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.