How have you been challenged in the past week to live as disciples of Jesus? Did you feel you needed more faith or more works? We tend to think of our faith as having a spiritual component, but we might not think of the material consequences of faith, which we characterize as works. James is asking us to think about faith and works not as separate either/or alternatives which excludes one another, but being closely woven together, as if two sides of the same coin. You might be thinking, surely, we are saved by faith and not works? If we are saved by our faith in Jesus, that is to say, if we are saved in putting our trust in Jesus, faith that we have by grace from God, doesn’t that mean we are saved by faith and not our works? Yes. Absolutely. What James is saying is not that we are saved by works we can accomplish on our own. Faith that is a gift from God, faith, which we cannot produce for ourselves, the faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, that’s the faith that saves us. That is what makes us Christians, followers or disciples of Jesus.
So, what is James saying then? He is asking us:
“14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
What are the practical consequences of our faith? If we are indeed saved by faith, what works demonstrate your faith? If faith made any difference in your life at all, it would have to turn up in some visible way. You would act differently. You might sound differently. You might say different things. You might have a different tone in your voice. Our faith in God is not a belief that goes along nicely and matches all the other beliefs we have about ourselves and the world. What I mean to say is, faith that saves us makes a difference in our lives and it transforms us from one who is an orphan to one who is adopted into God’s family.
If we look to the Hebrew Bible, it is written: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.” (Psalm 111:10). Usually we think of understanding as coming from knowledge. But here the Psalmist writes that those who practice it have a good understanding. This implies that the kind of knowledge that we have produces action. That is to say, fear of God, the beginning of all wisdom, is the kind of knowledge so that if you understood it, you would act accordingly. When you love someone, you attempt to do things that your beloved cares about. Similarly, when we love God, we act on things that God cares about. The kind of knowledge/faith in God is such that understanding it transforms us and produces action.
Imagine, if you will, that you are a young orphan. In that predicament, what would you have to do to search for food? You might have to beg, or ask for work that you can do even as a young person. You may not have warm clothes that is appropriate for the seasons.
Let’s make this imagined case real. What if you were a young child separated from your parents at the border? Who could help you? Your parents cannot come help you because they may lack necessary immigration status. If you were kept at the border, you are at the mercy of the officers who are looking after you, guarding you, and making sure you are staying where you are supposed to. But now imagine, that one day your parents come and identify you as their child. Wouldn’t your actions change on the day your parents came to get you than all the other days you were alone and didn’t know if you would ever see your parents again? But if your actions did not change despite your parents coming to identify you, if you didn’t want to leave the camp and go with your parents, and act as if they hadn’t come to get you, that would be absurd. And that’s what it would be like for faith not to accompany works. If you were to act like nothing has changed even though your parents came to get you, can you imagine the confusion it would cause your parents? The life altering event in your life matters only if it actually makes a practical difference in your life!
We see in the Gospel story of the Gentile woman who is of Syrophoenician origin that her faith mattered to her and her daughter’s life:
26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7:26-30)
She was a Gentile woman. She was not Jewish. Her daughter was possessed by a demon and desperately needed healing. The woman begs for the healing of her daughter. She had faith that Jesus could heal her daughter. If she only had faith but did not go to meet Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter, would her daughter have been healed? The woman believed that Jesus could heal and she traveled and found Jesus. She asks him in desperation and with conviction for Jesus to heal her daughter.
What happens next might shock us, but it didn’t shock the woman who had only one goal – to ask Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus responds to the request for healing saying that it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. It is not fair. Food for children before food for dogs. Jesus talks about justice. Feeding the children has priority over feeding the dogs. Providing food for the children here symbolizes feeding the Jews. And to take food away from the Jews to feed/heal/save the Gentiles would be unfair. The woman who is unwavering in her faith that Jesus is Lord and Savior says, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Where did she get that kind of wisdom? Quick thinking? Wit? Not sure how to describe her response. Only that her faith was truth to her. She was not simply saying please heal my daughter. She actually believed deep in her soul and her heart and her mind that Jesus had the power to heal her daughter. She did not claim her worth or call out Jesus for being unfair to her. She was simply glad and thankful to get even crumbs off the master’s table. For saying that, Jesus says, you may go – the demon has left your daughter. She goes home and finds her daughter was made well.
The Syrophoenician woman’s faith led to her daughter being healed. But wait, Jesus healed her. How has her faith been demonstrated in her action? Her faith resulted in her persistence not to turn away when Jesus’s initial response was that the children must be fed first. The faith of the Syrophoenician woman. That’s the kind of faith that has matters. It led to consequences. It led to a healing, a transformation of her daughter from a demon possessed girl to a girl liberated from demon possession. That’s the kind of faith our faith in Jesus is. Faith like the Syrophoenician woman’s faith is what James was talking about. What good is faith if it is without works? What good is our faith if it makes no difference in our lives? If it means anything to have faith, if it means anything at all– to trust in God who created the universe; God who took on flesh and dwelled with us only to die to reconcile us and then in resurrection proved he was indeed God; and the Spirit of God that guides us, prays on our behalf when we are unable to pray, the spirit of God that lights up like fire on Pentecost–if that faith means anything at all, it should transform us. Our faith should cause us to act differently, more compassionately, and more justly, and more lovingly. Why? Because God in whom we have faith is compassionate, just, and loving. Our faith is like knowledge when understood produces action. If we have faith in Jesus, if we understand that God loves us, if we understand that the Spirit helps us, then we can’t help but be transformed and be moved to act.
Does your faith have works? If it doesn’t, why does it not? If you believe that your faith produces works, is it works that are indeed inspired by your faith? May it be so.