James clearly builds on the final verse of chapter one: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27 NRSV) Left alone, we could all claim to be obedient to this. So, James gives us a test case. If we’re honest, we have to squirm a little bit as he describes the scene. Of course, we’ve all done this; we’ve all shown partiality in this. We hope we’re overcoming it; we hope we’re countering it; we hope we’re better than that. But our society has drilled into us to value people on outward appearances more than essential being.
What is fascinating about James’s test case is that he seems to be talking to the poor – at least to the working class. Look a little later on when he says, “is it not the rich who oppress you?” (v.6). He’s making a distinction between those folks out there who are rich and those who are poor. So, this is also a hospitality issue. Who are you happier to see come through your door? The ones who can help you pay the bills or anyone? This means, in part, that this comes back to who are you really looking out for? Are you really interested in yourselves and those who can help you realize your vision for the church? Or are you interested in “seeing all the people,” as we say in Discipleship Ministries? Is it about the inward focus of the church or the outward mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? The world, notice, not the church.
This is not, however, a mission strategy, it should be noted. At least for James, it isn’t. This is the core of the faith. Pay attention to how he begins this chapter: My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? (James 2:1 NRSV). Did you catch the shift in that single verse? “Do you not with your acts really believe . . .” This is the struggle that has bedeviled the church from the beginning: faith and works. We have too often turned this into a dichotomy or even a struggle – faith versus works. James wants nothing to do with such a false divide. With your acts, we see what you really believe. You can say you believe all kinds of things, but your life will bear witness to your beliefs, says James.
A little time could be spent here on what we mean by the word “believe,” especially in a New Testament context. We so often use the word believe to mean intellectual assent. To believe in something is to hold in our heads. Sometimes we use the word fact; sometimes we use the word truth. We hold these beliefs as truths in our heads. Certainly, that is about half right. There is an intellectual component in the concept of belief. But that isn’t the only element of belief. When John 3:16 declares that “whosoever believes,” it isn’t asking only for an intellectual assent to the idea of the Christ. It is asking for a life that reflects that core belief. It isn’t really asking “do you believe” but “are you willing to put your life on it?” “Does your life and your witness, do your actions and your words tell us that you believe that Jesus Christ is Lord of your life?” That’s what it means to believe in New Testament terms.
For James, then, at the heart of believing is how we view and then treat others. Do we somehow see some as more worthy of grace than others? Do we act as though there are those among us who deserve a higher place, more attention, more service, than others? That’s what he is wrestling with here in our text for this week – making distinctions, giving preferential treatment to one over another. Key for James and the early church was the distinction between rich and poor. That was, in his view, what was tearing the church apart. Certainly, we have not changed too much from the descriptions he provides in this chapter.
But we are required, yes, required, to point out other distinctions that we are making in the lives of our church today. Fundamentally, it is the distinction between those like us and those who are not like us. We give preferential treatment to those of our race, of our gender, of our orientation, and yes, our economic status. And in so doing, we are claiming that these “others” are not as worthy of God’s grace as we are. Our favoritism claims that they are not as deserving of a place at the table as we are. Distinction means that they are those whose voices need not be heard. No wonder James sees it as such a core issue of faith.
He also, in this text, gives the lie to the “thoughts and prayers” as being an adequate response to human need. Certainly, we need to be in prayer for those who are hurting. Certainly, we need to be mindful of those who are suffering. But to believe that this relieves us of a responsibility to act is not adequate to the gospel we claim to believe. This is what brings the charge of dead faith from James. It is a faith that doesn’t act, doesn’t live out what is core belief. It is faith, James would argue, that isn’t faith.
He isn’t saying that we are saved by our works. That has always been the warning in the midst of this. It is why Martin Luther was afraid of this letter. Luther feared that people would read it as saying that do enough good works and you’ll receive salvation. But that isn’t James’s argument. Instead, he is saying that true faith has to come out in words and in deeds. It isn’t just about what resides in our heads but what comes out through our hands.
“Doers of the Word”: that’s our theme for this series. Chapter two of the Letter of James can boil the doing down to making distinctions. If it seems too simple, it is. But as with most things that matter, simple doesn’t mean easy.