The following is a reflection on James 2:1-17, the epistle lesson appointed for Proper 18 B, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
James wrote to a church in crisis. And we know what that crisis was: the bigotry of class.
Rich brothers and sisters in Christ were treating poorer brothers and sisters in Christ badly. Rich Christians were shown preference in the assembly over those without high means. Poor Christians were without food and clothing, and their needs weren’t met by those in the church with them.
This was wrong. (And, yes, it still is.)
This way of “being church” regards people as the world regards people, not as God does. If there is any place in the world where people, regardless of societal stature, are all supposed to be celebrated as sons and daughters of God, created in the Image of God…it’s the church.
We are supposed to take that way of being, and sell it to the world.
Instead, James was writing to a church that had bought the world’s way of doing things.
All of that can’t be divorced from what follows next in the letter:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?
It’s this passage which caused Luther to label James’ letter as the “epistle of straw.” On it’s own, it seems like it’s the exact opposite of the theology of Paul, which Luther owed the foundation of his own theology. In Paul it’s faith, not works which saves.
But, when you remember what’s going on when James is writing his letter…can one say that the people in that church were faithful? Treating the poor with contempt, and treating the rich and powerful with deference…does this sound like Jesus?
James isn’t making a great, nuanced theological point here. He’s looking at the behavior of the people in the church, and he’s saying that he doesn’t see much faith, if any.
If you’re going to claim to be a faithful Christian, there should at least be some evidence there. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to be perfect. We all fall short of the glory of God. But, there should be a visible attempt.
An attempt to bring in the reign of God. Establish God’s Kingdom, so that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven.
James wasn’t telling the church to be good to the poor and thereby earn salvation. He was saying that if their faith was genuine, they’d actually be loving their neighbors as themselves.