Faith and Works, or: A Burrito, A Park Bench, and the Royal Law

Updated: Jan 26

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 5th of Ninth Month, 2021


Speaker: Brian Young


Scripture: James 2:1–9, 14–17, NRSV





1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?


8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.


14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and 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? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.




It’s good to be back with you all here, in person and on Zoom, after two weeks and two Sundays away. As most of you know, I was in Chicago for much of my vacation, and Stephanie was there for a week as well. It was both enjoyable and productive.


One of the enjoyments was the chance to see friends that I hadn’t been with in some time. Some of you may remember Chuck Jackson, who occasionally worshiped with us here at West Richmond while earning his Masters in Divinity at Bethany Seminary. Since the pandemic began, Chuck has spent much of his time in Chicago, and so while we had kept in touch by e-mail and Zoom, I don’t think we’d seen each other in person for close to six months.


We arranged to meet for lunch on the Near North Side of the city. We got Mexican takeout and went to a nearby park to eat and talk. It was a beautiful day, and a wonderful, unhurried conversation. I caught him up on how West Richmond has been weathering the storms of COVID; and Chuck told me about his vocational search since graduation, and the volunteer work he’s been doing with a social service agency on the West Side of Chicago.


Once we were done with our lunch and conversation, we said our farewells and got up from the bench where we had been sitting. I had a rather messy bag from the takeout place, with crumpled up napkins and half-empty salsa containers. The burrito I ordered had been delicious, but rather juicy, and I hadn’t quite finished it because of how messy it had become; there was a mouthful or two—bits of tortilla and maybe a little filling—at the bottom of the bag.


At that point, a woman who had been sitting on a nearby bench asked me if I had anything left over. She pointed to the bag and said she was hungry. I was taken aback. Did she really want this mess I was carrying? In this time of COVID, did she really want something my mouth and hands had been all over? Of course she did—she was hungry—probably really hungry—and that was all that mattered to her.


But what I had didn’t really seem worth giving to another person. It wasn’t much food, and it was a mess—I was anxious to find the nearest trash can, just so I could be shut of it. So I stammered, “I don’t have anything I’d want to give you, I’m sorry,” and then we walked away.


As I moved off, I thought about other ways I might have responded... I could have offered to walk back with her to the Mexican place and buy her whatever she would like... I wasn’t in a hurry, I had time... but that was back the other direction from where I was intending to go. Or I could have handed her some cash and encouraged her to go buy a meal... I had plenty of money, and that would have taken no time at all... but all of those prejudices flooded my mind—prejudices that only seem to preoccupy those who have money: “Is she really hungry? How do I know what she would she do with that money if I gave it to her? Would she really buy food?”... as if any of that was my business.


Ideally, in the best of all possible worlds, that hungry woman would have a table set for her, with all kinds of good things, an abundant supply of food and drink, like the banquet that God will set for all those who hunger, at the end of time. But that banquet isn’t coming any time soon, as long as people like me, who profess to have faith, have no works to show for it.


Faith and works, of course, are a major emphasis of the passage from the book of James that we just heard a little bit ago. You might know that the book of James is one of the more controversial books in the New Testament. Unlike the Gospels, or Paul’s letters, it was not immediately accepted into the canon when the early church was deciding what was in and what was out—what was useful to be read in church and what was not. And then later, in the Protestant Reformation, the book especially came under fire. Its most famous critic was Martin Luther, who could not square James’s teachings with his doctrine of salvation by faith through grace, which he found primarily in Paul’s writings. While Luther probably would have been happy to write James out of the New Testament entirely, he did grudgingly include it in his German translation of the Bible—he put it at the end, with a few other books that didn’t meet with his approval (and apparently, in his first edition, he didn’t put any of these in the table of contents... he wanted them to be hard to find...)


Part of the challenge in interpreting the book of James is that there is very little certainty about where or when it was written, and by whom. Traditionally, the author is understood to have been James, the brother of Jesus, so certainly someone close to the Messiah who would have remembered his words. And indeed, James is remarkable for including so many of the ideas of the Gospels, perhaps more than any other New Testament letter; one commentator suggests that the book includes almost everything from the Sermon on the Mount, either directly or indirectly. We can see one instance of this in today’s passage in v8, where the author of James points to Jesus’ commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, calling it “the royal law according to the scripture” (that saying is not from the Sermon on the Mount, but it is in three of the four Gospels).


James calls it “the royal law according to the scripture”, but that he calls this “the scripture”, rather than mentioning Jesus himself having said it, suggests that the author knew these words primarily as written words. So either James was familiar with the Greatest Commandment from its place in the Jewish law, or by the time he was writing, at least Matthew’s Gospel was already known to him in its written form. The former—that James knew it from the Hebrew law—seems most likely, and many scholars agree that James would have been a Jewish Christian, one who knew the law well and used it skillfully in exhorting others like him who had become part of the the Jesus movement.


One other thing we can say with some confidence in looking at this passage is that the churches that James wrote to had troubles. Some were persecuted, and many were struggling. Throughout the book there are references to trials of various kinds, and a lot of these have to do with the mistreatment and oppression of the poor at the hands of the rich. In 2:6–7, James asks, “Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?” This seems to indicate that there were rich opponents outside the church who were mistreating the people of the church.


And inside the community of the church, the problem seems to be preferential treatment: somebody walks in with fancy clothes and a gold ring and they give them the seat of honor; someone walks in in rags, and they get a seat on the floor. We read this and we think, “Oh how terrible, we would never do such a thing..” But there are more stories than I can count (and I'm sure some of them are true) of someone in rags coming in to a big church and being shunted off to an unpleasant place to sit, or not being treated well; and then the dramatic reveal is that this is the pastor, or one of the elders, that has been testing out this church’s hospitality—to find out, are they following the the royal law? I don't know if that's ever happened here. It's not something I plan to try, but it gives you pause; it leads us to ask how we do treat people who come in through our doors.


We know that this was a problem, not just in the churches that James wrote to, but also if you read the Corinthian letters. Paul convicts the richer people in the Corinthian church for bringing all kinds of good food and elaborate dressings to church for the love feast, but not sharing that meal with those who don't have as much. So we know that some having much while others went wanting was a problem within the church, not just from James but elsewhere.


Verse five is also important to read: “...my beloved brothers and sisters, has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” This is an example of what liberation theologians call God's “preferential option for the poor”. Some people reading this chapter say, “Well, you know, being non-preferential is really important; we ought not to show regard to anyone, we should treat everyone the same; there should be equal access for everyone...” and all that is true. But reading the Gospels especially, we remember that Jesus spent time with those who needed the most; that Jesus sought out those who are on the margins; that Jesus ministered especially to and among and with and alongside the poor and others who were at the edges of society. And so James is reinforcing this in what he says here.


The latter part of the passage brings up this issue of faith and works, which is kind of a perennial debate in the contemporary church, and probably for everyone since Martin Luther. We can illustrate this by drawing two caricatures—pictures that are not entirely accurate, but that illustrate the ends of the argument...


On one hand we have salvation by faith alone. That is, again, the stance that Luther promoted, and that we hear still in many of the churches today: that to be saved (and you can understand that a variety of ways; remember that when Nikki Holland spoke a few weeks ago, she talked about salvation as being rescued, as being made whole, as being healed)—salvation in that sense, or in any other sense you might understand, it comes through faith alone at what today we might think of as the evangelical end of the spectrum: that it is your faith in God, by God's grace, that brings you to a place where you can accept salvation, where you can be made whole, where you can be rescued.


At the other end of the spectrum, we have folks who emphasize the importance of action—and a lot of mainline Protestants are here—that works are really the thing that's important. That the only way that you show faith is by works, and in fact, it might not be that important for you to have any faith at all as long as you do the works. Because, as James says, faith without works is dead. So why have something dead, if you're at least doing something right? Again, these are caricatures, I'm drawing with broad strokes here.


In the classical Quaker position, the Friends of the first generations brought these two things together, as they read James’s letter and the rest of the New Testament (and as any close reading of both James and Paul will show). These things have to go together. What the first Friends said was that the saving encounter—a rescue, a healing, the salvation of God— comes in that place within oneself where Christ is born in oneself, where Christ is raised, and it is that action that then leads you to be able to do the works that God calls you to do. And you cannot profess to have had that experience—to truly be in a state of healing, of wholeness, of rescue, of salvation—without being able to do the works that God calls you to do, as God strengthens you to do those things.


Okay, I'll put away the three-inch brush and switch to the one-inch brush now… Returning to my encounter in the park: how might an evangelical have approached that situation? I didn't say this earlier, but the the neighborhood where this park was is just down the street from the Moody Bible Institute, which is one of the biggest training institutes for young evangelicals in North America, perhaps in the world. And so there are plenty of young people who would have had this opportunity. And perhaps they might have done something more than I—they might have taken more time than I did, they might have spent more money than I did, to help a woman who was hungry. They might also have used that as an opportunity to have a conversation with her about her situation with regards to God, and whether she was walking with Christ, and whether she had made a decision to follow Christ. So the faith and the works would have been tied together in that way.


What would a mainline Protestant with more time, with more faith than me, have done? They might simply have done as I thought I could have done: they might have taken the woman to the restaurant; they might have given the woman money; they might have found some other more creative thing to do. But it would have primarily been, I think, about the doing.


There's a third way to examine this, and one that challenges me quite a bit, which again comes from liberation theology. A liberation theologian would have done the right thing—would have helped the woman in some way—but that wouldn't have been the end of it. There's this idea in liberation theology of praxis, which some of you may have heard of, which involves a circle of action and reflection; you do something that God might perhaps be calling you to do, and then you reflect upon it prayerfully: was that faithful? What am I learning from this? What does this tell me about my social position, about the social position of the people that I'm trying to walk alongside, and about the system that we are embedded in? And, perhaps, a liberation theologian working with this woman would have then been led to question why it is that people are hungry in the first place; why is it that this woman can't find enough food? What is it about the systems of this world that make it so easy for some to have so much, and so many to have so little? (Those questions would then lead to further action.)


Obviously I did none of these. I am convicted by all three. It would have been better to do one, two, or three, or something else more creative. So James’ words convict me today; perhaps they convict you as well. If they do, what convicts you the most, as you read James’ words to the churches that were under his care? What can we learn from these various approaches to this question of faith and works? Most importantly, what works does faith call you to in this time and place that we are in? What works does faith call us to, together, in this time and place that we are in?





New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/. You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.

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