Which heresy are American Christians more prone to these days? Which one are you personally more susceptible to?
If there is a verse from James that people know, it’s probably this one: “But be doers of the word and not hearers who deceive themselves.” (1:22) (Though we substitute “only” for that last phrase.)
It’s in the middle of a passage (1:19-27) that sets up one of the central themes of the letter, and James circles back to the idea that “faith without works is dead” (2:17) throughout the letter (2:14-26, 3:13-18, 4:13-17).
Even though James’ letter is written more like an Old Testament wisdom book (Proverbs for the Protestants, Sirach and Wisdom for the Catholics), with a seeming mishmash of random pieces of advice loosely strung together like a monologue sitting by the fire from an uncle who’s on a roll, it’s written to an audience in response to distinct challenges, just as Paul’s were. And while Paul and James don’t really differ on the point here – faith shows up in how you live – Paul’s concern was more about a legalism that put a bunch of hoops for people to jump through between them and God’s love. James’ concern was about a laziness that manifests in believers who, having claimed God’s love, don’t think they need to change who they are.
You could probably argue that, as with the early Church, Christians today fall off the path in both directions. There are folks who are big on putting God on the opposite side of a to-do list today – people who say so-and-so can’t really be a Christian because they [fill in blank]. And there are folks who seem to say “I checked the box” (said a prayer and accepted Christ into my heart, got baptized, made my sacraments, show up on Sundays), so I don’t need to do anything else to be a Christian.
James has some great things to say to that second group:
“[T]hey are like those who look at themselves in a mirror…and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” (1:23-24).
“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?” (2:15-16)
“Anyone…who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” (4:17)
But my favorite is this passage:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (3:13-18)
So which is our bigger failing today? Individually and as a community, I can ‘fess up to seeing people in need and wishing them well while crossing to the other side of the street. I know what love does and I fail to do it. And it seems like bitter envy and selfish ambition is a lot more prevalent than peace and gentleness around here.
What do you think?
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