James was written in the Hebrew tradition of mashal, or wisdom literature. Mashal is a word for a parable, but it can mean much more than that: a proverb, ethical wisdom, a story that teaches wisdom, or poetry that works as a memory aid for bits of wisdom. You can read a mashal anywhere in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or in lots of Jesus’ preaching and teaching.
Because Jesus taught with these ‘wisdom stories,’ they would have been a familiar teaching technique to his brother, James. James uses this teaching style in his short letter so well that many people who read it are reminded of one of Jesus’ most famous teachings—the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7.
The wisdom that James taught with the mashal in his letter was the practical and applied nature of our faith. I’ve been taught in the past that the letter deals with faith and works, answering questions about how true faith correlates to obedience in our daily lives. These works don’t save us, I’ve been taught, but they’re more of an ‘indicator light’ like you’d find on your car dashboard; if you have a good, solid faith, your works light up alongside it to mark it. Whatever the ‘works’ were was left as some fuzzy category of vague obedience, in my mind.
But James is anything but fuzzy. He tells us we can’t just listen to the Word, or Scripture, but that we have to obey it too, and that if we don’t we’re unwise and foolish. He caps off chapter 1 by saying that real faith produces works. The two don’t just accompany other, but grow from each other. His final words on that topic are familiar: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Real faith, or religion, IS works, and most specifically it’s the work of caring for people who need it most. James tells us our faith is caring for the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor, and the lonely, and doing so with a holy heart not swayed by the things of this world that would distract us.
What are those things that distract us from the poor and distressed? What keeps us from them? In my personal experience, it is pride, power, position, wealth, and privilege. When I love these things too much to look a beggar in the eyes or offer him some food, James says my religion is worthless. When I listen politely and nod along as someone grieves and laments, my religion is worthless. When I have the opportunity to listen to the voice of someone different than me, someone often neglected and unheard just like James’ widows and orphans, and I dismiss that opportunity, my religion is useless. It is dead, and deceptive.
That may seem harsh to us, or maybe overstated, but you don’t have to take my word for it.
James goes on in chapter 2 to say the very same thing. He tells the story of a rich man who comes to a gathering of believers and is treated with honor, while the poor man is welcomed to sit on the floor, or not even offered a seat. James warns us against favoritism towards those with privilege, power, or wealth. Partiality is a sin. It’s a work that shows our faith is not mature. It’s easy to hear Jesus’ words echoed here, from the end of Matthew 5, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”
James goes on to remind us that God has chosen the poor to inherit the kingdom (which should remind us again of Jesus’ “blessed are the poor in spirit…” beatitudes), and he tells us that breaking the law about loving your neighbor as yourself is a sin just the same as adultery or murder.
Soak that in for a second. James compares favoritism with adultery and murder. This is serious.
What good is our faith if it has not action to go with it, James asks us in 2:14? Is it even real faith? Can it save? If one of our brothers and sisters has no clothes or food and we tell them, “I hope things get better,” or “my thoughts and prayers are with you,” or “Go in peace, I hope you’re warm and full,” our faith is dead. James points out here what is called a sin of omission. It’s a sin that you commit by not doing something you’re supposed to do. For example, Moses taught us to honor our mother and father. When we don’t do that, we sin. It’s the same here. When we don’t value our brothers and sisters equally in Christ, we sin. We sin just as deeply as if we’d murdered.
That is massive. If our churches don’t listen to the voice of the poor man, the one with shabby clothes, the one we tell to stand in the corner, the old, the young, the foreign, the minority, the women, the ethnically different, James says we sin and our faith is dead without these deeds. When I don’t actively show my brother or sister with a different skin tone or eye shape that I value them, maybe I have functionally murdered them by taking away their voice and their seat in the room with me. In James 2:17-19 he compares such inaction to the ‘faith’ of the demons, who also believe in God but refuse to follow him in obedience.
James rounds off chapter 2 by explaining that true faith isn’t just correlated with works, but that it compels us irresistibly toward works. Our faith should lead to radical sacrifice of what is dear to us, like Abraham giving up his only son Isaac. Is our comfort zone so dear to us that we can’t give it up to have awkward conversations with people who feel excluded or voiceless in our churches? James also says that that kind of Abrahamic faith-to-works should cut across stereotypes like the faith the prostitute Rahab showed through caring for people who had no claim on her. If you read James and don’t want to be like Rahab, you’re doing it wrong.
James preaches what many today would call a social gospel. And many who would call it that shudder and squirm. Faith is about saving our souls, they say. Faith is about redeeming our minds and our wills. Faith is about heaven and eternal salvation.
But James won’t accept that answer, at least not as a whole answer. Faith is about action, in our real world, to care for real people, who may not deserve our attention, but whom God declared deserve grace under the new covenant just as much as we do. Perhaps they deserve it even more, given God’s repeated emphasis on the poor in spirit and broken-hearted. James closes chapter 2 by saying our faith must be accompanied by social action or we aren’t really talking about real faith or the whole gospel. “As the body without the spirit is dead,” he says, “so faith without deeds is dead.” Just like you can’t have a body or soul without the other, our faith is dead if it’s just about our soul. It must care for the body too.
One of my favorite childhood songs was by Rich Mullins. It has the line, “faith without works is like a song you can’t sing—it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.” This message from James is rough. It’s convicting. And it makes me consider many different aspects of my interactions and care for people. But it has beauty too. A song you can’t sing is depressing, a hollow promise. But when we get this right and evaluate and make changes to listen and include better, our faith can sing. It can be welcoming and warm, truly showing love to everyone. Is your faith the kind that falls silent in the throat, or is it the kind that sings?