Posts Tagged ‘faith and works’

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.

Faith and works (or deeds) are the soul and body of the spiritual life. Just as the soul animates the body and the body incarnates the soul, so faith energizes our good works and good works actualize our faith. This dynamic relationship between faith and works was kept in focus so long as faith itself retained its critical position in Christian belief, as that which believes (in Latin, fides qua creditor: faith as basic trust and surrender to God) rather than that which is believed (fides quae creditor: faith as a point of church doctrine).

When the confusion set in, as it did already by the time James is writing, the avalanche towards a more dogmatic orthodoxy had begun – a deviant momentum from the original spirit of Jesus and his gospel that we have not yet been successful in correcting.

Typical characteristics of dogmatic religion are that it is excessively weighted on the side of doctrinal purity, is largely disengaged from the practical-ethical complexities of real life (evidence by general and absolute judgments on contemporary moral issues), and is aggressively exclusive in its ideology. Early Christianity was showing signs of degeneration in this direction, and despite the writer’s good efforts, the trend continued in the post-biblical period.

Of course, we are not suggesting that doctrinal clarity and a more or less systematic understanding of spiritual matters are unimportant. Faith as a simple and fundamental total trust in God needs the mind as much as the will for its full development. James’ point is not that faith  must become less intellectual, but that it needs to be more ethically relevant. In short, it needs to be morally productive. Faith that lacks a strong efferent nerve to the limbs and muscles of practical choices and actions is (as good as) dead.

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DEUTERONOMY 11:18-21, 26-28

18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.

In ancient Israel, two traditions ran side by side and had different things to say about the nature of God, our human condition, the meaning of salvation, and the responsibility each of us carries.

One tradition was centered on Mt. Sinai and the other on Mt. Zion; one featured Moses as the ideal while the other venerated David; one represented the relationship between God and humans as a bilateral covenant whereas the other saw it as based on a unilateral and unconditional divine promise; one held special affection for the poor and downtrodden, as the other tended to favor persons of clout and privilege; finally, one was dedicated to the Torah (ethical teachings) and produced the prophets while the other was chiefly concerned with the Temple and its political ties to the Throne, promoting the vocation of priests.

All of the terms in bold text above represent the web of values that makes the Old Testament such a complicated collection of writings. Through the centuries, and in response to major events such as the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 BCE and the Babylonian captivity of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, these two traditions and their different voices were gradually stitched together in one “grand narrative.” Even so, the stitching seams are rough and still obvious in places, and occasional contradictions can trip up the attentive reader.

Deuteronomy is the principal document of the tradition featuring Mt. Sinai, Moses, the bilateral covenant (more on that in a moment), concern for the oppressed, the Law code of the Ten Commandments, and prophets as agitators of the status quo. The status quo – then and now – refers to a tendency of the political and religious establishment to suck resources away from those who desperately need them, making their situation more desperate still, as insiders enjoy comfort and ease. It often happens as well that an established religion can grow morally complacent and actually work to keep out those who don’t fit in the group.

This so-called Deuteronomic tradition understood God’s protection and provision as conditional upon the people’s faith and obedience to the teachings of Torah. God would do his part, but in return he expected them to keep a sharp ethical edge on their faith. Their diligence in following the way of God as explained in the Law, and teaching their children to do the same, would bring them long life and prosperity. For this reason the agreement is technically a conditional covenant, holding together around the “if/then” clause: If you do this, then I will do that. If you don’t, then the deal is off.

The Old Testament contrast of these two traditions showed up later in Christianity as the tension between “faith alone” and “works righteousness,” belief versus action. Is it enough to have faith, or is salvation dependent on our living out what we believe? If we practice compassion and benevolent outreach, is it still necessary to believe the “right” things?

This voice of the Bible answers: It’s not what’s in your head or even in your heart that ultimately counts; salvation is something you need to work out in daily action. God loves the poor more than he cares for priests and politicians!