Saturday, January 17, 2015

No Works, No Faith

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 26, 2006

Some things haven’t changed that much. The ancient world, too, was full of preachers, all peddling their wares. As the eminent New Testament scholar Edgar J. Goodspeed describes it, these preachers would stand on certain street corners in Jerusalem and other major cities, day after day, dressed in rough cloaks, looking quite animated, maybe even a little possessed. They would try to engage with the crowd that would pass by. They would mingle questions and answers; dialogue and rhetoric; harangues and invective; stories and anecdotes—all trying to get the attention of passers-by, in the intense and highly competitive religious atmosphere of the ancient Middle East (where the religious supermarket was pretty well stocked, even back then).
The greater number of these early preachers were part of a religious movement called the Stoics, followers of the ancient Greek philosopher Xeno, who taught the primacy of virtue, and a detachment from both the pains and the pleasures of this world. The sermons of these ancient Stoics are often called diatribes, because they sought to engage their listeners in conversations, in dialogue, often in the form of a challenge or a harangue.
It was with these ancient philosophers that early Christian preachers had to compete, trying to get the attention of the people they were trying to convert. In doing so, of course, they adopted some of the chief methods of outreach of their time. They, too, would stand on street corners, trying to get attention. They would try to make their points using different kinds of discourse—sometimes haranguing; sometimes pious; sometimes they would pepper their sermons with references to ancient scriptures and personalities that their hearers might recognize.
Many New Testament scholars think that maybe the Book of James (often called the Letter of James, or the Epistle of James) actually should have been labeled the Sermon of James instead. They think the work might actually have been one of these street-corner sermons. For one thing, it’s full of harangues and exhortations—more than a score of them in a book that numbers no more than five or six pages in most modern Bibles. That would fit the pattern of the ancient diatribes quite well.
For another thing, the book of James seems to jump around quite a lot. James is a little jumpy. What I mean is, it doesn’t simply deal with one particular situation or problem (like a letter would); or revolve around one central theme (like an epistle would); rather, it jumps from point to point—from question to question. This also seems to be greatly influenced by the format of the ancient Stoics. Modern sermons, in theory at least, seek to explicate one particular subject., in a rational and organized manner (in theory, at least). Remember, however, that the main purpose of these ancient sermons was to grab the attention of people who were passing by. So, if one technique didn’t work, the speaker would go on to the next; he’d try something different. If one topic didn’t seem to be generating interest, the speaker would try another. (In our own time, it’s sort of like cruising around on a computer: We try this link, and if that doesn’t have what we want, we try another. If that’s boring, then we click on something else; we click on this window, then that one, and so on…)
We can see some of this in the Letter—or Epistle—or Sermon—or Book of James. The author goes from one topic to another: From how the vicissitudes of life build character; to how his hearers have not merely to profess their religion, but live it; to the need to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the needy; faith has to show itself in works, James said. Then, he talks about how people need to be humble and understanding of others, not too quick to judge and instruct and direct one another; then, the topic is the evil of gossip, ands how the tongue is the hardest thing in the world to tame. Then, it’s back to good works—if you want to lead a life of wisdom, James says, let that wisdom demonstrate itself through good works. The wise man (or woman) must give up a life of greed, indulgence, and worldliness, and—back to the need for humility—stop censuring others, and don’t be so puffed up about yourself. Then, it’s back to the need to care for the poor: the wealthy oppressors are doomed to punishment. We need to pray for one another, like Job and the prophets (an allusion back to an ancient source, which his hearers would surely understand). Above all things, James says, refrain from oaths; oaths are bad. But pray—prayer is good. “The prayer of a righteous man avails much.” And finally, seek to convert sinners, for that is what God blesses the most.
These are the teachings of this ancient sermon, and there are a lot of things taught there. As I’ve said, too, it’s a very short New Testament book: only about six pages in most modern Bibles; just five chapters; a total of only 108 verses in all. There’s a lot there, all said pithily and pointedly. But what is the connection between all these points that James makes? Is there a connection? Or are they just random musings, and exhortations, one after another. “Do they constitute a chain of thought?” Rev. Goodspeed asks. “Are they beads on a string, or simply a handful of pearls?” Or, as another, more contemporary observer has put it: Are there also stones there in James, amidst this heap of precious gems?
Certainly, there is much in the book of James which appeals to us, both as religious liberals, and as modern men and women. As noted, it never dwells on one point too long, and for that reason alone, it seems me, it has a certain appeal to our modern short attention spans There is very little Christian doctrine contained in James. Indeed, there are very few mentions even of Christ. There’s not a lot of theological or intellectual speculation; the whole orientation is markedly practical. The author is interested in the conduct of the members of his audience; not especially in their theological or religious viewpoint. He really doesn’t seem to care what they think about the matter of life after death, for instance. Rather, he wants them to live good and virtuous lives, and take care of one another (especially, take care of the weak and the poor and the oppressed), here and now, in this life. For James, the only real faith is that which manifests itself in the world, in good deeds. Period. Everything else is commentary; everything else is secondary, at best. Live a good life, the preacher harangues his listeners (or his readers), over and over. Help one another. Seek to be upright and just. Bring your faith to life. This is the unifying theme of James, and here is its crux: “So faith, if it has no works, is dead.” It’s useless, empty. All show and no go. It’s just empty ritual that doesn’t even deserve to be called “faith”.
That is what the book of James teaches, “with a directness and a frankness never since surpassed,” as one scholar says. “It is this that has given this fifteen minute sermon its abiding place in Christian literature.”
Its practicality appeals to us, as modern men and women. To some of us, this is one ancient text that isn’t dry as dust, but which seems to have some blood flowing in it.
Not everyone in the history of Christendom has felt that way about it. The place of James in the New Testament canon, those books agreed upon as “official” by the Early Church, was not easily secured. The first official list of New Testament books, which appeared around the year 170, makes no mention of James at all. The ancient Church Father Tertullian, writing in the middle of the third century, say around the year 225, was an immense quoter of Scripture; his works contain 7,258 quotations from the New Testament, we are told (someone actually counted them, I guess)—and not one of these 7,258 quotes is from the book of James. The first appearance of James in Latin is from the year 350, but even then, it wasn’t placed with the “official” books of the Bible, but with a collection of letters and tracts of the ancient Church Fathers. Jerome includes James in his famous Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate. But even Jerome had his doubts: James was an authentic epistle, Jerome wrote, but it may have been authored by someone other than “James, who is called the brother of the Lord”. It was only with Saint Augustine’s full acceptance of the Epistle of James (sometime after the year 400) that the “questionable” nature of this book was put to rest, as far as the “official” canon was concerned.
But still, some leading churchmen didn’t care for it much, most notably, the great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. Luther was very much into “salvation by faith alone”. Any other idea about salvation, Luther thought—like the emphasis in James on the need for faith to manifest itself in good works-- undermined the sovereignty and omnipotence of God. In his Preface to the New Testament, Luther wrote:
“In sum: the gospel and the first epistle of St. John, St. Paul’s epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians; and St. Peter’s first epistle, are the books which show Christ to you. They teach everything you need to know for your salvation, even if you were never to hear or see any other book or hear any other teaching. In comparison with these, the epistle of James is an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical. But more about this in other prefaces.”
Luther hated James. But the book was controversial even before that, from its earliest appearance, perhaps. Many mainstream Christians still have problems with James because it seems to call into question some of the teachings of Saint Paul, who emerged over time as the leading thinker in the development of what became Christianity. Especially in how they tackle the question of whether salvation comes through faith or works, James and Paul seem to draw some markedly different conclusions. Indeed, there are scholars who believe that James even dates from the time of Saint Paul—that is, from around the year 50 of the Common Era, and that it was written originally in direct response to what Paul was writing at the time. If this is true, it would make James among the oldest books in the New Testament. (Most scholars, however, date the actual work from between 100 and 150 of the Common Era, though its ideas might come from earlier).
There seem to have been three acknowledged leaders in the early “Church” following the death of Jesus: Paul, Peter, and James, the brother of Jesus. (What was meant by “brother” is a complicated and controversial question. Maybe “brother” means cousin in the ancient language, or perhaps even “very close friend”. Perhaps James and Jesus were half-brothers; James might have been a son of Joseph by an earlier marriage. Perhaps Joseph and Mary had other children after Jesus was born. Perhaps they just had other children, period. It’s too complicated to explicate here; maybe someday we’ll take that subject up, too.)
Anyway, Peter and Paul disagreed on many things, most notably whether Jesus intended his movement to become a new, improved form of Judaism (which is what Peter thought), or an entirely new world religion (that would be Paul). The crux of the question revolved around whether converts to Christianity (if we may call the surviving Jesus movement “Christianity” at this early date) were also required to take up the entire practice of the Jewish faith as well, with all of its required rituals. Most specifically, the question was whether non-Jewish male converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised, as commanded in the law of Moses. Peter said yes; Paul said no. It would be up to James and the other elders of the Church at Jerusalem to decide.
James seems to have been leaning toward Peter and the Judaizers. He and his followers appear to have pictured Jesus as a prophet in the line of Jewish prophets. They saw themselves as Jews, with only a few changes in their ritual. For one thing, they were much more communal in their approach to religious practice. They also held a weekly ritual communion service, patterned on the Last Supper of Jesus. They believed their faith commanded them to help the poor; indeed, James and his followers at Jerusalem called themselves the “Ebonites”, or the “poor ones”. Strikingly, in the epistle of James, the author refers to the place of assembly for religious worship as the synogoga, or synagogue; not as the ecclesia, or church, as does Paul.
The Ebonites were also deeply influenced by the Wisdom tradition of Judiaism, as Jesus had been before them (and as the Gnostics would be after them). This tradition taught that God is not something beyond us—off in Heaven, far away somewhere, but rather, something close at hand, imminent, something we can know right here among us, and within us. When Jesus prayed his famous prayer, he addressed God as “Abba”—translated as “Our Father”, but actually something more akin to “Dad” or “Daddy”—“Daddy God in Heaven…” Where did Jesus say the Reign of God would be found? Not off in the heavens; not in signs in the sky, but right here: “The Reign of God is in your midst, among you,” he taught.
In James, the Ebonite preacher tells his hearers that the pains and tribulations of life will perfect their characters—and lead them closer to Wisdom, closer to God. Religion is not just about mouthing words of faith,James says, but in practicing deeds of mercy. It’s right here, right now, that Wisdom will be found. In the real stuff of daily life, we approach closest to God. The more real it is, the more godly it is; and nothing is more real—or more demanding—or gets you immersed in the real dirt of the world more—than taking care of the poor. Nothing challenges the easy life more than standing up for the oppressed.
Indeed, it may have been a high price to pay for the original James himself. In the year 62, James the leading elder of Jerusalem, was killed by the Romans for sedition (as had his brother Jesus been killed about thirty years before). A few years later, a great rebellion against Rome broke out in Jerusalem, and the Christian community, along with all other forces of Jewish life and thought, was decimated by Rome. For better or worse, the non-Judaizing, more universalist, philosophy of Paul became the central thrust of Christianity, and the teachings of the Ebonites survived only in the few pages of James’s little “epistle of straw”.
But that straw, set alight by the fires of faith, can yet kindle for us enlightenment and warmth and help us to find our way through the darkness of our own times. Great gifts often come in small packages. And the simple book of James—this single sermon perhaps—contains within it a beautiful, life-giving strand of pearls, pearls of timeless spiritual wisdom.
Martin Luther didn’t like the Epistle of James. That’s all right for us because we’re not Lutherans! But even more important to some of us, perhaps, is that among the people who do like James is the Dalai Lama. (I don’t know about you, but personally, I’d take him over Martin Luther any day!). Interestingly, the Dalai Lama’s favorite verse from James is not the one of the main sound bytes we might expect—“Be ye doers or the word and not hearers only,” or even “Faith without works is dead.” His favorite, rather, is James, Chapter 1, verses 19 and 20: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”
It is in being “swift to hear”—in listening and listening deeply and intently—to one another, to the voice of conscience, to the voices of the poor, the voice of God in our souls, and in our world—that is where the spiritual journey has to begin, if it is to be genuine.
It doesn’t begin in chattering on about religious matters. It doesn’t even begin in the most beautiful words of pious prayer and deeply-discerned creed. It begins in listening.
And from that listening, if our religion if to be truly alive, there must come a religious response.
A response based in wisdom.
A response of mercy.
A response of justice.
A response of love.
A response of goodwill and sacrificial spirit which will—slowly, slowly, but surely, inexorably—transform this world of ours into the very Kingdom of God.

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