Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The second chapter of James opens with an illustration that is as relevant in the contemporary church as it must have been to James’s first readers.

September 9, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

The second chapter of James opens with an illustration that is as relevant in the contemporary church as it must have been to James’s first readers.

I daresay nearly every one of us who sits on a platform or in a choir loft during the worship service has at some point seen a stranger entering the service late, and immediately, without meaning to do so, inferred from the stranger’s manner of dress and demeanor whether they are in search of a worship experience or seeking a handout. In James’s words, we have “become judges with evil thoughts” (verse 4). Ouch.

Of course, a middle-class contemporary reading of this text shows some points of sharp contrast from the experience of first-century readers. While there were the very rich (i.e., the emperor and his retinue) and the rich (i.e., landowners), the vast majority of folk, and almost certainly the vast majority if not the entirety of James’s readers, were what we would think of as “poor”: owning no land and few personal possessions, and spending all their income on life’s daily necessities.

By all rights they ought to identify with the destitute man who enters their congregation: he could be any one of them, denied a few days’ work by a bad harvest, injury, or just plain bad luck. Yet instead they cast their entire, almost desperate hope on this individual who appears to have what they lack (notice that he is not initially described as “rich,” only as sumptuously dressed). In their eagerness to curry favor with the well-off, they slight the one with whom they should be in solidarity.

It is also valuable to consider this story in canonical context, that is, as enriching and being enriched by the similar stories and illustrations that come from Jesus’ lips in the Gospels. The description of the rich man’s clothing and finery immediately calls to mind the similar description in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), a story that straightforwardly describes a reversal of fortunes after death, with the poor man being favored and the rich man suffering in agony.

The instructions to the visitors as to where to sit or stand recalls Jesus’ instructions to would-be banquet guests (Luke 14:7-11) and again stresses themes of reversal: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (verse 11). The intertextual echoes reinforce James’s warning against identifying with the rich, especially against one’s own best interests.

But this passage is disturbingly familiar to many first-world, middle-class congregations due to a meaning that would not have emerged for the original, first-century readers: by projecting social distance between the church members and the poor visitor, the story exposes the social situation in which we perceive ourselves. Most of us are not “the rich” by our own standards, either as individuals or as congregations. Our legal practices are far more evenhanded than those of the first century, but many of us still feel oppressed or manipulated by “the system.”

Some churches somewhere may have programs that are fully endowed, or members with deep pockets who fund whatever the congregation resolves to do, but most of our churches are supported financially by members who give sacrificially, and most of us find that church budgeting involves making difficult choices between important priorities. Indeed, those congregations that are most committed to aiding the poor and marginalized in their communities and around the world often find making these choices the most painful, as they struggle with the multiple demands of responsible Christian stewardship.

Yet most of us are not “the poor” either, and it is very easy for us to think of the truly poor as the “other,” those who are “in need,” with whom our relationship is strictly that of giver and receiver. James is speaking to many of us who are active in social justice when he indicts those attitudes that hold the recipients of our ministry at arm’s length. Actions that protect our privileged status as givers and fail to engage the humanity of those who receive our ministry are not, in truth, faithful works, but deeds that reinforce our attitudes of favoritism. James pulls no punches: he calls such behavior sin.

(The lectionary brackets the next three verses [11-13]. These may sound surprisingly like Paul to us, but Paul and James are far from alone among first-century Jewish authors in developing the theme that transgression against one aspect of the law is transgression against the entire law. The precise function of “law” in James’s argument is a topic that could take considerable development, and in my view the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary do well to leave this digression for another time.)

In verses 14-17, James clearly has in mind a person or group of people who place a great deal of emphasis on the verbal proclamation of their faith. (Later on James will have a good deal more to say about the untrustworthiness of the tongue, but that is a topic for another sermon.) Here, James pits himself firmly against the view that faith is primarily a matter of disposition or even of confession. It is not what we think or say but what we do that matters to James, and he has no trouble whatsoever speaking of the necessity of “works.”

The figure James uses in illustration of this point is, again, just as vivid, just as easy to imagine, in a contemporary context as in a first-century one. It may first be tempting to let ourselves off the hook by presuming that the believer who sends a needy person away with pious platitudes must be a hypocrite who means nothing that he says. But James’s portraits are more incisively drawn than this, and there is no evidence to support the idea that “Go in peace” (a phrase Jesus spoke frequently to those he healed) is intended here as a meaningless platitude.

No: James intends that we see ourselves here. Whenever we encounter a man or woman in need (James’s mention of a “brother or sister” [verse 15] likely reminds readers that women were often the neediest and least protected members of society) and pledge to add them to our prayer list, assuring them that God is powerful and will surely fulfill their needs, but we do not do what is in our power to meet their physical needs — we have failed. Our words about the sufficiency of divine power may, in fact, be true. But our faith, if it is expressed only by the words we speak, is a cold and worthless corpse.