Imagine the following Sunday morning scenario. One of the members of your church walks into the worship service looking tired and bedraggled; they’re so malnourished that you can count their ribs. And, oh yes — the reason you can count their ribs is because they’re naked as a jaybird (can somebody please tell me how jaybirds got this reputation?).
What would people do? What would you do? Find something to drape over them? Get something for them to eat? Surely, if this is someone you counted as a brother or sister in Christ, you would act. You would do something to help.
What you would not do, hopefully, is simply pretend as if nothing had happened, as if naked and hungry people dragged themselves into the sanctuary all the time. What you would not do is wait for the service to be over, smile, and say something inane like “Now you stay warm, and make sure to get plenty to eat,” while doing nothing.
Of course. That would be ridiculous. Laughable. One more opportunity for people to pillory Christians on social media. It would not only be a breach of Christian love, but a failure of common decency. And it’s against that kind of background that we should understand James’ rhetoric in the passage we’ll look at today. He’s telling his readers, You’re being ridiculous. You just don’t know it yet.
Previously, we’ve seen how James takes aim at the way believers were acting in ways that were more Roman than Christian, giving preferential treatment to the rich and dishonoring the poor among them. He wants them to understand that faith is not just a matter of personal and private belief; the authenticity of one’s faith should show itself in transformed attitudes and behavior. The chasm between the rich and poor, built into the very fabric of Roman society, should be bridged by a gospel that makes all believers brothers and sisters to one another in Christ.
To reinforce his point, James proposes a hypothetical scenario:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17, NRSV)
James purposely chooses an extreme example to press his logic. The person in question isn’t just poor and dressed shabbily; they’re completely naked. They’re not just on government assistance, with a tight food budget; they’re not eating, period. The need is great and obvious.
“So,” James proposes, “suppose one of your own people is in that situation. They walk into a service where everyone is celebrating being people of ‘faith.’ And when this unfortunate person leaves the service, they’re just as naked and just as hungry as they were before. All they’ve been given is platitudes and empty greetings that won’t clothe them or fill their stomachs. What’s wrong with that picture? Of what use is that kind of ‘faith’ to anyone? What good is your so-called ‘faith’?”
The scenario is posed in such a way as to make someone say, “Well, come on, we’d never do something like that.” And that would give James the opening he needs: “Oh, really? So you’re saying that there should be some expectations of how a supposedly faithful community should behave?”
This is why James can say that faith without works is “dead.” He’s already spoken of the gospel as the “implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (James 1:21). How we behave toward others should be the living outgrowth of that implanted word. James takes aim at an overly cognitive and individualistic way of understanding faith: if it doesn’t result in a life that exemplifies what James calls the “royal law” of neighbor-love, then who cares? What good is that kind of “faith”?
As we’ll see, James will continue to push his point using the stories of Abraham and Rahab. But first, we need to deal with one of the most confusing verses in the letter. More on that next time.