We are studying James 2:14-26 for Sunday, August 16. This is the third in our series of five lessons in James, and the source of one of the most familiar New Testament sayings, “faith without works is dead.” We actually studied this text in this class a couple of years ago, those notes are still available, and contain most of what I would have said here this year. Here are a few additional thoughts on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: So, in addition to everything we noticed in 2018, we could notice this time around that James 2:1 talks specifically about faith.
I’m not sure why the NRSV translates that verse with a question mark. Many other translators use some kind of imperative.
Although … that verse as a question really does set up the discussion in verses 14-26. Do you really have faith in Jesus Christ if you’re acting with that kind of partiality? Do you really have faith if you never put it into practice?
[This is such a basic question.]
James 2:1-17 is in the lectionary for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time] every third (B) year. So … notice that in church we wouldn’t get the author’s comments about Abraham and Rahab.
CLOSER READING: There’s always more to notice in the Bible. Here’s the more I noticed this time around:
The NRSV translates v14 into the second person, which changes the sense a lot from the Greek third person. If it were up to me (and I were trying to stay with inclusive language for people) I would go with “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people say they have faith and don’t have works? Faith can’t save them, can it?”
This matters all the more because I stand by my point about the reference point for that rhetorical question being verse 15. Your cheery faith [and the author does use the second person here] doesn’t save your naked starving brother [or sister] very effectively, does it?
Verse 17 and verse 26 are repetition with variation. In verse 17, faith is dead by itself, not having works. In verse 26, faith is dead apart from, separated from works. Again, I stand by the point about faith in verse 26 being the analog to the body, with the works the analog to the enlivening spirit.
This seems really important to me, considering the way we [classical-Greek-cultural-tradition-poisoned, 2,000 years of body-despising western culture type Christians] tend to map the binary of interior/exterior, spiritual/physical, and higher/lower onto the binary of faith/works. The author of the book of James does not support us on this! According to me.
The works are the life-breath of faith.
“The works” here are – in context – giving clothing and food to the naked and hungry; being willing to lay your prized possession I mean son and heir on the altar (v21); and … whatever Rahab did (v25).
Because verse 25 is very odd. Why mention Rahab? There are plenty of other examples of faith in the Hebrew scripture, as we know from Hebrews 11, and this author could have used any of them, so mentioning Rahab is a deliberate choice, not an accident. It means something. She “welcomes” the messengers (the angels); and then she sends them out by another way. [Did she? Sort of, she sends them into “the hill country,” which is presumably away from the Israelite encampment – see Joshua 2.]
Another way to think about Rahab is this: she saves people’s lives – the spies’, and her family’s. And she does this by intervening, by taking a risk, and also, specifically, by being disloyal to her home team, by throwing her lot in with the Israelites. Rahab switched teams, or “tribes.” She is a righteous Gentile precisely because she betrays the Gentiles. Isn’t this part of the point?
The “works” by which Rahab was “made right” are the “works” involved in going over to the other side.
Back to Abraham, his faith is reckoned to him as righteousness in Genesis 15:6, he walks before God in Genesis 17, and God calls him “my friend” in Isaiah 41:8.
Back to verse 20, the question is not literally “do you want to be shown?” It is literally more like “do you want to come understand, know, realize, ‘really get it’ …” More like “do you want to be convinced?” This is not about seeing, this is about knowing [the ginoskō kind], about “getting it.”
Back to the whole issue of “justification” in verses 21-25: this is a theological trap for us [21st century Protestants, heirs of the Reformation, who may have a lot of theological commitments riding on this]. First off, it seems better to think of it as “made right,” or even “made righteous,” in this context. Then, let’s set aside all those sermons we’ve likely heard about how “justification” means something technical in the context of ancient Roman law, which seems NOT to be what this author has on his mind.
This author’s point is simple: You’re someone who does the right thing if you do the right thing.
Once we get that, we can ask ourselves why we have such a hard time getting this. What makes this such a big, complicated problem for us? That’s a whole other conversation.