people need clothing and food. Can God provide? Absolutely! But what are we as a community telling them? If only you had enough faith then all your needs would be provided for. Our faith is not magic, we cannot command God to grant our wishes and call receipts down from heaven. No salvation happens when the community of faithful live lives of mercy. When we see those in need we as a community pull together and help them.
James speaks of this from observation. He saw this lifestyle lived out before him and at first he totally rejected it. Yet something changed. He saw his brother make it his custom to worship, he saw Him withdraw to the isolated places to pray, and he observed Jesus minister to the needs of those around him. He saw all of this, he saw it move people that once lived on the fringe of society back into life. He saw people once left for dead in the leper colonies restored to the community fully cleansed from all that society rejected. He saw blind eye restored, withered limbs refreshed, and the dead come to life. He saw this and it scared him, it scared him because he thought he was better than these people. If Jesus his own brother is restoring those people where does that leave him? It scared him because he had worked so diligently to be seen as righteous, yet to his own brother these beggar were equals. He also saw that as Jesus’ followers grew in number things began to change the oppressed were no longer living as oppressed because the community took care of them. Each person as they followed Jesus added to the community.
Then he saw something even greater. The leaders were losing favor so they began to plot. James then was fearful for other reasons, if they kill his brother would they then seek me out? He began to openly rebuke Jesus, calling him a mad man because he was afraid that if he did not speak out judgement would then hit him. But Jesus did not cower. He looked out to the crowds and said that they were his family. Jesus died on a cross, he was buried, and then he rose again. He even spoke with him. James like the others did not know what to do or to think, but on the day of Pentecost Peter spoke up and thousands believed, and so did he. They began to live the lifestyle of Jesus and greater numbers were added daily. They lived that holy rhythm of worship, prayer, and ministry. Faith did not save James, it was the community of faithful living by the royal law, that brought him to the feet of Jesus the author and perfecter of faith, not just faith but mercy.
Friends we can live by faith or mercy, we can live by judgment or grace. We can claim to have the right answers or we can help others take steps toward Christ by helping them see beyond their current circumstances. James does not say faith is out of place, he merely says faith without action, faith without movement, is dead. He is saying that often God is calling us to be the answer to the prayers of the naked and hungry, we are called to be the answers to the prayers of the hurting and the broken. We become those answers if we become people of mercy, when we become people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others.
As we enter this time of open worship, I encourage us to consider and examine our lives with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Ask ourselves if we are bringing glory to Jesus through our lifestyles, and actions? Are we becoming answers to prayer or are we simply pushing people away? And are we willing to change direction as James did?