Grace Presbyterian Church
September 2, 2018, Pentecost 15B
Hearing Isn’t Enough
“Actions speak louder than words.”
Surely I’m not the only one who remembers growing up with this maxim? In my childhood this saying flew around with such regularity that I might have been confused enough to think it was in the Bible. In fact, according to those who study such things, the phrase as we know it appears to date back to the year 1628 (at least that is the earliest it can be documented), and its first verifiable use in the United States is in a quote by Abraham Lincoln in 1856.
The phrase itself – “actions speak louder than words” – is not in the Bible, no. However, it is not a bad summary of much of the content of the epistle of James, the slender book towards the end of the New Testament to which we turn our attention for the next few weeks. More than once in this letter that idea – that our actions matter – will be pushed very hard by this author.
Speaking of the author, we don’t know exactly who it is. The only description offered is that this James is a “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are a lot of possibilities – “James” is a fairly common name even in the New Testament itself. We can probably rule out the James who was one of the disciples and the brother of John, since he was martyred relatively early in the life of the church. One of the lists of disciples in the gospels refers to another James among their number (called the son of Alphaeus), and one of the brothers of Jesus who became a leader in the early church was also named James. Most scholars suggest that the latter James is the most likely author, but we’re not going to be able to establish that for certain any time soon.
If the author was really a brother of Jesus, you might find it odd that James doesn’t mention his brother all that much in the letter! Jesus himself isn’t mentioned all that often in the epistle, though much of the teaching contained in it is quite clearly echoes or is connected to Jesus’s teaching. The other criticism leveled at the letter – most fiercely by Martin Luther, perhaps – is that the letter is legalistic, an example of “works righteousness” at its worst as opposed to Paul’s (and Luther’s) emphasis on salvation by grace through faith. As we’ll see later in the letter, this claim doesn’t really hold water, but once such an argument gets a head of steam it’s hard to stop it.
The reading for today seems to start in the middle of one idea – the unchangeable nature of God and the gift of giving – and almost immediately jump into another. In fact, this relatively brief passage hops through a number of ideas, some of which will be treated more thoroughly later in the letter. Perhaps most unusual of all, this brief passage early in the letter seems to end with the ultimate conclusion or at least the desired outcome of the letter; what “true religion” looks like in action.
Perhaps most important for understanding what’s going on in this epistle is that, unlike most of the New Testament, James’s letter is not particularly evangelistic. It isn’t written to convert people; it is written to those already converted, charging them (or us) to live like it. And let’s be honest here; plenty of “Christians” need to be reminded about this key point.
Since a couple of the points made here in this passage will be addressed more fully in coming weeks, it’s o.k. to hit the highlights for now, so to speak:
–verses 19-21 counsel the follower of Christ to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” They do not counsel, however, that one never speaks or that one never gets angry. Listen first, then act or respond in the way that our faith demands, even if that means following Jesus’s example and upturning some tables in the Temple on occasion.
–verse 22 is probably one of the two most famous verses in the whole letter, and it can get interpreted badly as well. “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Again, note: he says “not merely hearers,” but the presumption of this statement is that you area hearer of the word. I don’t know what Martin Luther was thinking, but this is not an invitation to “works righteousness” in any way, shape, or form. Your hearing of the word is presumed in the call to do the word.
–James will have a lot more to say about the tongue in chapter 3. For now let’s merely observe that there are an awful lot of unbridled tongues out there, including in the church, and James says their religion is worthless. Ponder that for a couple of weeks.
–and in the end, what is “true religion,” that is “pure and undefiled before God”? Something the Old Testament and the gospels both had so much to say about; care for “orphans and widows” – a long-used catchphrase in scripture for the poorest and most oppressed in a society. In short, “doing the word” looks like showing up for or cooking for St. Francis House or Family Promise, or any number of other missions our little church participates in and supports. James isn’t preaching anything radically new here, and his letter is not going to get us off the hook. We’re still called to serve the “least of these.”
For the call to do the word and the letter that won’t let us forget it, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #744: Arise, Your Light is Come!; #61: Your Law, O Lord, is Perfect; #529; Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether; #708: We Give Thee But Thine Own