14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
I liked James when I was young. It was easy to understand. It was concrete and specific. It appealed to my youthful idealism.
A spiritual crisis in college took me into the Psalms; they gave voice to the cries of the heart.
In seminary, I did a thesis on Lamentations. I was obsessed then with the questions about God and suffering, about the trauma of crushed faith.
Later I thrived on the powerful poetic language of the prophets. Perhaps it was a natural development from the passionate and intense poetry of Lamentations.
Still later I became enthralled at the genius of the Gospel writers.
James seems almost a little pedantic compared to the soaring heights of the prophets or the Gospels – or to the profound depths of Lamentations. But here he is, the slap upside the head that calls us back to earth. All the brilliance of scripture doesn’t take away the demand to live the will of God. There is no faith without works. There is no allegiance to God that does not manifest itself in solidarity with neighbor.
The question is whether James is preaching to the choir. Is this familiar rhetoric that gets the congregation riled up and shouting “Amen!” or is this an arrow through the heart of a congregation that has lost its soul? Was James writing to churches that did not provide for the least in their midst, or was he just reinforcing that profound reality they all knew – the followers of Jesus formed a household that lived the mercy and compassion that had found them in Christ? Could James have imagined a church that was about a set of religious ideas and not a way of life? Could he have imagined personal faith that was not a shared life?
I don’t think so.
The moral exhortations of James are, in fact, rather obvious. But sometimes we need the obvious to remind us of the realm we inhabit. Sometimes the community needs to revel a bit in what it already knows: Faith is not an idea; it is a way of life, a discipleship, an allegiance to the God who takes widows and orphans under his protection – the God who feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, and comes to the aid of the poor and oppressed – the God who gathers the outcasts and heals the blind and the lame – the God who lifts away our unpayable debt. To put our trust in him, to claim allegiance to him, is to live his life. Everybody knows this, but still the preacher likes to call out every now and then, “Let the congregation say ‘Amen!’”