We are reading passages from the book of James each week during worship in the month of September. James was written to the first century church to guide them in how the life of faith is to be acted out in daily life. Paul wrote to other churches and stressed belief in Jesus Christ ("saved through faith, not works, lest anyone should boast"). James stresses works as an important part of the life of faith ("faith without works is dead"). The tension between these two views were not apparent at the time of their writings because they were written to different groups of Christians and each did not have both to compare. We modern Christians have both writings and more that inform us of how the life of faith works in daily life. We wonder if belief is the most important component or is what we do for others is more important than what we believe or does it take both to make a Christian a complete person?
James is adamant about religion containing works of piety and mercy. Last week we read one of the key verses of the book of James---"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (1:27) This week we continue with what James teaches and will hear--"You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (2:8) The concern of chapter two, however, is not to judge others based on criteria that one may set for oneself but to love others without being judgmental.
James is concerned that some in the early church were favoring the wealthy over the poor when they attended worship. He went as far as to call it a sin to show partiality to some based on criteria we set for ourselves. (2:9) He compares it to other sins that we consider to be serious and are named in the Ten Commandments. He urges mercy for all, for "mercy triumphs over judgement." (2:12)
So, we are left with the instruction to love all and to show mercy and to not judge, something that even Paul would agree with James about. So, what does that have to do with belief? If one believes in Jesus as savior, then does the Christian life consist strictly of believing and professing one's belief to others OR are acts of mercy and piety necessary to the Christian life in order for one to truly be Christian?
I think Jesus own' teachings help to answer that question and the passage quoted most often in regard to this topic is from Matthew 25 where Jesus describes the great judgment where people are separated as sheep are from goats. The judge who separates the people sits on the throne and the criteria used to decide whether one goes to everlasting peace or eternal punishment has to do with works. The judge does not ask if one believed in Jesus as one's savior. The judge asks those who stand before him...did you feed the hungry?...did you give drink to the thirsty?...did you welcome the stranger?...did you give clothes to the naked?...did you take care of the sick?...did you visit those in prison? (Matt. 25:31-46). The answer given determined the fate of those being judged.
Jesus' parable about the judgment did not have the judge ask one time what one believed. The outcome was based solely on works. That leads me and others to conclude that the complete Christian life must include acts of mercy and piety and charity. Saying what one believes is not enough to satisfy God. Showing what one believes through what we do for others demonstrates our belief. When it comes down to it, it really does not matter what we believe about God or Jesus or social issues if our lives do not demonstrate a life of love toward others in the way we treat them and in what we do to help them in their distress.
Paul was a great man and a great theologian and his own life demonstrated love for others in the way he lived among First Century persons. He acted out his beliefs through his life of love and sacrifice resulting in his death for what he believed and taught. He most likely would have agreed with James if they would have discussed their views together. There is no writing saying they ever did this but both men's writings guide our thinking today as they struggled to reflect the teachings of Jesus to those of their day, both in what they said and in how they lived.