Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Can we preach from James on right and wrong action in such a polarized climate?

Elder adults sitting together on boardwalk
Photo by Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 5, 2021

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

We may know in our minds that God loves everyone, especially the marginalized. But actions speak louder than words.

Once again, James names the critical gap between the head and the heart, between knowledge and wisdom (see my post from last week). James, the observer, is calling out particular actions which betray his community’s devotion to God. He sees how they show favor to the privileged, wealthy folk with high standing in society. Showing partiality to the rich is idol worship and a tear in the fabric of the Christian community, according to James.

Here in 2:1, we get only one of two mentions of Jesus in the whole letter of James. The emphasis of James is theological ethics rather than doctrine about Jesus. The ethic is generally more theocentric than Christocentric. Jesus’ life, miracles, death and resurrection are not mentioned in James. But the impact of Jesus’ words/actions are reflected in James as norms given to the faith community for right living. However, on the whole, it is God who is the source of every “good and perfect gift.” And wisdom, like every good and perfect gift, comes from above.

The overarching theme of this essay is that faith and partiality do not mix, especially when partiality is a reflection of the world’s way of playing favorites. Keep in mind that James sets up a dualism for the community—are you a friend of the world or a friend of God? Friends of the world show a preference for the powerful and wealthy, neglecting those struggling to make a living. Friends of God suffer with those who suffer and seek an end to the causes of their suffering.

As I highlighted in last week’s essay, the rich are a consistent source of critique in James since the quest for wealth often results in the fraying of social bonds. One grows richer by taking advantage of someone else (James 5). And as one grows wealthier, greed and self-centeredness take hold making an individual more and more friendly with the world and less and less able to be a friend of God (more on this in next week’s selection from James).

Money talk in most pulpits is taboo (unless, of course, we are talking about stewardship and capital campaigns for missions). Yet the actions we do for money, the things our society does for money, speak loudly and challenge our claim to be wholly devoted to God.

Why do we hesitate to bring money talk into the pulpit? It is good to sit with this question and bring to the sermon an identification with those feelings that keep us from getting money and faith into conversation. Is it fear of upsetting stakeholders? Then another question emerges, who are the stakeholders of the church and why? And what might James have to say about who we should allow to be a stakeholder, a persuading voice, on matters of discipleship?

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber names how our morality is at stake in the economic conditions of the West and calls on the church to speak and act in ways that James would recognize as right and faithful for friends of God to act. Rev. Dr. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign call for a moral revival by calling out the complicated web of oppression that makes all of us sick, most notably the poor. One of the main stumbling blocks to building power for the poor is the political polarization of what are moral issues: systemic racism, degradation of the earth, militarism, and a war economy, to name a few. These are not Republican versus Democrat issues (though many try to make them so). These are moral concerns. Can we preach from James on right and wrong action in such a polarized climate? Maybe it’s not the time to preach from James if you stumble over this question.

While James shares many attributes with ancient Near East moral literature, this pericope highlights one of its distinctions. James is not concerned with moral instructions or manners that keep people in their place of status. These are not moral imperatives for maintaining the status quo when the status quo is inequality. Instead, James is egalitarian and communitarian. Any action that secures individual comfort and pleasure at the expense of another is wrong. The poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick are precisely whom the gathering must support as they struggle to flourish in the economy of James’ time. Their welfare leads to the welfare of all of us.

So, if bias and Christian faith are partners, it can only be when that bias is for those most likely to be cast aside by friends of the world. The world judges a human’s worth hierarchically in the pursuit of riches and honor. Friends of the world would be willing to kill a righteous person to have more things, wealth, and possessions (5:6). James is consistent in his appeal: no one can be friends with the world and God. To even attempt to straddle that divide is to live “double-minded” (1:8, 4:8). Human freedom comes about when we are of one mind, wholly a friend of God, and only seeking to practice what we profess as followers of Jesus Christ.

The preacher must be honest about double-mindedness, in herself first and then in her congregation.