The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 23rd Ordinary (Day 2)
2 My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?
5 My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism?
8 You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. 9 But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker. 10 Anyone who tries to keep all of the Law but fails at one point is guilty of failing to keep all of it.
14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
According to James “faith with works” is no mere doctrinal point, perhaps to argued for or against Paul’s seemingly opposite formulation advocating “faith without works.” Ironically, these apparently contradictory assertions are both true and more importantly both get us right to the heart of following Jesus.
Paul’s view of salvation being a matter of faith without works is God-directed. There is no way for us to become a member of the people of God by our own striving and labor. Rather, God establishes and enables this by grace, as a gift, wholly apart from whatever we do or achieve.
James comes at this matter from the other side. What do those who have faith (or claim to) actually do in relation to the people and needs of the world in which they live. From this direction, James cannot imagine that faith could exist without the works appropriate to the people of God.
So, if we imagine our standing before God, we will turn to Paul’s “faith without works.” But if we imagine our response to human beings in need, as God’s people we will stand with James’ “faith with works.” There’s no need to choose between the two or believe Paul and James at are odds with one another. The one can no more exist without the other!
Paul would tell James, “Preach on, brother,” even as he did in challenging this kind of partiality in the practice of the Eucharist in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11). For his part, James would encourage Paul in his preaching that it is Jesus Christ’s faithfulness alone that opens membership to God’s people by faith, even as he appeals to this very faithfulness as the ground of his complaint against this people (v.1).
Thus the Bible is at one in what and how James diagnoses and deals with the scandal of class partiality among his churches. It must not exist! However natural, comfortable, desirable it may seem to hang with other successful achievers, even in the church, the presence and power of the risen Jesus will always resist and oppose such selective gathering.
By showing a favoritism that shows partiality to the wealthy we place ourselves head to head at odds with God we know in Jesus Christ, according to James. We show ourselves in opposition to the very folks God himself has “chosen” to be “rich in terms of faith” (v.5). Moreover, we are thereby “dishonoring” the ones who are “heirs” of God’s kingdom (v.5). And we “insult the good name” pronounced over them at baptism (v.6).
Now, if there are more damning charges to be laid against those claiming to be the people of the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, I confess I do not know what they might be. I am such a man, however, and I live among such a people, both in the church and in my nation, who are liable to these charges. Oh, we loudly claim otherwise, but by every measurable index and observable action, we are such a people. We are thus those who break the royal law “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v.8).
“My brothers and sisters,” James says to us, “what good is it if (you) say (you) have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save (you), can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.”