Sunday, November 02, 2014

The week's lesson (November 1-7): faith that works

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead -- James 2:14-17, NIV.
One reason James talks so much about works?

Most of his people are out of a job.

When James writes this letter, remember, Jerusalem is flooded with people -- people who are desperately poor.
  • The push? Roman real-estate speculators who've driven them off the land.
  • The pull? Herod's rebuilding the Temple -- a public-works project that offers lots and lots of jobs. 
  • The problem? The usual "safety nets" of alms, public charity, and patronage can't cope with all these newcomers -- and the growing unpopularity of Christianity makes it tough for church members to get any help at all.
In short, James has too little money and too many hungry believers. 
So, like so many Jewish leaders before him, he turns to the Diaspora -- to the world-wide community of Jews who have a soft spot in their hearts for Jerusalem.
And yes, they're Christian.
Yes, they have a new-found faith that Jesus is the Messiah.
But just because they love Jesus, that doesn't mean they should ignore His children. 
No, there's still a need for mitzvoth -- for the good works of charity, compassion, and love. That's why Paul collects money for the poor in Judah (cf. Romans 15:26f, I Corinthians 16:1-4, II Corinthians 8:1-24). And that's why James points out:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world -- James 1:27, NIV.
When James warns against an "empty faith," in other words, he warns against a faith that is selfish: a faith focuses on me and my needs -- yes, even my need for salvation . . .  but ignores the needs of others.
You see, "faith without works is dead."
But if the people who read this letter don't put their faith to work -- if they don't reach out to their brothers and sisters who need help?
Then their "faith" will be deadly too.

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