If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? (NRSV)
James now passes onto his third rhetorical question, presenting an illustration, demonstrating that words alone, without deeds that correspond to the words, are empty and useless. Most commentators agree that the illustration is hypothetical, with McKnight referring to it as a “comic example” which “would be humorous if it were not so tragic” (229). Nevertheless, as Davids also suggests (121), the illustration is not one without immediate relevance to the community, and like the illustration in vv. 2-3, may be indicative of attitudes and behaviours which do exist or have occurred in the community.
Like vv. 2-3, the scenario is presented as a two-part hypothetical followed by the question. The first part describes the presence and condition of someone in the assembly whose poverty is indicated by their dress which is not so much shabby (cf. vv. 2-3) as inappropriate for cold weather, and by their lack of daily food. The second part then describes the words and action of another congregational member, before James presses his question. There is a further similarity between vv. 2-3 and vv. 15-16: in both cases there is a concern on James’ part for the unworthy treatment of the poor in the midst of the congregation. The poor person is to be welcomed with the same degree of acceptance and honour accorded to others; they are also to be cared for so that the “needs of the body” are catered for. Whereas in vv. 2-3 it is not clear whether the wealthy and poor persons are Christians, here the poor person is definitely identified as a “brother or a sister.” Finally, the function as well as the form of the two illustrations appears similar: James chooses an illustration relevant to the life of the community, perhaps even occurring in the congregation, since he says, “and one of you says to them…”
James is all inclusive in his description of the poor person, explicitly including both genders: “if a brother or a sister” (ean adelphos ē adelphē) in his description of the poor. These poor hyparchōsin gymnoi (literally, “are naked” as in the NRSV, though variously translated as “poorly clothed,” “in rags,” “in need of clothes,” or “without clothes” [Vlachos, 87-88]). They also lack daily food (leipomenoi tēs ephēmerou trophēs). Vlachos observes that James’ use of the present tense, and the somewhat unusual verb hyparchōsin (“to exist”) indicates an enduring state of poverty and suggests that the individuals suffer constant want (87-88). Their abject need is evident.
“And one of you says to them” (eipē de tis autois ex hymōn) brings this hypothetical illustration close to home: “someone from among your community.” The words spoken are in the form of a blessing: ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ (hypagete en eirēnē, thermainesthe kai chortazesthe). “Go in peace” is a standard Semitic blessing of good will, that the person go on in a state of peace and well-being (Vlachos, 88). “Keep warm and eat your fill” correspond to the nakedness and hunger of the person identified in verse fifteen. These verbs can be interpreted in two distinct ways, either as “keep yourself warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the middle voice) or “be warmed and filled” (i.e. the verbs understood in the passive voice).
The first option places the responsibility for the poor person’s well-being upon themselves, whereas the second becomes a form of prayer. Vlachos (89) prefers the first interpretation, and because the verbs are in the second person imperative, he is probably correct; the speaker is telling the poor what they must do. Nevertheless, a number of interpreters including McKnight, prefer the second option so that the speaker is saying something along the lines of, “May God’s peace be upon you; may God warm you; may God fill you up.”
This may be an overinterpretation but, if so, not by much: the false piety, the false claims, and the false religion of those who have faith but do not have works are palpable in this letter (cf. 1:26-27) (McKnight, 231).
In the end, as Davids (122) notes, the question makes little difference to James’ main point: the speaker does nothing. “And yet you do not supply their bodily needs” (mē dote de autois ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos). Ta epitēdeia tou sōmatos refers to those things necessary for the body, the physical staples of life, which in this context refer to food and clothing. It would be legitimate, I think, to extend this to other necessities of life including shelter for the homeless.
James is concerned for bodily needs and physical necessities, and especially but perhaps not exclusively, for those in the congregation (cf. Galatians 6:10). To send someone on their way, even with a blessing of peace, is of no use whatsoever, if in the sending they remain cold and hungry. James obviously intends the speaker (and the community—dōte is second person plural) not only wish them peace and welfare, not only have good will and intention toward the poor, not only feel kindly—but to give (dōte) them the things needed for bodily life and welfare. This calls the speakers to use their own substance and share what they have with the person in need. James is concerned with “the need of the body” and not simply the condition of the “soul.” To bless or to pray, and to not give what is needed—“What is the good of that?”