Faith without works

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentacost
Sermon – Faith without works

I’ve always been powerfully drawn to the Epistle of James, from which the lectionary will have us reading over this month of September. When as a student I first began to really take an active hold of my Christian faith, it was this epistle that most caught my imagination. To be sure the gospels were essential, but again and again it was James who kept asking me “so if you believe this stuff, what are you going to do about it?” “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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?” James asks his readers. For me, it was a key question. I’d begun to work with kids from the inner city, had my first real glance at what it looked like to live in poverty, and it wasn’t pretty. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” James said—said to me—and I was convicted. If I was going to call myself a Christian, I’d better find real ways to enact that, because I sure didn’t want to have deadness in my faith.

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One of the jobs I stumbled into during university was with a juvenile probation unit, where I ran a Saturday afternoon work experience program. It was a pretty modest program; we dug gardens, raked lawns, washed windows, and delivered flyers. At the end of each session, the kids received a few dollars for their work and I put an attendance and participation check mark beside their names. Not exactly life-changing stuff, but it was something. And as the supervisor of this program, I got to spend time working with these young men, building trust and breaking down some of those barriers between “us” (in this case, me… the university student from a stable home in the suburbs) and “them” (mostly aboriginal kids from the inner city, with extended police records, and nothing approaching stability in their home lives).

During the summer there had been plenty of jobs available to us, but in the winter we were pretty much limited to delivering flyers. On one particularly cold day, this one kid sat shivering in the van, wearing only a jean jacket against the wintery chill. It was all he owned by way of a jacket, and he told me that every day he would button it as tightly as he could and run the five blocks to school as fast as his feet would carry him. And didn’t I hear the words of James, that to say “‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet not supply their bodily needs” is pretty much useless? “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” I knew what I had to do.

You see, I was wearing a nice new down jacket, while at home I had a second one in perfectly good condition. Why did I have two, you might ask? Because I’d seen the new one in a store, liked it better than the older one, and so I bought it. Anyone here ever made a decision like that?

I dug out that second jacket, tucked it in my car, and the next time I saw this young guy I gave it to him. Oh, didn’t I feel good about my active faith that day? Delighted with his new jacket, he covered off his flyer delivery without a shiver. When I saw him at a midweek program he was again wearing that jacket, and he told me that he could now walk to school in the mornings. Wouldn’t James be so very impressed by my active, living faith?

A couple of weeks later he arrived at the work program wearing only his jean jacket. “Where’s your warm jacket?” I asked him, but I later realized I’d really been asking, “Where’s my jacket?”

“I gave it to my uncle,” he said.

“You gave it to your uncle? Why did you do that?”

“Because he got a job, and he works outside every day. He needed it more than me.”

Right. That was the moment I realized two things. First of all, I realized I hadn’t so much given him my old jacket as made what amounted to a permanent loan. I was still invested in it and holding on to it; I was feeling good about seeing how happy he was wearing it, and so when he didn’t wear it I was vaguely offended.

And secondly, in his response to the need of his uncle, this young man put my piety to shame. Yes, he’d grown up poor in a family ravaged by alcoholism. He’d known nothing of the security and comfort that I’d had when I was growing up, and he certainly had never read the Epistle of James. But what he did was to stop me in my tracks, and push me to wrestle more deeply with what James had been trying to say to me all along. And of course the thing is that in the verses that precede the ones on “faith without works” the big issue James is flagging has to do with the way we make judgments based on appearance. When we imagine that those dressed in fine clothes are somehow more deserving than those dressed poorly—that there is more to be gained from courting the privileged than in welcoming someone who is poor or in need—“have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” Hadn’t I assumed that only I could be the real giver, and he merely a recipient of my charity?

The manner in which this young man unsettled me and pressed me to think more deeply about what the gospel might require us actually has an interesting parallel in the story from Mark 7 that we heard read aloud tonight. It offers one of the more perplexing pictures of Jesus, in which when a Gentile woman comes to him and begs that he free her daughter from a demonic oppression he seems to blow her off: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did you hear the force of his words, as he basically denies her request with what amounts to a racial slur, calling Gentiles dogs? But she’s a pretty tenacious woman, and so answers, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” to which Jesus replies, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” All is well, right? Except that his initial refusal is still there in the text… what are we to think?

One way to read this is to see it as a case of Jesus testing the woman’s faith, while another is to imagine that this exchange was really a bit of playful back and forth banter, with a twinkle evident in the eyes of Jesus the whole time. Maybe.

But I think we need to consider the possibility that what this woman did was to press the very human Jesus to get past his hard-wired cultural assumptions—that Gentiles are outsiders, “dogs,” and of less value in the eyes of God—and fully enact the messianic promise that is his calling. This is what N.T. Wright suspects is at work, when he writes:

Jesus has placed a time-bomb beside those Jewish institutions that stressed ethnic separateness; he is now confronted with the need to explode it, sooner than he’d expected. Though Jesus (like many Jews of the day) clearly envisioned a future time when Gentiles would come to share the blessings of the kingdom, he seems to be surprised that it is all happening this quickly. No more privilege for the ‘children’; all can be healed, all must hear, and soon.

Just as I was shaken from my assumptions by that kid from the North End, perhaps here Jesus is really and truly pressed by this woman—an outsider, a person from the margins with no status and no claim to authority—to embody the fullness of his gospel; a gospel which, in the words of Simeon in Luke 2, is to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”

Pay attention to your assumptions; assumptions about your own faithfulness and corner on the truth; assumptions, too, about who belongs, who has value, and who just might have the word you most need to hear. As the New Testament scholar Matt Skinner challenges,

Look for the Syrophoenician woman in the back row of church this Sunday. Maybe she’s the one whose reputation discourages her from getting involved or the one who slips out during the last hymn to avoid having to mix with the churchy “insiders.” But she keeps coming back, fiercely convinced that if anything we preach week-in and week-out is true, then it’s got to be true for her, too.


3 Responses to Faith without works

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for these comments, both of you. I should let you know that you should look for a sermon post by Pierre Plourde, which is another extension of this same conversation.

    I’d want firstly to say that Jesus’ use of what I’m suggesting amounts to a racial slur should not be taken as my trying to challenge the proclamation that he is “without sin”: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) But does the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews have in mind a Christ who is unable to err in any way whatsoever? Can the writer be picturing a figure who stands above the limits and assumptions of his own time and culture, and therefore free of everything from a pre-scientific view of an earth-centered cosmos to something so troubling as an apparently dismissive view of non-Jews? And did Jesus never to anything wrong as a child, even in the process of learning and being shaped as a good son of the Torah? There is that story in Luke 2, where at the age of 12 he just decides to stay at the Temple in Jerusalem, while his parents are worried half-sick as to what has become of him. Any parent will tell you that such an action on the part of a 12 year old child is a bit of a problem…

    To me, the startling thing in this narrative is that Jesus seems to take the Gentile woman’s challenge to heart; in good rabbinic fashion, he accepts her qualification on his first statement, and then he moves to meet her with some truly inclusive good news.

    But was he “sinning” by using the language of Gentiles as dogs in the first place? Or was it more he was acting according to the norms and understandings of his own social and cultural world, and that his willingness to drop those – to “explode the time-bomb” as N.T. Wright phrases it – is a demonstration of what it might look like for the fully human and fully divine Jesus Christ to live beyond sin. I think that is maybe the most interesting question here.

    I should also add, by the way, that the section I cited from N.T. Wright came from a book of refections on the lectionary texts (“Twelve Months of Sundays”), whereas in his more recent popular commentary on Mark (“Mark for Everyone”) he comes out disagreeing with the sort of reading I am giving this passage. Here is what Wright offers in that later book, with all of the bits in brackets also in the original:

    “The tone of voice throughout, though urgent and (on the woman’s part) desperate, is nevertheless that of teasing banter. Some have tried, with feminist agendas in mind, to make out that the woman put Jesus straight, correcting and indeed rebuking his restricted viewpoint, but this is hardly what Mark intended. She accepts, after all, the apparent insult (Jews often thought of Gentiles as ‘dogs,’ and what Gentiles said about Jews was usually just as uncomplimentary), and turns it to her own advantage. Had she (or Mark, telling the story) wanted to challenge or correct Jesus this was hardly the way to go about it.”

    Okay, so I’m not sure I’m driven by a “feminist agenda”! And in terms of it all being “teasing banter,” I’m still not convinced… not when that word “dogs” is used. Again, I am drawn to a Jesus – quite profoundly drawn, in fact – who was sufficiently human to get caught up in some of the social baggage of his own time, and sufficiently and gracefully divine to be able to recognize it when someone or something alerted him to it.

    I would, though, very much agree with how Wright ends his comments on this passage as a whole:

    “As Jesus dies, Mark has a Roman centurion affirm that he was truly the son of God. From that moment on, what was anticipated in the Syrophoenician woman became universally true. The King of the Jews had become the saviour of the world.”

    To that, I can only add “amen.”

    Jamie Howison

  2. Bugizzy says:

    I have no issue with Jesus coming into a deeper knowledge of his vocation, NT Wright cleared that up for me a while back now, but I am not sure what to make of your comment “Did you hear the force of his words, as he basically denies her request with what amounts to a racial slur, calling Gentiles dogs?” So to ask the question out-loud in hopes of a conversation on it:

    How does Christ using a racial slur affect our understanding of what sin is and/or the sinlessness of Christ?

    • Byronmodonnell says:

      Perhaps Jesus, with his fondness for the mind boggling parable, was acting out a “typical reaction” to the request from a Gentile as yet another example of the reformative thought he was bringing to the world. I love that the woman questioned his decision and is still rewarded with the very mercy she desired.

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