My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?2 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, 3 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,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. ….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.
Faith without Works Is Dead
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……
26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
There are a lot of ways we could call the book of James the original description of Faith in Real Life. James seeks to describe how the experience of faith manifests itself in daily interactions. It is one thing to rejoice in the promise that God loves us and another to see how that faith changes how we live our daily lives. James argues that if it hasn’t changed how we live and relate, we’ve missed the point entirely. It’s a bit like insisting you love your partner at the same time you refuse to listen or worse, actively dismiss or disparage them. It is amazing how often I hear the words: I love him/her when a video would show a consistent pattern of disregard.
James begins with who and why we defer to others and how it is an indicator of our relationship with God. What kind of judgments do we make on the basis of appearance? If we believe we are all children of God by God’s grace, ranking people on the basis of appearance is contradictory. James says, pay attention to whom you welcome. Everyone is God’s child. Your willingness to recognize human need and to accept differences is a natural extension of how you have received those gifts from God. Treat others like you believe God’s promises to you.
JUDGMENTS VS JUDGMENTAL
One person in FIRL asked if this meant we could not make judgments. Making assessments and making judgments are a necessary part of life. We would not ignore an applicant’s stuttering if she were applying for a job as a radio announcer. Noticing and acknowledging differences is not the problem. Our differences define our individual uniqueness. We are not all God’s children in one giant smoothie where our differences are blurred into unrecognizability. We are God’s children as we are—with our strengths and our weakness, our capabilities and our incompetency.
The ideosychrycies that define us should not to be ignored but we must be mindful of at least two things. First, the conclusions we draw from the judgments we make may well be in error. Humility is a sine qua non of loving relationships We can be internally convinced we are right and still be proven completely incorrect. The minute we forget our fallibility, we slide into self righteousness and in the words of James: we “become judges with evil thoughts.” Second, we must avoid the temptation to assign secular values to God. Fine clothes, position and power are very desirable in the secular world but make no difference to God. Whenever we act as if skin color, gender or appearance are indicators of God’s preference, we, again, have lost humility. We create measures of worth rather descriptions of difference. It is the difference between making judgments and being judgmental.
FALSE DICHOTOMIES AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS
The dichotomy between faith and works is false. If you have a spigot running water into a bowl, it will eventually overflow. The promise of God’s love, which Jesus called living water, is continuously filling us. If that care for us is not overflowing into the world, the spigot is disconnected. Works are the natural and inevitable overflow that demonstrates we are recipients of God’s care. Faith makes works possible and works inform faith. This is a figure eight relationship, not a dichotomous one. If we snip the eight at the intersection, we end up running in self serving circles.
There is a thread in spirituality in which the gold standard is a mountain top experience. If you’ve had one, they are wonderful. But for some, and I assume these are to whom James is speaking, the spiritual journey becomes a quest for such awe inspiring moments. It becomes an end to itself. Rather than leading us out into the world, this focus becomes a means to fill ourselves. In such cases, these practices are self serving and self indulgent. Likewise, works can be used as a measure of our righteousness rather than a means to better understand and express the faith we profess. Humans cannot establish their goodness or worth by their deeds, obedience or diligence. If that is the standard, we can never be or do enough.
‘Good works’ can, however, help us learn more about the breadth and depth of our faith. When I have a couple at loggerheads, usually they are competing for who is right—and/or they feel injured and entitled to retaliate. In such situations there is no room for the other. The goal is vindication for self— not regard for the other. Listening and mutual respect cannot occur in that environment. Fortunately, even when we are bad at it, practicing what we preach helps break that cycle. There are teachable skills which allow people to fake it til they make it. It doesn’t matter why people are willing to do the work of listening and being less defensive, the effort creates space for new possibilities. When that happens, loving becomes an experience of regard. When that that happens there is room for differences. It is true personally and it is true societally. That’s how Jesus lived and the hope he offers to us all.
Separated from one another, both faith and works can become pathways to self righteousness. Connected to one another they combine to help us receive the living water of God and provide ways to share that gift in the world.
FACING OUR LIMITS
Recently, I listened to an NPR story about ethics and decision making. The program referenced a famous thought experiment in which a trolley is rushing out of control down the tracks. As it approaches a switch, you can change the direction of the train. You must choose. On one track, there are five people and on the other there is only one. My first reaction was this is a no brainer. Choose the greater good. Save the five. Sacrifice the one. (For the purpose of this discussion, we will not consider the option of taking no action.) The problem gets a whole lot more complicated however, if the one is family—your child, spouse, parent or sibling. In real life, kinship makes a huge difference in how we decide. Even if the five were a group of Nobel Laureates or saints of the church, I don’t think I could choose to let the trolley hit my child.
It is one thing to have inclusive values and concepts and quite another to live those values when they cost us personally. We will all find some limit to our ability— and our willingness— to be kind. Humans will be defensive and self protective when sufficiently threatened. I will choose me and mine—even if the other five include MLK and Mother Teresa.
I need to remember that when I get indignant about others not listening or not wearing a mask, I make comparisons. They are selfish. I am mindful. The minute I do that, I become judgmental. I act as if I am above such actions. It is called self righteous. In such times I need to confess and I need to be grateful that God is loving and forgiving. That is the living water that can then overflow into my daily encounters with others.
When faith and works are seen as part of a whole instead of separate circles, faith and works feed each other. If you have known forgiveness, your faith will create space to forgive others. Your regard for others does not diminish because God’s regard for you does not diminish. The difficulty, of course, is that in order to receive forgiveness, we must acknowledge our need to be forgiven. It is all too tempting to use our good intentions or hard work to protect us from seeing that we still need to be forgiven. As James puts it, “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.”
Live like your loved—so they will know we are Christians by our love. Let it be so.