Exegetical Exercise (James 2 14-26)

fresco showing rich man eating at table with a poor man begging at his feet
Fresco of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) in Fanefjord Church, Møn, Denmark.

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, February 4 is James 2:14-26. Here are my notes on the text:

First Impressions: Right out of the box he asks “Can faith save you?” – isn’t that what Christians think?? But the example he uses is of someone “saving” another, say from being naked and hungry … so is the question a little bit like “does your neighbor’s eating dinner feed you?”

The examples he uses suggest that if you actually have faith, you will do things that demonstrate it. What you in fact believe, think, want, etc. just will show in your behavior. [If I said “red is my favorite color” and I didn’t have any red clothes, any red things in my house, never bought a red car, etc. etc. would anyone believe me?]

This is one of those texts that gets “sloganized.” “Faith without works is dead.” But the question is … what does that mean?

Background/Context: The book of James is something like a letter – but not to a specific church; it’s addressed “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” which is something like addressing it to “all Israel.” Tradition has it that James is “the brother of the Lord [Jesus];” the Access study Bible points out that the literary quality of the text makes this doubtful, mainly because of its highly articulate Greek; Harper Collins also points out that some of the images come from “the nonbiblical Hellenistic world” – in other words, the suspicion seems to be that perhaps the book is composed by a Hellenized author, someone familiar with Biblical literature of the time. This would include Paul’s letters, because the author seems to be responding to something that is at least like Paul’s message. The Oxford Study Bible points out that “it is less clear that James and Paul are in fundamental disagreement with each other. Both see faith primarily as trust in God (Rom. 4:5, Jas 1:5-6), and both agree that it should produce a response in one’s manner of life (Rom 2:13, Phil 2:12-13, Jas 2:18).” Their point is that James has not always been understood on its own terms, which point readers toward how to consistently live “the word” as Christians. This theme would be consistent with what has been a traditional way of thinking about the book, namely, as “Christian wisdom literature.”

The immediate context for Sunday’s text is the discussion of favoritism at the beginning of chapter 2 – the image of showing the rich guy to a prominent seat, and telling the poor beggar to sit on the floor – and the way this plays in to the idea of the law as “loving your neighbor as yourself.” This discussion follows the opening discussion about being “doers of the word and not hearers only” (1:22), which draws its examples, again, from social inequalities, and indisciplined speech. All this makes me wonder whether the question of faith and works is embedded in this context of social inequalities, the distinctions between rich and poor, and what that demands of people … because what are the “works” James means?

Closer Reading: No surprise, “faith” and “works” are repeated terms; these verses are focused on telling us the relationship between these two things. Verse 17 and verse 26 both make the point that faith “by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Verse 26 makes this an analogy with the body: “just as the body without the spirit is dead.” It’s worth noticing that in that analogy, the body corresponds to faith, and the spirit corresponds to works, at least, by position. In verse 15-16, a body that does not receive nourishment and clothing continues to suffer; that’s the analogy to faith that does not have works. In both cases, “faith without works” is like a deprived body: a body deprived of food, or a body deprived of breath – nothing but a corpse, we might even say.

[This seems important to me, because I think we are accustomed to thinking of “faith” as corresponding to the “spirit” side of the body/spirit binary. But that doesn’t seem to be how James is using it. I really think James is using it more as the “body” side, the framework or apparatus that is only alive when it is “working,” breathing in and out, activated, “operational” …]

Verse 18 really puzzles me. It seems like it would be more natural for “someone” to say “I have faith and you have works,” and that would make the rest of the verse, the challenge of “so, show me this faith of yours apart from works” more natural as well. So why isn’t it written that way? [Could it be because, as written, it makes the reader of the letter the “you”? Then, the “you” that has faith (apart from works) continues as the “you” that “believes that God is one,” along with the shuddering demons, in v 19, and the “senseless person” (literally, empty or useless) of v20. So, we sensible readers wouldn’t want to be that person.]

The examples of Abraham and Rahab are probably not coincidental – again, thinking about the context of generosity to the poor. Abraham is willing to make an ultimate sacrifice at God’s direction. Rahab actually does go against the expectations of her community to aid the spies (who are, however, sent by God, so she’s choosing God over her “community of origin” – and that may be something James’s audience is being asked to do, as well). Both of these kinds of actions may translate, in James’s social context, to concrete acts of mercy and generosity towards poor people (on the part of people with money), or the forfeiture of social supports, connections, etc. … if those are the kind of “works” that people are having to decide to perform or leave undone … they would be integrally tied to participation in the Christian community, to “religious identity.”

Concluding Comments: I have heard a lot of conversations or discussions about “faith vs. works” in my life, at church and Bible studies and from pulpits. And it seems to me that these conversations or discussions often contrast “faith” – believing what we are meant to believe, sincerely believing, something along those lines – with “works” that are implicitly defined as “doing religious things” (like going to church regularly, praying, reading the Bible, maybe singing in the choir) and/or “doing good things” (like contributing money to the special offerings, giving canned goods to the food drive, working on the local Habitat house, etc.) But I wonder now whether either of these things is really what James is talking about. What James seems to be talking about is response to God’s call (certainly in Abraham’s case) or to circumstances (in Rahab’s case, and in the case of someone who meets a brother or sister in dire need). It involves “saying yes” to what God and the neighbor require of us. So that might involve things on those lists, or it might involve other things, but it is ultimately about saying “yes” to God, whatever the [potential] cost. That makes me think that some of those arguments/conversations/discussions I heard were pretty much missing the point.

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