September 6, 2015 is Pentecost 15B – James 2

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Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 – Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.
Isaiah 35:4-7 – Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not be afraid.” He will come and save you.

Psalm 125 – Do good, O Lord, to those who are good.
Psalm 146 I will praise the LORD as long as I live. (Ps. 146:1)

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 – Don’t show favoritism to the rich. Faith without works is dead.

Mark 7:24-37 – Syrophoenecian woman’s daughter.

Is Your Faith Alive?

Last week we embarked upon a five-week series on James. Those of you doing the Five Practices will only have four weeks for this, so choose which of the texts your congregation needs the most:

  1. Listening: James 1:17-27
  2. Works: James 2:1-17
  3. Tame the tongue: James 3:1-12
  4. Conflict: James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
  5. Healing: James 5:13-20

Here is this week’s text in its entirety:

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. 

There are two basic parts to this text. First, the concern for the economic disparity and second, faith and works.

Economic Disparity

Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus makes it clear that Jesus was deeply concerned about poverty, and in particular, the way the rich treat the poor. The Matthean beatitudes say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s Jesus puts it simply, “Blessed are the poor.” All of this reflects the earlier prophets’ admonitions, like Isaiah 58:6-7:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

What should we do with a church that doesn’t share its bread with the hungry? This may have been James’ concern. What do we do with a society that treats the poor with distain? I have heard the poor in our society called freeloaders, moochers, lazy, leeches, and so on. Programs for the poor, which make up less than 2% of the federal budget, are routinely called “entitlement programs,” clearly made up because the poor feel they’re entitled to an unearned handout. The rich pundits stir up animosity towards the poor with phrases like, “You make it. They take it.”

This simplistic understanding of our economic realities is beneath us. We live in one of the wealthiest societies the world has ever known. How we treat our poor in this so-called Christian nation, will be a testament to us. If you want to encapsulate some of Jesus’ edgy teaching, Luke’s “Woe to you rich” starts to get at it.

James pulls no punches. If you treat someone in poor clothes with less respect, you clearly do not know the God who loves all people. Robert Gundry, in his commentary, translates it, “a gold-ringed man in lustrous clothing.” If you treat the rich person in Armani, driving a Lexus, with greater deference, you shame yourself. James is spelling it out. Will our people be able to hear this? Read it slowly.

“But you have dishonored the poor.” “You’ve made discriminatory judgments among yourselves,” says Gundry. And he acknowledges something we seem to have trouble admitting: the rich oppress the poor. “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7s it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” This is pretty moralistic stuff. If you hit them with this, they will need a way through. Fortunately, there is one.

Faith and Works

Generosity is the antidote to materialism. Just as the Feeding of the Five Thousand began with a little boy sharing his lunch, our turn around can begin with generosity. But where does generosity come from? We were told last week. All good gifts, like generosity, come from above, from the Father of Lights. God is the source of all generosity. Seek God, and the Spirit will grow generosity within you.

The faith versus works tension is a straw dog. The two go together like heat and fire. Apple trees produce apples. People of faith produce good works.

Robert Gundry says, “James denies the benefit of someone’s claiming then to have faith if he doesn’t have good works to authenticate his claim. Faith works to authenticate his claim.”

In February of 1520, before he had been excommunicated, Luther’s old friend Spalatin reminded Luther he had promised to preach a sermon on good works. Luther’s enemies said that an emphasis on justification would result in a total neglect of good works. As Luther worked on it, the material grew beyond a sermon. Luther wrote Spalatin and told him it would be a small book or treatise. In Luther’s Works 44:21, we have this treatise.

Luther begins by saying the good works we are called to do are the Ten Commandments, not this ridiculous list of traditional, ritual, and cultural baggage. When the young man asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, Jesus puts before him the commandments. He then quotes John 6(:28-29) where Jesus says, “This is the good work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Jesus redefines good works as faith. Luther points out most preachers breeze past this important passage.

Praying, fasting, establishing endowments, leading a good life, paying taxes, showing up on time… these are all great things, but they go on apart from faith. Meanwhile, working hard at your job, respecting your fellow citizen, and taking care of your family seem to account for nothing among many religious leaders.

So, whatever is done in faith is good. Whatever is not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Luther finds it strange that he is being labeled a heretic for saying this.

Works done without faith, are “false, pretentious, pharisaic good works.” Luther quotes Augustine, who says the works of the first commandment, having no other gods, are faith, hope, and love. Luther points out that most people in his day considered the works of the first commandment to be dressing up, going to church, singing, praying, reading, playing the organ, bowing, kneeling, and praying the rosary. These are all good and can be a blessing when done in faith. If, however, they are done without faith, they become an attempt to prove ourselves, earn our way to God, and deceive ourselves. We set them up as an idol. God cannot tolerate this, Luther says. Grace is free.

When the church leads people to think they are made right with God by their good works, it is subterfuge. We dupe people into thinking this is spirituality. We allow them to believe they are close to God if they do good things. Meanwhile, they are missing out on something huge.

Luther makes it clear he is not forbidding good works. They are a blessing to all. But if we do them because the church commands it, we have missed the point.

The thrust of Luther’s Treatise on Good Works is to move us away from the dogged religion of the law, to a religion of faith, love, and the Spirit. He does not want to do away with works. He simply recognizes that they come from faith. If they come from a misguided notion that we are earning our righteousness, they too easily become self-righteousness and can actually work against our relationship with God, rather than toward it.

What is the Good News?

The Good News is that God in Christ has gracefully made our relationship right with God, through faith. Whoever puts their trust in God alone, has done the work of God. Whoever puts their trust in Christ, will find their body and mind pulled by the Spirit toward the work of God. You need not keep track. You need not add up your good works to ascertain if you have been good enough. That’s not how it works. Christ died to get us out of the sin accounting business and the good works accounting business. Turn your heart to Christ and see where that leads.

So what?

Congregations need to hear this more than ever. We live in a society that still values people by the amount of money they gave to this or that cause (regardless of how little a percentage of their income it is). We still live in a society that values people on how neat their house is, how well dressed they are, how outwardly religious they are. Who knows what their relationship with God is really like?

So away with self-righteous, pretentious shows of piety and religiosity. God is not impressed. As Jesus says, go to your closet and pray, give secretly. Do the good works that emerge from a heart of faith and not what will impress your neighbor.

Our people need to hear this. They need to hear that the fight between faith and works is a false dichotomy. It’s like asking if you’re burned by fire or by heat. This is an important distinction as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The faith/works thing often comes up. People will argue about whether we are saved by faith or works. This argument is a waste of time. Our theologians put this to bed in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by both the Lutheran and Catholic Churches in Augsburg, on October 31, 1999.

We can say with James, and all the faithful, “Faith without works is dead.” Of course it is.

Here’s how Luther put it.

And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. (LW 35:371)

Listen to that last part again: “Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.” That’s another one that’s worthy of a poster. Here you go…