JAMES 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

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. 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.

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.

“Money talks,” the old adage goes. It doesn’t very often tell the truth, perhaps, but it holds a persuasive power that can be nearly impossible to resist. Just as today, the church in Jerusalem had tended to tilt in favor of the wealthy over the poor, giving them best seats in the house and more volume to their preferences and complaints. Even back then, ministry was supported through congregational stewardship, and the biggest givers frequently got the largest votes.

Thankfully, behind church politics and denominational greed there is the charter document of the Gospel, which tells the story of Jesus whose words on the accumulation of wealth and the societal division between the rich and the poor are anything but sympathetic to our temptations toward money. Jesus consistently came down on the side of the poor against those whose lifestyles, social prejudices, and religious self-justifications perpetrated abuse and neglect on the backs of the disadvantaged majority.

Since those with money often put forward the capital investment to fund the church’s mission to the poor and others in need, it is sometimes (mistakenly) believed that the investors are more important to her ministry than the beneficiaries. Which brings up another question: As church property and the technology of ministry become increasingly expensive and elaborate, what becomes of our responsibility for the humble poor?

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PSALM 125

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people,
    from this time on and forevermore.
For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest
    on the land allotted to the righteous,
so that the righteous might not stretch out
    their hands to do wrong.
Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
    and to those who are upright in their hearts.
But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways
    the Lord will lead away with evildoers.
    Peace be upon Israel!

As a monotheistic religion of high moral standards, the way of life prescribed in the Bible centers around an image of God as Creator, Lord, and Judge of the universe. Whereas today we might take a  more naturalistic approach to morality and say that where you end up is a function of where you started and the decisions you made along the way, the Bible sees this matter of where you end up as more a matter of divine retribution than natural consequence.

The difference between “the righteous” and “the wicked” may not be obvious now, with our difficulty in seeing into the hearts of persons, but in the future the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer – that’s when we’ll know. And it’s all because God is just and fair and will give out due recompense for every good or evil life.

Even before the ink was dried on the scrolls, however, the Bible itself began to record a gathering voice of dissent to this straightforward retributional morality. Sometimes good people are the ones who suffer, and with no recompense – at least in this life. And sometimes mean people prosper. Who can make heads or tails of it? In the end, the Bible’s view was deepened to say that godliness is inherently rewarding for the human.

 PROVERBS 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.
The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
    for they share their bread with the poor.

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Deep in the spirituality of the Bible is a moral insight, that one’s choices and way of life are productive in bringing forth a future harvest of consequences. It’s not simply the fact that every action produces a consequence of some sort, but that one’s quality of life tomorrow, along with one’s moral destiny in the longer term, are determined by the faith and responsibility by which one lives today.

The religion of the Bible is not alone in this belief. Indeed, all of the religions teach that personal destiny is in large part a function of moral character and whether one’s choices and commitments are inherently self-interested or rather performed with a higher good in mind.

The Bible went still further, however, in its unique and revolutionary concern for “the poor of the land.” Beyond just being a “good person,” it was imperative that a believer in God actually share in the divine compassion for those who suffer and who are outside the social circles of power and privilege. With a beginning recognition of equality before God between the rich and the poor, the bible’s compassion-driven morality went on to predict that neglect of the poor would result in one’s own calamity.

This wasn’t a you’d-better-or-else motivational stick, but instead reflected a deep understanding of the plain fact – and you really have to work hard not to see it – that we are all, the rich and the poor, connected in an interdependent web of relationships. In other words, we’re all in this together and it does no good to drill a hole in your neighbor’s side of the boat!

MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It’s time to ask about the dividing-line between what is essential and what is conditional or secondary in the religious life, according to the teachings of Jesus. Lest we deceive ourselves, we must not assume that for Jesus spirituality was merely a matter of what one feels inside, or how pure and noble one’s intentions might be. Jesus was intensely interested in the “fruit” of our lives, that is, in what is produced by the hands and the mouth in the form of ethical behavior. You can tell the tree by its fruit, he said on a number of occasions.

But Jesus also knew that fruit is only part of the tree, a trusty witness to the internal health of the tree, but it’s not everything. Moreover, you will frequently find when you bite into an apparently wholesome piece of fruit, that it’s mealy and rotten inside. Just so, good works may be more about the visual display than genuinely benevolent motives.

The heart, while maybe not the birthplace of our motives (that’s probably farther down), is where they gather emotional energy as attitudes and convictions. The heart is also the center of consciousness tuned into that most mysterious of all our human frequencies: love. On the continuum of human consciousness, the heart-center is situated midway between the mind-center above, which responds to the frequency of truth, and the belly-center below, where the survival concerns of life are dominant.

Between the life urgencies we carry in our bellies and the truth-claims we defend in our heads are the desires and aspirations we hold in our hearts. Our lives tend in the direction of what we love most. Is it God?

MARK 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

We are each aware of our life as it unfolds through time, with an exterior facing out to the world and an interior opening to the depths of the soul’s inner space. The ego, our center of self-conscious identity, toggles this boundary between objective facts and subjective feelings, between matter and value, between sensory perceptions and subtle awareness, between what we appear to be and what we really are.

To be perfectly honest, it is far easier to manipulate appearances than to live authentically, and much to be gained as far as the acceptance, respect, envy, or fear in others we are hoping to impress is concerned. Jesus didn’t put much weight in appearances, and he was sometimes caustic in his criticisms of those who fluff their feathers and strut around for the glamour value of their knowledge or social class standing.

The real tragedy – and this is what disturbed Jesus so much – was that these appearance-and-protocol obsessed legalists were not only duped themselves, but were pulling others into their delusion. For them, you’d better follow the rules and pay your dues to tradition if you hope to be in God’s favor. All the purity and dietary laws prescribing how and what one could eat were taken to be the “fundamentals” of their religion, and to transgress on these was a crime against God punishable by exclusion from the community.

Jesus looked at them and saw not only a hollow piety but a dangerous deception for the multitudes as well. And so, for the sake of their liberation, he spoke out against it.

JAMES 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 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.

The tongue is the organ of the soul’s testimony to the world. Our professions of belief, our statements of promise, our agreements in community, and our advocacy on behalf of those who have no voice are together the creative agency through which the realm of human meaning (the cultural cosmos) is generated and sustained.

Conversely, the word can also be an agency for destruction if we use our speech to deceive, condemn, flatter, gossip, or justify our prejudices against others. There is something to the popular practice of making affirmations, where declaring forth one’s positive convictions and aspirations serves as a kind of attractor for their outward manifestation in the world.

When it comes down to it, however, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” is more than doctrines and verse. Yes, our actions will tend to follow the direction of our speech, but in the end the only deeds that will finally matter are those performed for the health and salvation of the world. To be deeply invested in the world for its awakening and coming-to-wholeness, but without forfeiting or forsaking the will of God for the world, is the narrow ridge of our spiritual journey. On one side is the ravine of an other-worldly religion of no earthly value, and on the other is the gulch of a worldly religion with no spiritual vision. Walking the ridge can be lonely and dangerous at times, but it’s the path of the world’s true hope.

JAMES 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 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.

One way of undermining community is to focus our critical energies on others, exposing their shortcomings and condemning their sins. Of course, as members in community we need to be morally vigilant and address injustice where it occurs, but when we only look outward in our vigilance we can quickly become saboteurs of the very thing towards which our evolution is aimed.

So James advises the Christian to examine the soul and moral life of him- or herself. It’s been said that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason: so “be quick to listen and slow to speak,” the apostle enjoins. And don’t just memorize and spout off doctrines, but seek to live out the truth they represent.

The tongue is a viper, so the proverb goes. Elsewhere in this same letter, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship: though small and seemingly of minor significance, the tongue can steer the vessel of one’s life into all kinds of peril. So important is the tongue in the author’s estimation that anyone who believes and recites the confessions in church but cannot control their speech during the week is perpetuating a worthless religion.

We’ve all heard the maxim that “talk is cheap,” and surely that is true. But what comes forth from the mouth, as Jesus says, was first formed in the heart, which means that while talk may be cheap, it’s still a dependable witness to the soul’s general health.

JAMES 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 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 presents us with the portrait and prescription for an authentic humanity, much as the psalmist had in his eulogy of the king as God’s viceroy on earth. This is, in fact, one of the principal preoccupations of true religion: to envision, contemplate, aspire toward, and finally bring to realization the fullness of what we are essentially, if at present only potentially, deep within our nature.

There are many occasions in life where we will be tempted away from this inner truth and evolutionary ideal of our human fulfillment, lured in the direction of something more superficial, convenient, and instantly rewarding. We know when we have left the path for such deceptive promises and hollow pleasures. Our experience in these moments is one of frustration and disappointment, which ought to alert us to the fact that we are diverging from the intended aim of our existence (the literal meaning of ‘sin’), but too often we instead redouble our efforts in the direction of our fantasy and thereby merely amplify our discontent with life.

The evolutionary ideal mentioned above is not something we can attain or actualize on our own individually, for human fulfillment leads inevitably towards and depends on the formation of genuine community for its flourishing. And yet, paradoxically, genuine community itself is only possible as individual members awaken to the life of compassionate coexistence and the cooperative pursuit of peace. How can we begin? The counsel of James is that we start by being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” That way, we make room for the love of God.

PSALM 45:1-2, 6-9

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
    I address my verses to the king;
    my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of men;
    grace is poured upon your lips;
    therefore God has blessed you forever.

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
    Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
    you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
    with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
    your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
    daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
    at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

The psalmist gazed admiringly upon Israel’s king, attributing his unrivaled wisdom and prosperity to the fact that he stood with integrity in the will of God. Other kings outside the nation of Israel, and even most kings in Israel after David, were very often opportunists rather than faithful representatives of God. Because they were more interested in amassing wealth and concentrating power into their own hands, these others fell predictably to corruption and defeat. Only a small number of biblical kings even came close to the ideal picture of the poet’s praise song – David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah – and even they slipped occasionally.

In some Psalms of the Bible, the king is held up is such high regard as to be nearly idealized. He was called a son of God, the divinely appointed shepherd of his people, and the representative fulfillment of humanity itself. It may partly have been due to his especially public presence, but the best of kings was taken to be an example of an authentic human being. When he carried out his responsibilities with the will of God foremost in his mind and heart, his decisions turned out to be wise, his actions effective, and his achievements noble.

SONG OF SOLOMON 2:8-13

The voice of my beloved!
    Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
    bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
    or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
    behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
    looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
    the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
    and come away.

The love poetry of Solomon’s Song has attracted many with its sexual symbolism and romantic themes, a fact that drove the post-biblical church to interpret it away from its obviously sensual and towards a more hidden spiritual meaning. Thus Christ became the groom and the Church his bride, with the longing between them representing the romance of salvation.

Later mystics used the imagery in the Song to picture the soul’s passionate desire for the divine beloved. Originally (and probably not written by King Solomon himself) the poem was likely a love song celebrating the erotic energy and attraction between a man and woman on their wedding day. It is an inspiring tribute to the natural impulses and physical beauty that are so magical in the romantic interplay of the sexes.

This section of the Song gives an account of the groom’s approach to the place where the bride lies in waiting. Up till now her world has been cast beneath the spell of winter and its grey overcast mood. Hitherto she has only dreamed of this day, and at last it arrives, bringing the rebirth of spring to the land. Everything about the bride – her hope, her imagination, her heart, and her very body – is magnetized by expectation for the one she loves. Such total passion is what makes her experience, and her life in that moment, authentic and vibrant with meaning.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” this is what he meant.