The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Is The Book of James Proto-Marxist?

Luther Was Wrong, Behavior Is Believable.

by Carl Gregg

Epistle Reading:  James 2:1-14

For Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012: Year B — Ordinary 23

Martin Luther dismissively called The Book of James a “right strawy epistle.” Luther wanted to base the Reformation on phrases such as sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), sola fide (“by faith alone”), and sola gratia (“by grace alone”). But the Bible is an anthology that does not speak in one voice, and prophets such as James are a vital counterweight to the idea that one can be saved by “grace alone.”

“Can faith save you?”

It’s contradictory to promote salvation through “Scripture alone” if you ignore (or try to explain away) the parts of scripture you don’t like. And Luther did not like James 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?”

Thankfully many people of faith, both conservative and liberal, in the twenty-first century are coming to embrace the need for social justice as a vital component of a healthy spirituality.

Behavior Is Believable

Two thousand years ago, James was promoting the worldview of contemporary social psychology: what we do is often much more believable, truthful, and revealing than what we say.  In verse 1, James asks if the readers of his epistle “really believe” in Jesus because their favoritism of the rich over the poor belies their claims to follow the way of Jesus.

Is James a Marxist?

Even as James anticipated the perspective of social psychology, he also seems to be a proto-Marxist. Consider verse 10, “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?”

Those questions sound like they could be on a sign at an Occupy protest. Perhaps an interesting Bible study would be to read through the book of James and highlight all the passages that are placard-worthy!

Reformation AND Counter-Reformation

Luther’s theology and biblical interpretation helped many replace legalism with grace, but Bonhoeffer and many others have warned against “cheap grace.” We need a conjunctive faith based in both/and, not either/or.  We need liberty and responsibility, grace and guidelines, faith and works.

From “Pie in the Sky” to “Ham Where I Am”

If someone is naked, starving, and wrongly imprisoned, your faith and beliefs are barely relevant, if at all, to their plight. They need help now and in this world. In James’ words, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food…and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

The Hardest Question

Regarding this lectionary passage, the author of The Book of James may have arguably already asked the Hardest Question more than two millennia ago: “Can faith save you?” Ask yourself this question, and then wrestle with the response with James concludes: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. He loves The New York Times, biking to work, and playing Ultimate Frisbee. Carl lives with his wife Magin LaSov Gregg, who is a Lecturer in English at Bowie State University. They have three cats and two dogs.


  1. Kel says:

    Yes, ahhh, the good ol’ dialectic! I like “Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone”–i.e., is generally accompanied by good works. Here’z my take on it:

    THE POINT: Head faith isn’t all bad, especially when it’s faith in The Head!
    THE PROBLEM: People with saving faith are not always non-discriminatory and loving–in fact, are sometimes apathetic, atrophic, and apostatic.
    THE PROMISE: Because God discriminated against Jesus, making him to suffer and die for our sins, we enjoy forgiveness, life, and salvation and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, love our neighbors as ourselves.

    As regards Luther on James, we’d rather err on the side of grace than on any other side, no? Whatever, thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Carl Gregg says:

    Kel, thanks for your thoughts. I’m no expert on Luther, but from what I did read of his theology in seminary, his hyperbolic rejection of The Book of James and hyperbolic insistence on Sola fide (“faith alone”) struck me — and this insight is by no means unique to me — as a result of Luther’s own neuroses: his pathological need to feel like he was definitely saved. So, yes, grace is amazing, but without works, I think Bonhoeffer rightly called it “Cheap Grace.” So, I would like to see more Christians erring on the side of both grace AND good works. This world needs more people of faith engaged in grace-filled works of justice and peace. (As a side point, I couldn’t disagree more that “Because God discriminated against Jesus, making him to suffer and die for our sins…” but I don’t want to get too far off topic. For more on alternative Christian atonement theologies, see “Proverbs of Ashes : Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us” by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.)

  3. Amigo Cowboy says:

    Great question. Here’s my mottled response….

    The most difficult place where I find myself eking out a sometimes blundering, muttering, mumbling, stumbling, groaning teaching on James is a nursing home. Go and sit next to an aged woman who can’ t move her legs, whose hands are crippled by arthritis. Her world is largely confined to bed and dependence on the care (of both physical, spiritual and emotional needs) of others.

    What is needed is a holistic approach to faith that honors, celebrates and encourages the seemingly microscopic actions as well as the earth-moving ones…on a level playing field. In a land that only seems to celebrate big accomplishments, big speeches, big spending, and grandiose ad infinitum, we might be tempted into believing that James holds this view as well. This of course is nonsense, but I lose track of how many times I minister with people who are racked with guilt because they aren’t “doing anything worthwhile in their faith” and are struggling with the thought that “they don’t matter.”

    Somewhere in the beginning of his book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen asserts that to be a Christian is to be wholly irrelevant to the secular world/culture. Christians, that is, are the antithesis of the modern fables that promote plutocracy, material success, and so forth. His actions accounted for his theology: leaving Harvard to work with an unassuming community of people with varying degrees of mental disabilities.
    His actions remind us that the “works” of our faith must be filtered through the lens of Jesus. We take on projects that appear to our culture (and some results-driven church cultures) as farfetched at best and pie in the sky at worst. God did not send thunderbolts and lightning (very very frightening). He sent a rabbi dressed in burlap who did a lot of ministry on foot, caring for a lot of people that didn’t seem to matter to anyone else.

    After watching two weeks’ worth of extravagant excess in the form of the respective party conventions, I’m left seething over the audacity that both parties had at spending (for their convention expenses) as if the economy was roaring along at 4% unemployment. Imagine if the Christian base of these two parties started a revolution and used that money instead to feed the hungry, clothe people, teach the unemployed new jobs skills, etc.

    What is needed is faith and thoughtful action coming together. Interpreting James without the lens of reason leaves us with disheveled, spastic activity that gropes around merely for something to do. Such activity promotes shame among those confined to a bed, limited because of finances, etc. We need to be teaching people that their actions do matter, without respect to size requirements, or worse, mindless hyperkinetic activity (like dropping red, white and blue balloons and party streamers over screaming people in an expensive arena). The “mercy” that James speaks of in this text is my joy. Our actions can be performed, received and judged according to mercy. That means that faithful, thoughtful works do matter, regardless of perceived size or relevance. Thank God.

  4. Late to the conversation says:

    Amigo Cowboy, I’d challenge your nursing home resident on the definition of “works.” We aren’t all called to the same works at the same time or in all of our lives. Someone who can’t work with her hands can still pray with her heart–or do we believe that prayer doesn’t really count? Someone who can’t swing a hammer can still share his faith with the aides at his nursing home. I just buried someone who did just that, and heard how all the employees came to say goodbye to him on his last day. The tricky part is the balancing act of not giving some people what seems like an easy out, or helping people discern what their works of faith should be at this season in their lives.

How do you read?