Equality as the synthesis of faith and works: A theological reflection on James 2
Personally I’ve always found James 2 disturbing. Since for a long time in my walk of faith I’ve held such high esteem on faith (or what I’ve understood as faith at the time) that is based on intellectual adherence to doctrinal stipulations that was taught to me by my teachers at the time. However, that would be shaken with my exposure to ‘real life’ outside the church which has a lot to do with the ordeal of walking my talk as actions speak louder than words.
Equality in praxis (1-13)
Following James’ theme of responding to God’s implanted word in action in the previous chapter (1:22-25), the author now starts situate the behavioural patterns that ought to be manifested by his brothers and co-servants who have received the word. He does so with the emphasis of practicing equality within the church.
In Verse 1 James again uses the word ‘brothers’ in order to lovingly reaffirm his affinity and common identity with his audience who he calls to: “show no partiality,” because they are all part of this common faith in: “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.”
Verses 2-4 brings into mind familiar stories of people within a household who give special treatment to their rich relatives more than their poor relatives. It is tragic to think that such partiality happens even in the household of God, the community of faith: the church. Here the author places a reflexive question to his brothers consequently to remind them of their personal shortcomings to quality as ‘just’ judges who will be able to execute justice within the church. (Parallels with Deuteronomy 16:19-20)
a. The implication of guilt
Notice how the author implicates his brothers’ of their fault by reminding them of God’s preferential option for the poor in verses 5-7.
Note in verse 5 how James emphasized that the God whom they serve as co-servants, the God who has implanted his word upon then has: “God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom,” on the other hand James also highlights that this divine option for the poor is a promise that can only be claimed by the poor who loves God –thus the poor who are part of their faith community.
In verses 6-7 James now turns bluntly to his audience to implicate them of their guilt by using the pronoun ‘you’ he points the blame on his brothers who have dishonoured the poor person in their church. Aside from reprimanding his audience he reminds them of their identity that perhaps they are likewise poor as well thus reminding them that it is the rich among their midst that unexceptionally oppresses them by dragging them to courts –echoing the call to the rich Israelites to maintain justice and fairness in the courts. (This theme is likewise explored in Amos 5).
b. Guilty in accordance to the law
In verses 8-11 James’ brothers, his co-servants in Christ those who belong to the twelve tribes scattered among nations (1:1), are now reminded of their identity which finds itself in their history as the people upon whom God disclosed His divine will according to the law.
Verse 8 echoes what was spoken of the Lord in Leviticus 19:18 which find its place within what scholars call as ‘the Holiness Code’ of Israel. The code calls on the people of Israel to separated from the rest of the world because God has chosen them in doing so they are to demonstrate their unique relationship with God by disassociating themselves from profane worldliness and by their rituals and by obeying the commands in the Law which includes exercising equality as a demonstration of justice and righteousness (Leviticus 19:15).
By their act of showing partiality James in verse 9 implicates them of guilt in accordance to the law that they recognize as their arbiter of divine judgement. He goes on further in verses 10-11 by pronouncing them as guilty of all counts in accordance to the law.
c. Mercy should have the final say
Therefore, being guilty as charged James in verse 12 calls upon his audience to be responsible and own up to their guilt as they are accountable by they have done to judgement while verse 13 speaks of mercy being rendered only unto those who renders mercy (reminiscent of the Mosaic antecedent ‘eye for an eye’ in Leviticus 24:19–21, Exodus 21:22–25, and Deuteronomy 19:21) while at the same time reminding his audience of the paradoxical statement where mercy triumphs over judgement. In a way this shows that as far as dealing with sin (favouritism) is concerned justice must have the first word, however it cannot have the last as mercy is important because James in writing this epistle reproofs his audience so that they would repent and in so doing have their fellowship restored regardless of their economic standing.
Synergizing faith and works
Here James’ set off his critique to his audience’s complacency on what they know rather than enacting what they know. He goes on to elaborate on this in verses 14-26.
a. The difference between knowing and doing
James poses an arduous question in verse 14 about faith as saying what value does faith have unless it is shown in ‘works’ I believe that by saying ‘works’ James implies ‘action’ as in acting upon what one believes or puts is/her trust upon or enacting the stipulations of a message that they have received like the ‘word of truth’ that James earlier spoke about in 1:18 he calls them to “be doers of...” in 1:22. However, the author moves a step further by asking about the kind of faith that his audience has to which he inquires: “Can that faith save him?” The statement is disquieting as he now strikes at the very heart of what his audience puts into such esteem their identity to which James spoke about in 1:17-18, here he seems to be asking them whether or not they really do have this identity of being part of the firstborn of creation that have been brought forth by the ‘word of truth.’
In verses 15-16 James qualifies his question by putting forward an illustration to which he asks his/brothers/co-workers about finding another ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ in need of two of the basic necessities in life clothing and food. He asks them of the value of wishing their brother and sister well from afar not responding by meeting their need –an act to which he asks ‘what good?’ Indeed as what value does words supply in the face of a material need that can be addressed by the material things that they themselves perhaps have?
Verse 17 strikes a startling yet obvious truth to James’ audience: belief that does not translate to actions is dead –it possesses no value for such is the nature of something that is dead: it is lifeless it does not affect its surroundings for the lifeless does not have the capacity to animate itself. Such is the irony of faith that James refers to as “faith that does not have works.” It implies that his audience are in a way a form of what can be called as ‘living dead’ for they posses life but does not show any signs of the life that they have. By verse 18 he responds to those who would have the audacity to bolster themselves with the faith that they have unto which he asks for proof –for proof of authentic faith is exhibited by works.
In verse 19 James seems to be echoing Deuteronomy 6:4, a phrase that reaffirms Israel’s belief in one God and also forms the Shema, or the basic statement of faith in Judaism, again a starting point in terms of identity for the Shema speaks of Israel’s unique identity as the sole nation in the Ancient Near East that is monotheistic –as opposed to its neighboring countries who have a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Using this statement of faith James again states the obvious that adherence to such a creed as the Shema is not enough for acknowledgement of a reality is only the beginning of the picture as for a reality to indeed become real to a person one has to appropriate this truth as something real to his/herself and appropriation of something means one has to live in the context of this truth –which goes on to transcend all the facets of its’ adherents life thus animating it into works of faith. However, James seems to imply that his audience are no different from what he calls as demons for according to James even the demons believe the Shema, and by believing he says that they do not only believe they even shudder at the realization of it.
b. The witness of their ancestors
By the time James’ reaches verse 20 he poses a challenge to his audience: “do you want to be shown?” In doing so, he opens up himself as their brother who is acquainted with the testimony of their Jewish ancestors of lives that lived in faith that are roused unto works.
In verse 21 he goes on to give the account of Abraham as a man who is prepared to sacrifice that which is dearest to him in order to put God first. Knowing that his audience are aware of the Law he uses a legal term used in likeminded circumstances: justified or to be pronounced ‘just’ (righteous) in as far as the law is concerned. Accordingly saying that Abraham enacted his faith by going to the point of offering that which is of highest value to him –thus ‘rendering him right’ (justifying him) with God for he has shown that his faith is that which leads to doing something for the One upon whom he has placed his total trust on.
Verses 22-23 explains that for Abraham his faith was actively complimented by what he does, and in doing so his faith was proven not only as something abstract (a principle) but rather as something that he believes well enough to enact on. For it was during the time when was Abraham called to sacrifice his son Isaac that he believed that God will provide them with a sacrifice as it was told in Genesis 22:8 and indeed the Lord did provide in Genesis 22:13. Moreover, we learn here that as far as the faith of Abraham goes we can say that indeed he exhibited confident faith in God to the point that he believes that perhaps God’s bestowed sacrifice was indeed his son! For Genesis 22:10 tells of him going to the point of taking a knife to slaughter Isaac. And it is this type of confident belief in God that Abraham was counted righteous enough to even be called God’s friend.
By verse 24 James again asserts the significance of ‘works’ as the inevitable consequence of faith. In a way reminding his audience that the exercise of equality among the treatment of those in their flock is a sign that they are indeed ‘made right’ for it is a part of the stipulations of the word that they have received in faith. Thus saying one is not made right unless he consents himself to do right in accordance to this word that they believe is right.
In verse 25 shows that perhaps in recognition that his audience were not only male (brothers) and fellow Jews, James recounts the story of a woman Rahab, who in the Old Testament (Joshua 2:1) and in his letter is identified as a prostitute to which their society looks at as a sinner, aside from being a woman and a sinner she is also a Gentile: thus perhaps signifying James’ awareness that within the community that he is writing to there are perhaps: women, Gentiles (non-Jews) and people who once lived sinful lives, that were nevertheless accepted in the community and it is in the story of Rahab that they remind them of how she a gentile, sinner was made right with God by what she has done: by helping Joshua’s spies in Jericho because she not only believed Israel’s God but because she feared and trusted this God of the Israelites, thus showing that her actions were motivated by her recognition of Israel’s God (Joshua 2:9-12).
Using the picture of Abraham and Rahab James in a way shows his audience that the call to repentance, the call to do right to put our faith into practice is a call that transcends barriers set forth by race, gender and economic status, for theirs is a shared identity in Christ that they must uphold by exercising equality among their ranks. In using the examples of Abraham and Rahab, James himself demonstrated his talk –he exercised equality as he spared no one in his audience he addressed them as they are Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female –thus his words are made true by his exercise of indiscriminate dealing with their sin of favouritism.
In concluding this chapter James again reverts to his analogy of the body and its relationship with life and death which he explored in verse 17. Here he uses the image of a body to which he refers to as lifeless apart from the spirit; likewise faith apart from actions done in faith is lifeless. It is particularly interesting that his analogy of the body is one that recognizes the materiality of life that his audience can relate to, also that the body has been used in many other passages throughout Scriptures that the church (his brothers and co-workers) is Christ’s body. And in relating to the problem that they exhibited (favouritism) James perhaps is saying that a church that does not practice equality and fairness in their life as a community is a church that does not bear witness to life, a church that only believes but does not follow –thus lacking as it fails to synthesize the inseparable relationship of knowledge and ethics –the synergy of faith and works.