Lectionary Texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, 11-13, 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
Did you catch the theme that’s common to all our readings except the Gospel this morning? Each one of them has something important to say about the poor.
In Proverbs 22, we heard, “The rich and the poor have a common bond: the Lord is the maker of them all.” What a countercultural concept that is! Nowhere in the Bible do we read that poverty is to be eliminated in this age. In the human economy as God created it, the poor always will be with us. But in v. 9, we read that ”He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor.” And, in vss. 22 & 23, we read, “Do not rob the poor because he is poor or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord will plead their case and take the life of those who rob them.”
In Psalm 146 we heard that God “gives food to the hungry.” “He supports the orphan and the widow,” something James exhorted us to do in last week’s epistle reading.
James wrote the most about the poor in his epistle. “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’ 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 … did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man.”
These passages provide a very small sampling of the many times caring for the poor, the orphan and the widow is stressed in Scripture. One could even say that Scripture is shot through with this theme. Among today’s readings, James stands out as using by far the strongest language. He begins by suggesting that those who dishonor the poor by showing favoritism to the rich are in some way weakening their faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. But then he continues, saying that “if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
That’s damning enough, but it’s just the backdrop for his familiar statement that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, has become guilty of all.” We all have heard that verse before, but the severity of its implications may not have struck us with sufficient force. In this context, even dishonoring the poor identifies us as sinners and as transgressors of the whole Law.
According to the rabbis, in the Torah alone, just the five books of Moses, there are 613 commandments, though some say that “only” about 300 of these are relevant today. Good luck keeping all 300! Perhaps you will say that we’re no longer under law but under grace. We certainly believe this to be true, yet it may not be true in quite the sense that we attach to it. As it happens, while the Torah may contain only 300 relevant commandments, the NT contains well over 1,000 commandments, not just the two we recite every Sunday at the beginning of our worship.
Obedience to all 1,000 of those NT commandments would demand much more of us than we realize! Even our regular Sunday morning liturgy is full of commandments that we pass over with little consideration of how hard it would be to keep all of them. Law-keeping is a challenging matter. Ask Paul, who recognized in Romans 7 that sin attacks us by using the law to deceive us and even to kill us, spiritually speaking.
Returning to James, he ends this subject by asking, “Do not they (who dishonor the poor) blaspheme the fair Name by which you have been called?” Imagine not only weakening our faith in the Lord of glory but also blaspheming His Holy Name, the Name that is above all names! The meaning is absolutely clear. Jesus taught by word and by example that the poor, the outcast and the marginalized were to be cared for at every opportunity, even or perhaps especially those among them who were regarded as having no worthiness. Can you think of such persons in your circle of acquaintances? If not, we may need to be getting out into the world a bit more, out of our cocoons and into the market place where the poor, the orphans, the outcast and the marginalized actually live.
James uses this example of dishonoring the poor as the jumping off point for one of his most controversial statements, the one we reduce to: “faith without works is dead.” Sadly it’s our very propensity for reductionism that is at the root of our troubles with this verse. When read as I just quoted it, without retaining all that James actually wrote, it creates the supposed conflict between his teaching and that of Paul. What James actually wrote is, “Even so faith by itself, without works, is dead.” Paul would have agreed wholeheartedly! Faith is not a stand-alone matter. For both Paul and James, faith was an active concept that must be worked out in the way we live, or its reality is seriously to be doubted.
John Murray, one of the greatest Reformed theologians of the 20th century, wrote, “Faith without obedience is presumption, just as obedience without faith is self-righteousness.” Hear it again: “Faith without obedience is presumption, just as obedience without faith is self-righteousness.” The first half of that sentence addresses James’ conviction that faith demands expression or demonstration. He wrote, “You show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Brilliant! After all, did not Jesus Himself say, “By their fruits you shall know them? Every good tree bears good fruit” (Matthew 7:16, 17). “Faith without works is presumption,” a presuming on God’s grace, a cheapening of grace, a refusal to accept the demands of true faith.
But then Murray adds, “obedience without faith is self-righteousness.” This was precisely the problem of the Pharisees, as we looked at it just last Sunday. Between scrupulous obedience to the letter of the law and adherence to the fences they had built around the law, the Pharisees truly believed that they had earned God’s favor on their own. Jesus came to burst that bubble for them and, by extension, for us, whenever we, too, begin to rely on what we perceive to be our own goodness. God’s grace is costly grace, it’s sacrificial grace, and while we rightly say that it’s freely given and altogether unmerited on our part, it still requires something of us in return. Actually, it requires all of us in return; we call that our sanctification. What was the “first and great commandment,” according to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Himself? We all know it because we hear it every single Sunday morning without exception: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
That’s a tall order, and it’s certainly one we all fall short of, much of the time. Those 4 “all’s” really hold us accountable! Most of us are content to get by with loving the Lord our God with some of our heart, soul, mind and strength, on a periodic basis.
That’s precisely the theme, the emphasis, of James in his epistle. James is asking more of us than we’re accustomed to giving. While he doesn’t actually cite the “first and great commandment,” he does cite the second one that, according to what Jesus says in Matthew, “is like it:” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39). James calls this “the royal law,” and says that if we’re fulfilling it, we’re doing well.
Perhaps he’s hoping for us to respond that, in all honesty, this commandment is hard to keep. We find it difficult to love others as we love ourselves. Sadly, there’s a broad continuum from those who are mired in self-hatred on the one extreme to those who are mired in narcissism on the opposite end. Neither extreme lends itself well to love of others.
Furthermore, and importantly, love of others needs to be much more than a slogan. James writes that the “royal law” is something we are to be “fulfilling,” not just quoting. Love for others demands action, otherwise the validity of the mere profession is rightly to be questioned. James wrote, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (2:15, 16).
In our weekly liturgy, immediately after we have exchanged the “peace” with each other and as we transition into presenting our gifts at the altar, we hear these words from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God” (5:2). Christ, as we know, moved well beyond self-love to redemptive love. He actually laid down His life for us and for our salvation. What a great challenge it would be for us truly to “walk” in that love! That would be a far more effective motivator for loving others than self-love alone. The two need to be set side-by-side: both loving our neighbors as ourselves and loving them as Christ loved us. That would constitute “walking in love” at its best.
What can we conclude from all of this that will affect the way we live in the week to come?
- First, we must conclude that caring for the poor, the orphan and the widow is an obligation placed on every one of us by the God Who made us all, rich and poor alike, and established that the “haves” should be caring for the “have nots.”
- Second, we must conclude with James that if we show favoritism to the well-dressed wealthy persons in our lives, we are doing four reprehensible things: dishonoring the poor, weakening our own faith, committing sin, and blaspheming the fair Name by which we have been called. That’s a challenging list of consequences stemming from our failure to care for the poor and needy. And while Proverbs 22:23 tells us that “the Lord will plead the case [of the poor and afflicted] and take the life of those who rob them” (Prov. 22:23), James asks us, “Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He promised to those who love Him?” It almost sounds as though we are the replaceable pieces!
- Third, we must agree with James that “faith by itself, without works, is dead.” Being pious attendees at church does not ensure us a place in God’s heavenly Kingdom. More is expected: no, more is required of each of us, more than we’re accustomed to giving. We are to show our faith by our works.
- Fourth and last, we must recognize that we are required to love others both as we love ourselves and “as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us, a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God.” Our obedience, like His, must be sacrificial if God’s perfect will for us is to be accomplished. And when we love as He loved, the sacrificial component is accepted with willingness of spirit and gladness of heart.
Some callings belong everyone. Don’t get caught waiting for God to show you His will. He already has, in His Holy Word and through the voice of the Holy Spirit. Just do it!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.