The German religious reformer, Martin Luther, famously called the Epistle of James “an epistle of straw” in comparison to the other books of the New Testament canon. In theological language, Luther believed that one was justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone. He called this sola fide, or faith alone. He relegated the epistle of James to a lower canonical status because of the letter’s emphasis on doing works, or good deeds, in accordance with scripture. Luther elevated faith over action, and had reservations about having the Epistle of James as part of the biblical canon—and of its being taught in religious schools since it seemed to contradict the Apostle Paul at points by stressing the demonstration of one’s faith through action.
In simple summary, the writer of James believed that people possessing a genuine faith would actually show their faith through their actions. It wasn’t that your deeds could earn your way with God, but that a genuine faith and trust in Jesus Christ would reveal itself through your actual actions.
If you, like me, have read parts of James’ letter and have found yourself nodding your head and agreeing with him that one can’t simply proclaim faith in Jesus and then ignore social justice, or ignore being generous, or ignore hospitality to your neighbor, then be reassured that this epistle is still a part of our biblical canon, even as it was seen as “less than” other New Testament books in Luther’s view. Just because it doesn’t mention Christ, over and over again, is not a reason to disparage it, as Luther once famously did.
For the writer known as James—who may or may not have been actually related to Jesus—faith is actually known in the doing of faith. He issues imperatives throughout his letter, one of the most well-known being “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
James fervently believes that followers of God can easily deceive themselves. We are not deceived by someone else; rather, we can deceive ourselves about our spiritual well-being and morality.
Do you sometimes deceive yourself? Perhaps that sounds too harsh, so I will ask it another way: What gets in the way of our good intentions to do something about the troubled and beautiful world that we see “out there” and “in here”?
It’s a personal question, is it not? I mean, I have all kinds of intentions to follow scripture and love my neighbor as myself and take care of orphans, the dispossessed, the abandoned, and the down and out. I have hopes of chipping away at the injustice that fills our newspapers daily. I do a lot of wishing: I wish the racial tensions would go away and I wish that the poor would be fed and I wish that we could distribute the vaccine to any and all who would actually give just about anything in their lives just to be able to take it.
I also pray for these things; I do. I want environmental justice and a peace that doesn’t involve suicide bombers, fear, war, or people getting killed, particularly kids.
I hear the Word about how we are to turn swords into ploughshares and how we are to welcome the prodigal, even when it hurts, but then I start counting the hours, the resources, and the demands on my time…
And then I start to rationalize.
Peter Rhea Jones tells a funny story about a man who began to cut his grass on a scorching Saturday. He had a lot of lawn and while sweating and steaming, he thought about how wonderful a tall, cold glass of lemonade would taste inside his air-conditioned kitchen. So, he stopped the lawnmower and walked inside and poured himself an icy glassful of lemonade. He sat himself down in a great big ol’ easy chair and took a moment to thumb through his dictionary, encountering the definition of the word “weed.” He read there that a weed was “any plant growing where it was not wanted.”
Standing up, he stretched, opened the door, and surveyed his lawn.
Right then and there, he decided that every single blade of grass stood exactly where and how he wanted it!
Jones writes, “The man rationalized away [his] doing.”
When I do this kind of reckoning and rationalizing, I don’t actually do much at all, concluding that it’s just too much, too vast, too hard, and maybe even too beyond my influence. I rationalize away my doing.
Can you relate?
What gets in the way of your doing?
I am going to cast about a few reasons—to help us consider what gets in the way of our doing, even after all our listening to the Word, sometimes for many years.
When we look at all the scripture asks of us, we might conclude that we lack. Whether it is a lack of time, energy, resources, or motivation, we rationalize that the absence of some thing ( you can fill in the blank) prevents our action. What is that lack that you most often name or most often comes to mind when you consider doing that thing that God calls you to? Is there a way for you to overcome that objection?
I am trying to do a lifestyle change right now. It doesn’t really matter what kind of lifestyle change—that is beside the point—but I am finding it really hard and really unpleasant and really inconvenient. I have all kinds of excuses as to why I can’t accomplish this ONE thing that I want to do, that I am being called to do, and probably most need to do. And most of my reasons involve the lack of something.
Yet, truly, I lack nothing given that I can accomplish all sorts of other things rapidly and well with the same amount of resources. So, is my lack really the issue?
Many times, we are too comfortable or want to maintain our comfort at the expense of those Godly nudges that would lead us to action. We want social action, but we don’t want to be inconvenienced personally or on someone else’s timeframe. Or sometimes we rationalize that someone else—someone younger or fitter or more committed or more invested or more “whatever” – that someone else will see to the actual doing. We will give the idea, but someone else will put their hand to the plow or implement the vision or strategize the how-to, or motivate the troops. We give our idea and we think, “my part is done.”
And sometimes we just are fearful of encounter…What do I mean? We can be fearful that our immersion into new waters, into implementing time-tested, biblical understandings will lead us to encounter ourselves, the Other, our neighbor, and God in new and frightening ways.
What if my lifestyle change demands more of me and requires different ways of being? What if your desire for a sustainable life here on Earth influences you to encounter those who feel very differently on a more regular basis? What if your reaching across racial divides to attend an event in a very different part of the city, or in a different neighborhood, leads to an encounter that claims more of your time, or leads to different decisions and needs and friendships down the road?
The writer of James says that those who hear the word only and don’t actually do anything are like people who stand before a mirror and then, after turning away, forget what they look like.
The mirror is God’s word and its truth spoken to us in our hearts. It’s that understanding that prompts you to call the hurting friend, or to change your plans to reach out to the stranger, or that which helps you to puzzle over a difficult dilemma, granting you the mind of Christ.
And when we turn away from the mirror, James says, we forget what we heard and fail to act on what we have heard.
Perhaps we rationalize that we lack in the moment or that our doing might lead to an encounter for which we do not feel “ready.” Or we turn away and forget our own God-given empathy.
For the mirror shows us our belovedness, while we also see the yearning of others to experience belovedness too.
The mirror shows us our vulnerability, and in that moment, we remember the vulnerability of others and feel a commonality that calls us to action.
The mirror shows us our best hopes and our deepest sorrows and we remember how it was that we traversed that gap between our most deep -felt dreams and our deepest regrets… and we want to bridge that gap for others or accompany them as they find their way.
In this time of Covid, so much has been put on hold. In some ways, we might feel as if we are “on hold” and Covid-19 and its effects can become a rationalization not to be “doers of the Word,” at least not now. The pandemic, for certain, has changed when and how we do things. But it hasn’t changed the why. It hasn’t changed why we care about others or the why or need of our coming together. It reminds me of a saying about cancer. These lines were published on December 31, 1994, in an Ann Landers column in the Chicago Sun Sentinel. They had been sent in by a man called George, who lived in Verdun, Quebec, Canada. (George stated that he himself had seen them in another magazine called The Senior Times.)
In reading these lines, I have taken the liberty to substitute “Covid” for the word, “cancer”:
[Covid] is so limited …
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot destroy peace.
It cannot kill friendships.
It cannot suppress memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot steal eternal life.
It cannot conquer the Spirit.
Over the past two years, in our personal lives, we have found a way to live with new precautions in the midst of this pandemic. We must continue to find a way do church together as doers, and not just listeners, of the Word. We spent a lot of last year listening and learning and trying to do worship online. That was and still is very important. In fact, we might have to revert to worshipping online only again. But worship is how we fuel our “doing” of the word. We must also try to do our ministries in a time of Covid, even when we feel we lack or we struggle to remember what we looked like as a church pre-Covid. Will it be easy? Of course not. Is it going to make us uncomfortable? Probably. Will it ask for different gifts and graces and new ways of encounter? Yes.
Yet, our ancestor, James, says we will be blessed in the doing. For, as he says, “the implanted word has the power to save your souls.”
In the coming days, consider what your greatest obstacle, reservation, or inner personal challenge has been for the doing of God’s word in your life and in the church you love. How are you called to address or overcome that challenge? Is there something that you can do differently to help God’s word receive embodiment in this difficult social time?
May you find God leading you to an answer so that you may be blessed in your doing and also this world that we love so much.
 Peter Rhea Jones, “James 1:17-27,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 19