One might ask what the discussion about faith and works is doing in the Reconciliation Lectionary. It’s a frequent Christian discussion, sometimes an unfortunate argument across our sad divisions, as to what Saint James means when he insists that faith is accompanied by deeds.
Today’s Christian lacks no opportunity to serve others. The question for the believer: is service rendered with the expectation of reward? Jesus addressed that point, didn’t he? Even the pagans and the hypocrites perform good deeds, fully expecting some reward, perhaps, for services rendered.
Is it a matter of sin for a believer’s faith to be “dead” in the way James describes it?
What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if someone says he has faith but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them,
“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,”
but you do not give them the necessities of the body,
what good is it?
So also faith of itself,
if it does not have works, is dead.
This portion suggests a good linking with Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus preaches that he is to be found among the needy. He links judgment with the actions of charity and justice, so we must conclude that this is indeed material for virtue, morality, and sin. It’s a tough thing to challenge a believer: Is your faith dead?
Indeed someone might say,
“You have faith and I have works.”
Demonstrate your faith to me without works,
and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.
You believe that God is one.
You do well.
Even the demons believe that and tremble.
Ouch! Even evil ones acknowledge the existence of God. What distinguishes a believer from one of the damned?
We should keep in mind that James has a particular context for his teaching. He is not an adversary of grace, nor is he a pelagian. He sets up a contrast from the beginning of his letter of a righteous believer and one who is going through the motions. That theme continues in chapter two. James hopes his community, his listeners, will adopt the full sense of the Gospel.
James relies on Jewish style and approach. He gives the reader somewhat caricatured arguments in an attempt to urge believers to a greater virtue. He assumes a familiarity with the Torah, and he book of Joshua:
Do you want proof, you ignoramus,
that faith without works is useless?
Was not Abraham our father justified by works
when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
You see that faith was active along with his works,
and faith was completed by the works.
Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says,
“Abraham believed God,
and it was credited to him as righteousness,”
and he was called “the friend of God.”
See how a person is justified by works
and not by faith alone.
And in the same way,
was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works
when she welcomed the messengers
and sent them out by a different route?
For just as a body without a spirit is dead,
so also faith without works is dead.
My sense is that a shorter option might have been offered without this last section, verses 20-26. Without a good pairing, or a willingness to preach in depth on this passage, I think the message could go lost quite easily.