Tag Archives: James

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:14

James 3:14
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

The juxtaposition of and sudden shift from verse 13 to verse 14 indicates that James is contrasting some others with those who are wise and understanding. In place of good conduct, and works done in the meekness of wisdom, he finds envy, bitterness, selfish rivalry, ambition and strife.

The word translated ‘jealousy’ (zēlos; ζηλος) can have either positive or negative connotations. Positively, it might refer to zeal, ardour, or enthusiasm; negatively, it might speak of indignation, envy, or jealousy. Literally, it means to have ‘ferment of spirit’ (Friberg), signifying an inner life active and generative, boiling and bubbling away; but what is being produced? James obviously uses the word in its negative sense, pairing it with another word pikros (πικρος, cf. v. 11)—bitter—which has the sense of being pointed and sharp, and used figuratively as it is here, refers to a resentful attitude that may also be harsh or cruel.

‘Selfish ambition’ (eritheia; ἐριθεία) means just what it says, though it also carries the sense of rivalry or factionalism. Moo notes that it is a comparatively rare word:

In its only pre-New Testament occurrences (in Aristotle), the word refers to the selfish ambition, the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians. This meaning makes excellent sense here in James (Moo, 133).

Together these terms portray individuals or even groups within the congregation at odds with one another, striving not with but against one another, seeking an advantage over the over, and jealous or resentful of any success that the other may achieve.

James sees these attitudes and attributes as lodged in the heart, at the centre of one’s personality. Vlachos (122) notes that James’ language indicates that his listeners are ‘harbouring’ these attitudes in their hearts. If this is the ‘spirit’ at work in a person’s heart, they are actually far from wise and understanding. Rather, these attitudes are evidence of an ‘arrogance’ or ‘boastfulness’ that James prohibits (mē katakauchasthe; μὴ κατακαυχᾶσθε), an expression of the belief in one’s superiority over others, and as such the very antithesis of the ‘meekness of wisdom.’ Such a person claiming to be wise and understanding is in fact ‘lying against the truth’ (pseudesthe kata tēs alētheias; ψεύδεσθε κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας): their very attitudes and resulting actions betray them. It is not surprising, then, that James prohibits these attitudes. He is calling upon his hearers either to stop this behaviour, or more generally, to avoid becoming these kinds of persons at all (Vlachos, 122-123).

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the little word zēlos which is used by James. Zeal in itself can be a commendable quality, if one is zealous for the right things in the right way. Titus 2:14, for example, exhorts believers to be ‘zealous for good deeds.’ One can be zealous for the things of God, for his word, his truth, his justice, and his mission, in ways that are life-affirming and kingdom-oriented. But it is also possible that this commendable zeal might tip over to become the kind of harsh and bitter zeal that James condemns here.

The problem is that zeal can easily become blind fanaticism, bitter strife, or a disguised form of rivalry and thus jealousy; the person sees himself as jealous for the truth, but God and others see the bitterness, rigidity, and personal pride which are far from the truth (Davids, 151).

How does this occur, and how might it be avoided? James would teach us that if we become convinced of our own rectitude in such a way that we are now against others, if we become partisan and competitive, angry and jealous, ever more determined to press our understanding upon those with whom we disagree, we have already passed beyond the tipping point. James would call us to return to the meekness of wisdom that displays itself good works kindly intended and executed.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:13

James 3:13
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James 3:13 begins a new little section in this epistle, following a long teaching on the power of the tongue which seems to have been directed at those in James’ congregations who sought to be teachers (3:1). The verse starts with a rhetorical question, literally, “is anyone among you wise and understanding?” Vlachos (120), however, suggests that the question functions as a conditional clause along the lines of, “If any of you are wise and understanding…” James intends to teach his readers what true wisdom actually looks like, and in so doing, adds to his statements in 1:26-27 about the nature of ‘true religion’ or what we might call ‘authentic spirituality.’

That sophos (‘wise’) has a moral sense in James is clearly seen in the description of wisdom that follows in these verses. Wisdom is not merely intelligence or knowledge. Richard Bauckham has suggested that wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will. It is the way in which Torah is internalized, so that outward obedience to Torah flows from an inner understanding and embracing of God’s will expressed in Torah” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). God’s will as expressed in Torah is not merely known, but understood and embraced, and so brought to expression in one’s life, and in ways which go beyond a mere adherence to the letter of the law.

‘Understanding’ translates epistēmōn, which denotes the possession of expertise: “being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge” (BDAG, 381). Together the terms portray the truly wise or spiritual person who understands both what the will of God is, and how it might be applied in the contingencies and circumstances of everyday life, and who actually applies it in this discerning way.

James’ question seems to assume that there are some among them who are actually ‘wise and understanding.’ Certainly there seem to be some in the congregation who claim to be wise, just as there are those who claim to be spiritual, to have faith, and perhaps, who boast in their riches. To those who would make a show of their wisdom, James counsels: display (deixatō, ‘show, demonstrate’ [cf. 2:18]) your wisdom by your good conduct. Make a show of your wisdom by and in your works. This verse, like James 2, contrasts words and works. True wisdom, like true faith, is revealed in works. Wisdom is displayed and recognised rather than claimed. Wisdom is revealed in the ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ of one’s life—the adjective kalos (‘good’) likely retaining here something of its classical meaning (Vlachos, 121). Just as true wisdom has its source in the good and generous God, so it shows itself in a good and generous life.

Such wisdom is also meek (en prautēti sophias). Wisdom does not parade itself with ostentatious boasting, or merely with words. It does not boast great things for itself, but quietly and consistently works. Many English translations speak of the gentleness of wisdom. Since it is likely that the phrase is qualifying the works which express wisdom, it indicates that these works are gentle, kindly intended and executed, and good.

There is a possibility that this verse is referring back to the first verse of the chapter, and thus to James’ warning about teachers. The role of teaching in the early Christian community provided an opportunity to display one’s wisdom in the performance of the rhetorical art. If we accept this interpretation (see Davids; cf. Moo), it has the advantage of holding the whole chapter together, and of elevating the significance of the teaching role either for good or for ill.

But the teacher’s wisdom is demonstrated and displayed, not in their rhetorical performance, nor in their mastery of the content, but in their character and relationships – do they bless or curse those made in the image of God (v. 9)? Is their tongue a fountain of goodness, justice and righteousness, or does it set the world aflame with the fires of Gehenna (v. 6)? Is their wisdom that which is revealed in humble and gentle service and the generous use of riches? James’ words provide a means of assessing whether or not those spiritual leaders and teachers in our midst are truly wise.

We can ask similar questions of our own lives and our own practice of Christian spirituality. Are we genuinely wise and understanding, in the sense set forth by James? Is our spirituality characterised by an active life of good works undertaken in gentleness and humility?

 

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1

Introduction
After the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami David Bentley Hart wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal asking, “Where was God in the Tsunami?” He received numerous responses ranging from atheists asserting that the tsunami proves that there actually is no God at all, to gratitude from others who appreciated his perspective, to severe criticism from many who argued that, on account of God’s all-encompassing providence, we must insist and conclude that God sent the tsunami for his own ultimate though hidden purposes. There is a brand of theology that sees God as “all-controlling” for his own good purposes. Everything that happens can ultimately be traced back to “God’s good plan.” How can we possibly trust a god like that?

James knew about the trials and troubles that can come storming into life. He knew the pain and heartache of unjust criticism, of grinding poverty, of oppressive governments and social systems. Yet in spite of it, James absolutely insists on the utter, unchanging, uncompromising goodness of God. In the first chapter of his letter he has two texts which declare his utter conviction that God is a good and generous God.

Who Was James & Why Was He Writing?

James 1:1
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

Although we cannot be certain, it is often thought that the author of this epistle was James, the brother of Jesus. Imagine being the brother of Jesus!

James did not always believe in Jesus. The gospels say explicitly that Jesus’ family did not believe in him, and that they thought he was nuts (John 7:5; Mark 3:21).Yet here he is calling himself a servant (= slave) of Jesus—whom he calls Lord, and writing a letter in his name. What happened? The resurrection: “then he appeared to James” (1 Corinthians 15:7). James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, gained a reputation as a holy man and became known as James-the-Just, and eventually, in about 62AD, was martyred.

James is writing to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion.” This enigmatic address indicates that James was writing for a Jewish audience amongst those who had been “scattered” or dispersed among the gentiles. We get some clues concerning his audience from accounts in Acts which tell of the Jerusalem church being dispersed as a result of persecution that arose around Stephen’s martyrdom (ch. 7; 8:1; 11:19). Was James writing to Christian refugees driven out of their homes and city, jobs, families and livelihoods? Accepted by neither gentiles nor by other Jews, these displaced Christians faced grave difficulties, and James writes to encourage and strengthen their faith.

Chapter One: An Overview

After his one line greeting James gets right down to business. Verses 1-8 deal with the trials that come crowding into our lives, trials sent not from God, but simply the circumstances of life, or even spiritual opposition. It is possible that James is thinking especially of economic trials because of the amount of attention he gives to this matter, not least in vv. 9-11.

But trials arising on the outside are not the only difficulty Christians face: temptations also arise from within. In both cases it is our faith that is being tried; these tests come not to build our faith but to destroy it—trials by discouraging us and tempting us to give up, temptations by luring us away from God, causing our faith to shrivel. Pressure from without and pressure from trouble within—we are in a right state, aren’t we! But whether from without or from within, James’s admonition is the same: stand fast! Persevere!

James finishes the chapter with further admonitions about the true nature of the new life Christians have entered into: an active life of compassion and holiness, doers of the word and doers of the work.

There is much we can speak about in this chapter—weeks of sermons! But today I want to focus especially on what James says in this chapter about God—the good and generous God.

God, the Single-Minded Giver
Right in the middle of James’s discussion of the trials we face he suggests that we ask God for wisdom—so that we might know how to conduct ourselves in the trial, perhaps even, how we might be delivered from it.

James 1:5
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

One of the most important things we could pray for in the midst of a trial is wisdom—that spiritual/practical understanding of God’s will and purpose as it applies to everyday life. Notice that James does not say we ought to pray for deliverance from the trial, but for wisdom so that we might know how we are to conduct ourselves in the midst of the trial. It is spiritual because it comes from God and is directed towards the fulfilment of God’s purposes. But it is also practical because God’s purposes are realised in daily existence and daily life. The command to ask is present: we should continually ask God for this!

But note what James says about God in this passage:

  1. God is the giving God – this is the kind of God that God is. God so loved the world that he gave…
  2. God gives generously– the Greek word here (haplōs) is unusual but insightful: it does mean generously, but it means more than that: it means to be wholehearted, or single-minded: God is single-minded in his giving. That is, God is wholeheartedly and single-mindedly generous.
  3. God gives to all– his generosity is universal, limitless, and without restriction

James thus gives us grounds for great confidence in our prayer—as long as we ask in faith! How can we be double-minded when God is single-minded in his generous giving!

The Always-and-Only Good God
James’s second passage comes in his discussion of temptations we face. In verse thirteen James insists that

James 1:13, 16-17
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. … Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters: Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Once more James insists on the utter goodness of God: to the very depths of his being and unto all eternity; in all his works; in his deepest purposes, intentions, will and motivations, God is good. God is goodness itself; he is transcendentally good, and there is in God nothing but goodness. God is unchangingly, single-mindedly, wholeheartedly and generously good!

How might we respond to this? By standing fast in trials and temptations, persevering and enduring. By trusting God, hoping in God, believing in God, rejoicing in God, drawing near to God, waiting on God, and loving God.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:26

James 2:26
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

In this final verse of the chapter James reiterates with another metaphor the same point he has been making all along in this section: that a workless faith does not “work,” it cannot save, it is dead. He begins with a common anthropological image: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead” (Hōsper gar to sōma chōris pneumatos nekron estin). It is possible to translate pneumatos as “breath” in which case James is stating a simple biological fact. Most English translations render the term as “spirit,” drawing on familiar biblical imagery that assumes that the spirit animates and gives life to the body (so McKnight, 258). The point of the verse, however, is neither biology nor anthropology but the relation of faith and works.

Thus, just as the body without the spirit is dead and lifeless, “so faith without works is also dead” (houtōs kai hē pistis chōris ergon nekra estin)—lifeless, unproductive and impotent. The faith of which James speaks is “that faith” of verse 14, the faith which is faith only as confession in verse 19, the workless faith of verse 20, faith which is alone in verse 24. This is not faith at all in its true New Testament sense. True faith, for James, is inseparable from works of obedience toward God and mercy toward others. The faith which we rest in the good and generous God, calls forth a similar character in those who believe, such that their lives too, become good and generous toward others.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:25

James 2:25
Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?

James now turns from the patriarch to the prostitute in a second illustration of his point, in case anyone think Abraham was a shoe-in with God. Just as Abraham had been “justified by works” so also (“likewise…also” homoiōs de kai) was Rahab.

Rahab’s story is found in Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:15-25. It is of interest that these passages never mention her faith, although it is clear that she has regard for the God of the Hebrews as the one who is “God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11). Nevertheless her “works” are indicative of her belief that “the Lord has given you the land” (2:9). Therefore Rahab “welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road” (hypodexamenē tous aggelous kai hetera hodō ekbalousa). Rahab’s works consist in the welcome, protection and lodging she gave to these vulnerable messengers in their time of need, and her sending them out in safety. One might complain that Rahab lied in order to accomplish her ends, and that she was acting in self-interest; that is, there was nothing praise-worthy in her works at all. How could such works as these become the basis of justification, and that before a holy God?

If anything, these concerns make James’ argument all the stronger. Not just righteous Abraham, but Rahab the prostitute (Rhaab hē pornē) was “justified by works” (ex ergon edikaiōthē). Rahab’s concerns were not entirely selfish however; in her interactions with the spies she mentions herself only indirectly. Rather her concern is for her parents and siblings and their families. Nevertheless, for all her demerits, Rahab and her family are saved from the destruction of Jericho and are incorporated into Israel and its history (Joshua 6:25).

Why does James choose Rahab has his example of justification by works? Two reasons may be given. First, the figure of Rahab fascinated the Jews to the extent that she was lauded as the archetypal proselyte (Davids, 133-134). So, too, the Christian tradition found in her an example of the righteous gentile who became a member of the people of God. Matthew includes a “Rahab” in Jesus’ genealogy which is commonly assumed to be this same Rahab despite the chronological difficulties of the passage (Matthew 1:5). The author of Hebrews also includes her in the list of Israel’s heroes and heroines of faith, clearly identifying her faith with her reception of the spies (11:31). The first-century Roman bishop Clement included Rahab along with Abraham as an example of “faith and hospitality:”

On account of his faith and hospitality, a son was given him [Abraham] in his old age … On account of her faith and hospitiality, Rahab the harlot was saved (The First Epistle of St Clement, ch. 10, 12).

This link of faith and hospitality—generous kindness to the poor and other vulnerable people—provides a second reason James’ use of Rahab as his example. Her reception and care for the outsider and stranger, because they were members of the people of God, also serves James’ whole argument in this chapter. Her example is precisely the opposite of the figure in verse 16 who sends the poorly clothed and hungry person away without any practical care. Thus, her works of hospitality are paradigmatic of the kind of works James expects to see amongst those in his congregation.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:22

JamesJames 2:22
You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. (NRSV)

You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected. (NASB)

Not only was Abraham justified by works, says James, his faith was perfected or brought to completion by his works. Abraham’s faith included his works; it was a working faith, active, seen, demonstrated and thus shown to be genuine in, through and by his works.

James utilises another play on words in this verse to make his point. Still speaking to his interlocutor (“you see that” – blepeis hoti), James insists that Abraham’s “faith was working with his works” (hē pistis sunērgei tois ergois autou). Or we might say, Abraham’s faith only “worked” because it had works. James goes further: “and as a result of the works (kai ek tōn ergon), faith was perfected” (hē pistis eteleiōthē).

Abraham’s works were the means by which his faith was brought to completion. The NASB here reflects the order of the Greek text, and shows that, as in verse eighteen, James has included another chiastic structure (faith…works…works…faith), again highlighting the inseparability of faith and works. Yet, this verse also shows that while faith and works are inseparable, they may be distinguished (McKnight, 251).

 It is not so simple that we could say first he had faith and then he had works, and once he had both he had what it takes to get salvation. The faith of Abraham, the faith itself, worked itself out in works and it is the faith itself that is completed by works. It was a working faith, not faith plus works (McKnight, 252).

Eteleiōthē indicates that something happened to the faith: it was perfected. The verb can also be interpreted as completed, or made complete, or brought to its intended end. That is, Abraham’s faith only reached its maturity or its goal as it was acted upon by his works. His works, then, were an essential aspect of his faith, and without his works, his faith was incomplete and immature.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:18

JamesJames 2:18
But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

This verse is not as straight-forward as it first appears, although having said that, its point is clear nonetheless. In verses 14-17 James made his very simple point, that faith without works is dead. Such a confession of faith cannot save, nor do any good for the one making the confession. In light of James’ previous discussion of divine judgement, this is very serious indeed. In this verse James insists that faith and works cannot be separated.

“But someone will say” (’all’ erei tis) ‘You have faith, and I have works’ (su pistin echeis, kagō erga echō).

An initial reading of this verse makes it seem as though the “someone” who is speaking is actually James himself, or someone who agrees with his position, because the saying appears to distinguish the speaker (“I”) who has “works” from an opponent (“You”) who has only a faith without works. The problem with this seemingly straight-forward interpretation, however, is that the opening phrase (but someone will say) is a typical rhetorical device in the ancient world to introduce a hypothetical debating partner who takes an opposing position. But it seems that this opponent is echoing James’s view—hence the difficulty in the verse!

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that commentators are unsure where the opponent’s words end: with the simple phrase, “you have faith,” so that James’s response begins with the “I have works.” Or do the opponent’s words include the whole phrase as I have suggested above? Or do they extend to take in the rest of the verse as well?

Most commentators agree that the opponent’s words include the whole phrase as I have it above, and that James’s response begins with the “show me.” But why would an opponent say, “You have faith, and I have works”? Would not an opponent reverse this to say, “I have faith and you have works”?

Again, most contemporary commentators accept a solution suggested by J. B. Mayor in his 1913 commentary, and supported by J. H. Ropes in 1916. Mayor suggested that the pronouns in the first phrase should be understood in a generic and impersonal way so that the verse reads something like, “on the one hand one says … and on the other hand another says” (see the discussion in McKnight, 238). By interpreting the verse in this manner the opponent might be understood to be saying something like, “Well, everyone has a different gift, or a different way of relating to God. Some relate to God simply by faith while others relate to him by works.” In this way the opponent is suggesting that faith and works are two distinct and separable ways of relating to God, and that Christians might choose one way or the other.

James repudiates this view in the strongest terms. He begins by challenging this opponent to “Show me your faith without works” (deixon moi tēn pistin sou chōris tōn ergōn)—an impossibility, since faith is only visible or revealed in the activity it elicits. And in return James will show his opponent by means of his works the faith that he has: “And I by my works will show you my faith” (kagō soi deixō ek tōn ergon mou tēn pistin). Vlachos points out that there is a chiastic structure in this phrase in which James says faith…works … works…faith, rhetorically highlighting the inherent connection he sees between faith and deeds (Vlachos, 93).

In this second half of the verse the same pronouns are used as in the first part, but here they have a specific and personal reference. This is the weakness of the interpretation suggested by most commentators (that is, the interpretation requires that the same pronouns in both parts of the verse need to be interpreted in different ways). Nonetheless, as Moo notes, “In the final analysis, this interpretation has fewer difficulties that the [other options] and should probably be adopted” (Moo, 106). He notes further that “most scholars now adopt this view, although most with some reluctance” (106).

James, then, uses the device of an imaginary debating partner to insist that faith and works are inseparable: there can be no genuine faith that is not also expressed in works. He will sharpen this argument in verse 19.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:17

JamesJames 2:17
So also faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

With this summary statement, James brings his illustration and three rhetorical questions to its climax. What good is it if one says they have faith but do not have works? No good at all—such faith is “dead.” Can that faith save the person? No—such faith is “dead” (nekra estin).

“Dead” faith is lifeless, inoperative and impotent. It has and can have no lasting value, effect or impact. In fact, it is not faith at all. For James, faith must be a living reality in one’s life, vigorous and energetic, issuing in works. Faith cannot be without works (ean mē echē erga) or “by itself” (kath heautēn). Genuine faith so orients the believer to God, that it determines the life of the believer in directions which correspond to the character and activity of God.

We have already seen that, for James, this character may be understood in terms of moral purity and generous compassion (1:26-27). A living faith is accompanied by works—the kind of works James has identified in his illustration: works of love towards others in the congregation, especially the poor; works of mercy in which their bodily needs are cared for.

Unless faith does issue in such works of love, its claim is empty.

For James, then, there is no such thing as a true and living faith which does not produce works. … Works are not an “added extra” any more than breath is an “added extra” to a living body. …

James does not argue for faith instead of works or works instead of faith or even works above faith, but for faith and works. Both are important and must equally be present or else the other alone is “worthless” (Davids, 122, 123).

Finally, we must note once more, that James views the Christian community as a proleptic social manifestation of the “great reversal” which will come to pass at the eschaton (see the post on James 1:9-11). Here and now, in the concrete life of the Christian community, a new social order is to emerge in which poor are dignified as valued and equal members of the community, and their bodily needs are met by those in the community with the means to do so.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:15-16

JamesJames 2:15-16
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?”

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14

JamesIt has been almost a year since I broke off my study of James. I had worked through to James 2:13 on a verse-by-verse basis, and had hoped to continue to work through the epistle in this manner. However, my year has been such that I have not had the opportunity to continue as intended. I am not sure that 2017 will be much different, but will try to get through to the end of chapter two at least. Before breaking off my study, I did write two posts providing an introduction to James 2:14-26 which provide an orientation to the passage as a whole. Given some of the difficult issues with this passage, I invite readers to consult these posts first. The two posts can be found here and here.

James 2:14
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? (NRSV)

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (NASB)

With this verse James begins a new section in his letter, although there is continuity with what has gone before. In verses 1-7 of the second chapter, James has admonished his hearers against partiality in the congregation, reinforcing this admonition with a reflection on the love command and the reality of divine judgement (vv. 8-13). His listeners are to live in accordance with the royal law of love which is characterised especially, by mercy. Just as chapter 2:1 begins with an acknowledgement of the hearers’ faith and calls for works of mercy and love, so this section also considers the nature of genuine faith, and similarly calls for works of mercy.

The fourteenth verse sets forth the first two questions in a series of three, the third question being longer in form and posed in terms of an illustration. The verse is again addressed by James to “my brothers and sisters” (adelphoi mou), a device, as we have previously noted, that James uses to frame his various exhortations and to signal a new phase in his argument. The first question poses a hypothetical based on someone’s claim to have faith: James does not say the person has faith but no works; rather, they say they have faith (ean pistin legē tis echein) but they have no works (erga de mē echē). Of what use—or good or benefit—(Ti to ophelos;) is such a claim? The expected answer to the question is, “no use whatsoever.” The second question, also anticipating a negative answer, confirms this, and also shows the kind of “use” or “good” James has in mind: “Can that faith save him?” (mē dunatai hē pistis sōsai auton;). That is, when a claim to have faith is not supported by works, the claim is empty and useless. It provides no use or good or benefit whatsoever to the person making the claim; it cannot save them.

This verse raises many questions: What does James mean by “save”? What kind of works does he have in mind? What does it mean for someone to claim “I have faith”, if they have no works? What is the significance of this claim? What is the nature of this faith? What good or benefit does the person derive from their claim? Why would someone claim to have faith if such faith has no other effect in their life?

James questions the viability of someone making this claim and in so doing, questions the very reality of the faith itself. Such “faith” is no-faith, and therefore it can bring no benefit, and certainly no salvation into the life of the person making the claim.

A person may make such a claim because it is expected of them—like a candidate for the American presidency. Others perhaps because they wish to appear religious or spiritual if such qualities are culturally valued and approved—hardly the case in contemporary Australia! Some may claim faith on the basis of tradition or heritage, whereby the remnants of a faith once held by one’s forebears still clings to their life, though perhaps not the faith itself.

For James, such “faith” is not faith at all. The claim does not equate with the reality. A faith which has only the claim as its evidence is not genuine. True faith penetrates one’s life, shaping and guiding it. Faith in God issues in a life characterised by those priorities which characterise the life and being of God: love, mercy, etc. Thus, faith determines the life of the one who has faith, whereas the claim, by itself, is fruitless: it cannot save.

Scot McKnight speaks very bluntly to James’ point in this verse and its implications for many in our churches:

Salvation, then, is regenerative, morally transforming, and eternal—and the tragedy for James is that those who claim to have faith but do not have works will not be saved. Most Protestants do not believe this today (229).