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.
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. 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. For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
I admit I was glad I did not lector this morning so that I did not need to restrain myself from saying "ignoramus," with too much gusto (and perhaps making myself, or at least my children, giggle).
But other than that, this reading has always sat strangely with me, and I think I've figured out why.
This is of course the Scripture that Lutherans have to do handstands to make sense out of. One college professor pointed out (in the translation we used) it says that you can "see" that a person is justified by works and not by faith, insisting that the point is how other people know we are justified by faith alone. Yeah, headstands.
But what has niggled at me hasn't been so much along the lines of the justification debate. It's more this: I suppose you know, just like I do, a few people of a non-Christian religion, or of no religion at all, who are really exemplary in caring for the needs of others. Some of the most anti-Christian people I've known have also been some of the most willing to help or welcome others in need. And perhaps you've also known people who have been very concerned about the necessities of the body for others, but seem to have an agenda behind their giving. It's really about getting something for themselves, even if it is a self-pat-on-the-back for being a really great Christian.
But what I saw today was that there's a cultural context that needs to be understood to take in what St. James is saying. Last night I was just reading Louis De Wohl's book on the history of the Church, and he made the case that the pagan society in which the early Christians lives took very little regard for anyone's human dignity. People were bought and sold; they were mere means to ends, and this was the accepted standard. And into this world came Jesus Christ, whose love empowered the Christians to act with His love for people. They were human then just like we are human now, and love is what we all ultimately hunger for. It was the Christians' love for one another that attracted so many to the gospel and gave the doctrine of Jesus Christ a hearing. It was this love they were not to forget nor to neglect practicing.
It is easy for Christians to forget that we have had a tremendous influence on the shaping of our culture, even if it is becoming deformed. I was shocked when once I asked one of my adult Japanese students who was plenty wealthy whether she might consider donating money for orphans in India. If an American was going to object to this, typically I'd expect to hear of money woes. But her objection was philosophical. She said she believed that if people in India were suffering, that was their fate and the way it should be. The Japanese would bend over backwards for those in their own families, for guests, or others in their circle. But that was my first experience in learning that in that culture, charity to the "outside" makes no sense.
We can do good because we are compelled by the love of Christ. We can do good because somewhere inside we are in search of a reason, in search of the One who calls us to do good and be good. Or, I can shut down and take care of just me. I think St. James wants to make sure we don't shut down into ourselves and make our "faith" into an abstraction, a mere set of ideas.