August 24, 2015
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Author: Scott Hoezee
After observing the Nazis in action for a while, the German philosopher and writer Heinrich Heine once said that you can count on it: wherever they burn books, they will sooner or later burn people.
Maybe a similar or related observation could be made from what we read in Mark 7: wherever people make serving God all about keeping rules, sooner or later all of life becomes all about drawing lines to determine who’s in and who’s out (and the number of people on the outs will always be a lot huger than those who are allegedly “in”). And that’s when religious folks become much more interested in telling people they will burn in hell than in proclaiming to them a gracious God who has already given everything to keep just that from happening.
All along in the Bible the Law of God was meant to be a guide for life for those who were already in love with God on account of their knowing that God had saved them by his grace. Even in the Old Testament God did not give the Law to his people while they were still slaves in Egypt, thereby saying to them, “Hear, O Israel: when you collectively have achieved a sufficient level of obedience to these laws, statutes, and precepts I now lay before you, then I may consider bringing you out of your house of bondage. So work hard, be good for goodness’ sake, and I will get back in touch with you when I think you’ve earned a bit of my attention. That is all. Thank you.”
No, the great exodus from Egypt came first. And even prior to that God had graciously fulfilled a part of his promise to Abraham by making Abraham’s descendants a mighty nation (a group of people large enough to make even the Pharaoh nervous). The giving of the Law came after the people had seen God’s mighty acts and outstretched arm. As such, it was meant to be a guide for living for people already transformed on the inside by having seen and savored the grace of God.
That’s the way it always needs to be because listen: every time the Law becomes a way to curry divine favor, earn salvation, or even as a way to retain one’s saved status, it sooner or later leads people away from a true adoration of God even as it rather quickly becomes a bludgeon in the hands of the “Holier-Than-Thou” crowd. As Mark 7 shows us, when keeping the rules becomes the main thing that life is all about, that focus eventually leads people to find clever ways to keep only the letter of the law, killing its spirit.
In the verses of Mark 7 that the Lectionary skips—but that I’d recommend we preachers retain when preaching on this passage—Jesus makes it clear that while there is nothing wrong with God’s Law per se, the problem was that the Pharisees and others had become really adept at cooking up schemes within their hearts to get around the more arduous demands of that Law—they’d scrub the surface of their lives the same way they scrubbed the outside of a cup but all along they’d conveniently ignore what was on the inside. And anyway we already know that in Jesus’ mind, the greatest commandment of them all—the one that is supposed to weave through and inform one’s attitude toward every other command you could ever name—is love. But it’s certainly not loving to find ways to get around the command to honor one’s parents and it’s definitely not loving to condemn people to hell just because they maybe forgot to wash their hands before popping a fig in their mouths while strolling through the marketplace.
But that’s what happens when you have convinced yourself God grades on the curve. Sooner or later you become so desperate to make yourself look good that you find a convenient way of doing that is by making others look bad. “I may not be perfect but God has to like me a whole lot better than old Frank over there—what a shoddy would-be believer he is!”
The point is that laws become more important than people. But in our hearts of hearts what God wants to see is nothing but love: love for the God who is so gracious to us in the first place, and then love for all other people as we seek to give to others the same wonderful grace God has given to us. Grace begets grace. But legalism just begets strictness and meanness.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
How do we manage to turn the love and grace of God, which is good news, into the hatred and strictness of God, which is bad news? How does faith in a living and loving God transform into “religion” in the worst sense of the word? Somewhere Lewis Smedes once wrote that a living relationship with God is a good thing but religion will whop you upside the head every time with long tirades about how bad a person you are, how you don’t live up to this or that expectation, and how basically all of life comes down to just one thing: proving that you’re good enough and worthy enough to be accepted (and the incessant worry that you are never quite there yet).
That’s what religion is, and Smedes is right: it’s a far cry from the gospel. But how does it happen that we let the gospel get eclipsed by religion? Why is it that for altogether too many people also yet today, being right, being holier than the next person, becomes a far more important benchmark of faith than being loving and Christ-like?
Religion makes moral cops out of all of us.
Faith, on the other hand, understands the love of God and the grace that saves. This leads to a humble awareness that were it not for the mercy of God, each one of us would be more than doomed and so what remains is for us to talk about this grace of God, making it wonderfully available to all whom we meet.
True enough. But I still go back to the question: what makes people who know the gospel pretty well nevertheless turn into moral cops after all? My own Calvinist/Reformed tradition is a particularly curious case in point. Few people know better how utterly depraved and lost they are in sin than do people whose theological vantage point descended from John Calvin. We know we are utterly dependent on the amazing grace of God that saved wretches like us. And yet some in this same tradition have also become stern moralists; disapproving folks who often scowl at the hapless sinners around them.
The oft-times sardonic Dutch Reformed novelist Peter DeVries captured this well when he depicted several of his relatives talking in the parlor. Each man tried to outdo the others in consigning even the best of his spiritual works to the dustbin under the heading of “All our works are but as filthy rags before God.” This prompted DeVries to muse, “This being what we thought of virtue, you can imagine what we thought of vice.”
So what accounts for this? Maybe part of the answer is that it’s always easier to fixate on what we can see with our eyes than it is to focus on what is invisible. Grace and mercy and love: these are all fine things to sing about in church on a Sunday morning but they can also become intangible. Ah, but volunteering for the homeless shelter, refusing to touch a drop of alcohol, never going to a store on Sunday: these kinds of religious practices can be seen, toted up, tallied, pointed to as proof of one’s devotion. Just to look at a person’s exterior appearance you can’t know for sure whether he or she is saved by grace or not and so wondering about that is not very interesting. But if we see this person have a beer, eat a sandwich with unwashed hands, get a pizza delivered on a Sunday evening: well, NOW we know who’s who and so that’s what we focus on.
Of course, it’s not as though leading a devoted life of faith does not also issue in certain characteristic behaviors. Jesus, after all, apparently saw no contradiction between leading a life full of grace and yet saying things like, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The Law does have a role to play in the life of the already saved. But it’s all gravy, it’s all joy, it’s all delight. Because then “living for Jesus” issues forth from hearts that dance to the tune of grace instead of from hearts that brood long and hard over failures and infractions of the rules.
To paraphrase Jesus in Mark 7: what ruins a person’s life is not what he eats or drinks but what issues forth from hearts full of fear, bitterness, and scorn. Those are the kinds of hearts that lead people to wag bony fingers in the faces of others. Those are the kinds of hearts that lead to pinched expressions on condemning faces. Because as Jesus said, those are the hearts that try so hard to get close to God through moral striving and human achievement that they end up being very far from God after all. Oh, and those same people don’t have too many friends on earth, either.
If it weren’t so tragic, it would count as one of life’s richest ironies.
The Lectionary would have us skip Mark 7:17 and that’s too bad because that little verse contains a wonderful little piece of irony. Jesus has just been speaking pretty plainly about why he refuses to be concerned with rules about what to eat or how to eat it because he knows that the main problem with religious people is not what they bring into their bodies but the unhappy, judgmental stuff they bring out of hearts that are filled with bitterness and a nitpicking attitude. Again, Jesus was talking as plain as day. Yet in verse 17 the disciples asked Jesus what he had meant by this “parable” he had just told. But the question we need to ask is, “What parable!?” Jesus had not told a parable. He had not made a metaphor. He had not invoked a simile. Yet what Jesus was saying about the proper focus of the life of faith was so revolutionary, so revelatory, to the disciples (and to the crowds) that to their minds they just assumed he must have been speaking metaphorically. He wasn’t. Therein lies the key lesson of this passage!
A friend of mine recently showed me a very funny—albeit vaguely sacrilegious!—YouTube clip of some old 1960s movie about Jesus that had been dubbed so as to put different words in Jesus’ mouth. You can view it here (and may have to turn up the volume as it’s soft): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOybSMl1TmA
In the clip Jesus goes up to each disciple in turn to berate him for some naughty thing he had said, done, or thought recently. Having delivered this bad news to the disciples, Jesus then turns to a crowd and tells them that he had come to earth for just one purpose: to tell them they were sinners and there was no hope. “That’s it” is how Jesus grimly concludes this anti-Sermon on the Mount!
The people who dubbed that clip were not merely being cheeky. They rightly have touched on a sad truth: this is exactly how Jesus comes off in a lot of churches today. Watch any number of sermons on TV or read some of the sermons you can find online and you would indeed tumble to the conclusion that what Jesus is mostly all about—and so what being a latter-day follower of Jesus is all about also yet today—is going around to wag a bony finger in the faces of all those sinners out there who just don’t have the sense to lead the moral lives that we in the church lead.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
Are the people who put together the Common Lectionary winking at us this week? The Lectionary across its three-year cycle contains exactly one text from the Song of Songs (or the Song of Solomon) and this is it. But it occurs on the same Year B Sunday when the Gospel lection is from Mark 7 where Jesus makes it clear that those who are focused on a legalistic keeping of the rules miss the point of God’s good creation and of the grace of God in which we all live if we are true followers of God.
Need I point out that sexuality has been one of the primary places where the Church along the ages has created the most rules? Things having to do with sexuality and gender differences have even provided some of the key flashpoints of church history. And if you want to hear moralistic preaching at its best from any number of pulpits, just let sexuality be the topic d’jour and you’ll hear plenty of rules proclaimed, most of which succeed in making even reasonably moral people feel really guilty.
So is there a message being sent in the conjoining of these two Lectionary texts? Maybe. Maybe not. But there it is nonetheless: the same Sunday that would have us hear our Lord tell us that those who focus only on exterior rule-keeping miss the boat would also have us hear these two young lovers rhapsodize about springtime and all the wonderfully carnal desires that season evokes. Maybe the message is not that there are no rules where sexuality is concerned but that as with so much of life, we’ll miss the splendors of this part of human life in God’s creation if all we can ever do is be negative about it all.
But for the moment let’s forget trying to make a connection to Mark 7 and just look at Song of Songs 2. I am helped enormously in what I am about to present to you by William Willimon’s delightful article in the first volume of The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans 2001, Roger VanHarn, editor).
Willimon points out what most of us already know; viz., across the ages neither Jews nor Christians have quite known what to do with a biblical book that appears to be a series of poems that unabashedly celebrate bodies, including breasts and groins and hands and lips and eyes and ears and . . . well, and just about everything. Since many have determined that people of faith just ought not be quite that sensual about anything—much less about sexy things—the allegorizations of these poems have long ago taken on a life of their own. Hence many commentaries along the centuries have essentially told us that when it comes to these chapters, “When you read ‘X,’ you must think of ‘Y’.” When you read something that looks physical, close your eyes and think of the wispy, the spiritual, the insubstantial.
But as Willimon and others have noted, that will never do. This book is exactly what it appears to be: a series of canticles (perhaps for use at weddings) that turns cartwheels over young love. The book nowhere mentions God, but fretting about that is a little like tying yourself into knots over the fact that no character in King Lear ever mentions Shakespeare. Why would they? They would have nothing to say or do without the playwright being behind it all. So also in Song of Songs: we don’t need to mention the Creator of all good things—including of all good sexual things—because we’d have nothing to sing about in the first place if the Creator’s presence did not permeate these songs through and through.
And just that is the point: this seemingly silly, frivolous book about young people going starry-eyed over each other celebrates creation and encourages us to pay really close attention to that creation whenever and however we can. As Willimon says, when you’re young and in love, you really do tend to believe that every daffodil that blooms in April was sent to this planet just for you! The cardinals in the trees warble their songs because your Jill or your David is just such a beautiful human being! The world seems brighter and more colorful and more alive to you when you’re in love in the springtime, but what you are noticing just then is nothing short of the wonderful work of a generous Creator God.
Want to get the idea? Check out this 1970s ballad:
Yup, that’s pretty much it.
Sometimes it’s just good to be alive in God’s good world. Not always, grant you. Life is tough, too, and even young lovers sometimes grow up sadder but wiser as life knocks them around a bit and the blaze of courtship gets reduced some days to a glowing ember. But the fact is that sometimes it is good to be alive in God’s good world, good to feel the tingles and the goosebumps that come when her hand brushes lightly across your hand, when the soft touch of his lips make your lips feel like they are on fire with excitement.
These are good things, good gifts. They remind us we serve a God who delights in our delight, who from Genesis 1 forward makes it clear that when we his imagebearers revel in the splendors of his creation, God himself claps his hands together the way a grandmother beams to see her grandkids dive into those thickly iced chocolate cupcakes with an abandon that only youngsters seem to have. Sometimes there’s no sight more gorgeous to see than a child’s face rimmed with frosting! “Eat up!” grandma may say, “That’s why I made ‘em!!”
“Enjoy it, my children,” God may say, “That’s why I made it all!”
As William Willimon says, preachers who think that preaching is mostly about doling out moral prescriptions or generating long “To Do” lists by which to set people’s moral agenda for the week to come may be a bit baffled by most any text from Song of Songs, including these half-dozen verses from the second chapter. Because here is a biblical text that does not encourage us to do but to be.
True, you could turn even this exuberant piece of poetry into bad news by scolding people in case they do not exist in just this way already. But, to quote another poet, let us to the marriage of true minds not admit impediments! Let’s simply let this poem stand as a wonderful reminder that when we soak up the delights of creation, when we feel the strength and the vitality and, yes, the desires of our bodies, what we are feeling and celebrating and exercising are the gifts of God for the people of God. And that properly leads to doxology, pure and plain and as simple as that. And on one of the last Sundays of summer and as summer’s splendors begin to fade and the busyness of another fall season looms, spending a little time in doxology is not a bad thing to do. Not bad at all!
To quote William Willimon:
“On other Sundays there will be an opportunity to speak of the dangers of being overly exuberant about such matters. There will be other occasions to remind young people of their responsibilities for their feelings and their bodies . . . But this Sunday, if you accept the invitation of these two young lovers, relax, revel, lighten up, and praise God for blossoms, and leaping stags, and silly young fools, and all the rest. How much the poorer we would have been without this frivolous book of the Bible, how much the poorer our lives would be without these gifts of God” (The Lectionary Commentary, Volume 1, p. 291).
From Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABCs. Harper & Row 1973, pp. 87-88.
“Sex is like nitroglycerin: it can be used either to blow up bridges or heal hearts. At its roots, the hunger for food is the hunger for survival. At its roots the hunger to know a person sexually is the hunger to know and be known by that person humanly. Food without nourishment doesn’t fill the bill for long, and neither does sex without humanness. In practice, Jesus was notoriously soft on sexual misbehavior. He saved the woman taken in adultery from stoning. He did not tell the woman at the well to marry the man she was living with. Possibly he found their fresh-faced sensualities closer to loving God and man than the thin-lipped pieties of the Pharisees. Certainly he shared the Old Testament view that the body in all its manifestations was basically good because God made it. But he also had hard words to say about lust and told the adulterous woman to go and sin no more. When the force of a person’s sexuality is centrifugal, pushing farther and farther away as psyches the very ones being embraced as somas, this sexuality is of the Devil. When it is centripetal, it is of God.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 15 reflects on the intimate relationship between ethics and worship. In one sense it’s a wisdom psalm that explores how to live wisely, how to order one’s life according God’s will and purposes.
However, some scholars suggest that Psalm 15 was also an “entrance liturgy” that Israel’s priests used to quiz those coming to worship God in the temple about their response to God’s grace.
They note that such pilgrims would immerse themselves in one of the temple’s outer baths in order to wash away all ritual impurities. Yet Psalm 15 reminded them that it’s never enough just to be ritually clean on worshipers’ “outside.” Here the poet reminds worshipers that God also longs to clean their “inside” in order to produce a blameless walk and righteous life. After all, the Old Testament constantly reminds worshipers that we must be careful in how we approach the Lord. Psalm 5:4, for example, reminds us that God can’t dwell with wicked people, even temporarily. And Leviticus 10:1-3’s account of Nadab and Abihu’s demise reminds us that those who unwisely approach God risk death.
Yet Psalm 15’s poet addresses questions of who may worship the Lord not to herself or other worshipers, but to the Lord himself. And it’s as if verses 2-5 provide God’s answers to that question. In that way, Ronald Clements notes, Psalm 15 invites worshipers to adopt ways of thinking, talking and acting that God shapes.
Yet whether this is actually an entrance liturgy, wisdom psalm or something else, Psalm 15 offers its preachers and teachers an opportunity to lead worshipers in reflecting on the relationship between ethics and worship. How do we prepare for worship? Are worshipers more interested in how we look on the “outside” than how we look to God on the “inside”?
The Lord’s “sanctuary” and “holy hill” (1) refer to the places with which God graciously chose to identify himself in the psalmist’s day. The “sanctuary” may actually refer to the tabernacle that Israel carried with her as she travelled out of Egyptian slavery through the wilderness toward the land of promise. The “holy hill” refers to Mount Zion on which Jerusalem’s temple stood. So the poet may be suggesting that God’s ethical expectations of worshipers never change. Whether the Israelites worshiped the Lord in the tabernacle or in the temple, God expected them to do what was righteous.
After all, when God answers questions about who may worship the Lord in those places, God doesn’t offer the names of individuals, groups or even nations. God answers, instead, with a list of characteristics. In that way Psalm 15 is consistent with other psalms’ messages. In Psalm 101:17 God insists, “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.” And in Psalm 5:4 the poet says of God, “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot stand.”
Of course, in Psalm 15 God may seem to set an almost ridiculously high standard for worshipers. Who, after all, can honestly claim to always walk blamelessly? Yet scholars suggest that a “blameless” walk isn’t a perfect one, but a consistent one. Those who walk blamelessly devote their whole selves and lives to God and God’s service.
In fact, one might even argue, with James K. Mead, that Psalm 15 is less about qualifications for worship than it is a description of the community in which God longs to live. Its ethics are precisely those that the Spirit uses to build and maintain community. After all, Psalm 15 essentially invites those who wish to worship the Lord to love the Lord by loving their neighbors.
Psalm 15’s ethical invitations are especially concerned with speech and the use of money. It shares a concern for godly speech with the New Testament’s book of James. Speech impacts our neighbors, since things like “slander” and “slurs” harm their reputations. The poet’s concerns about the godly use of money reflect Levitical laws against and Ezekiel’s condemnation of usury. This concern protected Israelite society’s most vulnerable members who were forced to borrow money because they were close to the end of their hopes and to the potential start of slavery.
These calls to godly behavior invite those who preach and teach Psalm 15 to reflect with worshipers on the relationship between ethics and community. We’re always tempted, after all, to think of ethics either legalistically or individualistically. The Scriptures invite us to think about how our thoughts, words and actions affect those around us, particularly those on society’s margins.
A couple of Psalm 15’s ethical standards are worth careful exploration. Verse 4a invites worshipers to keep their oaths, “even when it hurts.” In other words, those who may dwell in God’s presence are those who keep their promises, no matter how much it costs them. Verse 4b challenges worshipers to lend their money “without usury.” In other words, they’re very careful not to harm people, especially the poor, with their lending practices.
In summary, those who dwell in God’s sanctuary, who worship the Lord in spirit and in truth are those who abandon our efforts to control our lives and world. They, instead, put their trust in God alone. This, after all, doesn’t just “qualify” people for worship. It also, suggests verse 5, solidifies their lives. Those whose walk is blameless discover that God graciously protects them.
However, a member of my church had a very interesting “take” on verse 5b’s claim that the one who “does these things will never be shaken.” She wonders if it suggests that because none of us walk entirely blamelessly or always do what is right, our lives will be shaken. Such an interpretation would invite worshipers to ask themselves in whom we trust when things do shake our lives.
So how can those who preach and teach the gospel of salvation by grace alone that we can only receive our faith do so with Psalm 15? How can we think of this list of ethics that expects the kind of moral perfection even the holiest among us will never attain to on this side of the new creation’s curtain?
Perhaps we might think of it as, among other things, a guide to confessing our sins. At the moment we begin to suspect we’ve done things to merit God’s grace, our psalm reminds us that we’ve not always done things like spoken the truth from our heart. Are worshipers wondering about what they might confess before the Lord? How about using Psalm 15 as a guide for our individual and corporate confession of sin?
Those who preach and teach Psalm 15 might also see it as an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on the nature of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” God saves us by God’s grace. Yet such grace is never license for willful disobedience. Equipped by the Spirit, we gratefully respond to God’s grace by doing our neighbor no wrong and by keeping our promises.
Psalm 15 also reminds worshipers that God graciously gives us the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ to, among other things, reshape our lives more and more in the image of Jesus Christ. God saves us in order to empower us to serve both God and our neighbors. Such service always includes both godly speech and the godly use of our money.
Yet perhaps more than anything else, Psalm 15 reminds God’s sons and daughters that though we’ve failed to love God and our neighbors, God, for Jesus’ sake, treats us as though our walk were blameless and our righteousness were perfect. Because of Christ’s glorious work, when God sees God’s adopted sons and daughters, God see not those who love slander and love money more than God, but those who are as obedient as God’s only Son, Jesus Christ himself.
Psalm 15’s injunction against “slander” is just as appropriate today as it was in the poet’s day. However, modern technology has expanded the number of ways people can slander each other.
In its September 11, 2011 edition, the Huffington Post reported on Catherine Devine who had her first encounter with an online bully when she was in the seventh grade. A classmate, posing as Catherine, sent her classmates instant messages full of slander and gossip.
Catherine, however, is not alone. A 2011 poll of young people in their teens and early 20’s found that 56% of them had been the target of the slander that is some kind of online taunting, harassment or bullying.
Author: Stan Mast
The millennial generation in your church will love the Epistle of James, because it presents the Christian faith as less of a head trip than as a way of life. Indeed, James is so filled with practical instructions for Christian living that Martin Luther famously called it a “right strawy epistle… for it has no gospel in it.” He didn’t mean that James has no place in the sacred canon. Rather, he meant that compared to, say, Galatians and Romans, there was little in James about the pre-eminent doctrine of the Reformation, justification by faith alone. Indeed, James’ words about faith in chapter 2 seem almost a direct contradiction of that famous Pauline doctrine.
As a very early Reformer, it is understandable that Luther would be hyper-sensitive to the alleged absence of that all important doctrine. But justification by faith alone is not the sum total of the gospel. A few years after Luther began the Reformation, John Calvin had broadened the church’s understanding of salvation with his doctrine of “double grace.” “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father, and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s Spirit, we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.”
In other words, the gospel is about more than justification; it is also about sanctification. This insight, of course, was not Calvin’s invention. It is exactly what Paul meant by adding Romans 6 immediately after Romans 5. And it was what John was getting at in his famous assurance of pardon in I John 1:9, where our faithful God will “forgive us our sins and cleanse us from us from all unrighteousness.” Think of how the beloved old hymn, “Rock of Ages,” puts it: “be of sin the double cure, save from guilt and make me pure.”
So, as we begin our study of James, let’s be sure to emphasize that we are preaching gospel here—the good news of sanctification. This is who we are saved to be and what Christ by his Spirit enables us to be. Just as the Ten Commandments are introduced by the Good News of deliverance from the house of bondage, so this very Jewish letter assumes our deliverance and calls us to live as liberated people (cf. James 1:25, “the perfect law that gives freedom”).
But some scholars have claimed that there is so little mention of Jesus here that it is a real stretch to call this a Christian letter; it’s more like an extended riff on Torah. It seems incontrovertible that this letter was addressed to a Jewish audience (cf. James 1:1, “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations”). Of course, it is possible that James means that address in a more spiritual sense. He may be addressing the Christians who scattered out of Jerusalem after persecution began in earnest (Acts 8). Even if that is true, there is no denying that James feels pretty Jewish, much like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, many scholars hear many echoes of that Sermon in James.
In fact, that is a helpful way to think about the place of Jesus in James. Though Jesus is explicitly mentioned only two times (1:1 and 2:1), James is filled with the teaching of Jesus. Thus, it is Christ centered in a different way than Paul’s letters. If Paul preached a Christ who was a priest and a king, James presents Christ the prophet and teacher. The Christ who offered himself up a sacrifice for our sins and now reigns over all things for the church also teaches us how to live as redeemed people under his rule. James is fulfilling the Great Commission, making disciples by “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” So we can preach on James as part of our disciple making ministry.
As I just pointed out, it is addressed to people who were scattered among the nations, a minority whose faith was sorely tempted by the glittering vices of the world and whose very existence was an irritant to the glitterati of the world. Lured by riches and lashed by the rich, these poor Christians struggled with the question, “How shall we then live in a world filled with dangers that threaten us and deceptions that lure us into inconsistent Christian living?” What does it mean to be faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ? In other words, James is tailor made for this generation of Christians. It is a kind of survival guide for pre-modern and post-modern Christians.
But be careful. Though it is filled with very practical instructions, it is not simple “how to’s.” Here’s what I mean. As you preach through the teachings of Jesus here, don’t ignore the doctrine under the surface. In today’s pericope, for example, James concludes his discussion of the deep problem of theodicy. If we are to rejoice in trials because God can use them to complete us, do such trials come from God? And if that is true, then is God the author of the temptation that trials often bring? And if he is, what kind of God do we worship then? No, answers James, temptations do not come down from God; they well up from within us. God only sends down good gifts to us. After all, he is the Father of lights, who never changes in his covenantal determination to do us good. Obviously, I have abbreviated my explanation of the theology in those opening verses of our pericope, but you see how thickly theological James is beneath the surface.
One of the great problems with preaching on James is the apparent lack of connection between the various sections. It feels like one “and” after another, like a string of pearls connected by only the thinnest of threads. And that may be the case sometimes. But other times, there really is a connection that will help you preach a coherent gospel message. Take today’s reading for example.
In assuring us that God doesn’t tempt us, James emphasizes that God only gives good gifts to his children. One of those gifts, indeed, the greatest of those gifts is spelled out in verse 18. “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we may be a kind of first fruits of all he created.” (Note, again, the compressed theology here: election, regeneration, Scripture, eschatology. And note the thematic interconnectedness. In verse 15, desire gives birth to sin, while in verse 18 the Word of truth gives new birth.) The key word in verse 18 is “word.” Everything that follows is a variation on that key word. Another connector here is the word “deceived” which we hear three times. This whole section is about being deceived in matters of words or speech. The great deception is thinking that merely having and hearing the Word is enough to be truly religious. No, says James, we are truly religious only if we actually obey the Word in the way we live in the world.
In verses 19-21, James does a kind of pre-emptive strike against the streams of words that spew out of everyone’s mouth. You can’t even hear the Word that gives new life (let alone do it), if your mouth is always open and your ears are closed because you are so angry about your favorite causes. The sound of our own voices can drown out the Voice of God in his Word. What an important word for our age of “talking heads,” who are all mouth and no ears! In this contentious political climate, Christians needs to hear this word from the Lord. We get so involved in the arguments about the “issue du jour” that we don’t hear the Word of the Lord. Becoming justifiably angry, we don’t “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
What’s more, says verses 22-25, we must do more than listen to the Word; we must do it. If we merely listen and don’t obey, we deceive ourselves. To show the folly of such behavior, James uses this famous analogy of the mirror. If we hear but don’t act, we are like the woman who looks at herself in the mirror, but doesn’t act on what she sees. She doesn’t comb her hair, doesn’t put on lipstick, doesn’t straighten her blouse. She walks away and promptly forgets what she has seen, because she didn’t act on it. Only when we act on what we hear in the Word will we be truly liberated from the flaws that ruin our lives. When we do “the perfect law that gives freedom,” we will be blessed.
Describing the law in those terms may seem to conflict with some of Paul’s negative words about the law, but James is surely echoing Jesus’ words about knowing the truth and being free in John 8 and his insistence on the continuing validity and value of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. (And Paul was condemning only the attempt to be saved by keeping the law, not the gratitude driven obedience of the law by a saved people.)
James has one more thing to say about obeying the Word. There’s one more kind of verbal deception to which Christians might fall prey. We can think of ourselves as very religious people if we do most of what we hear in the Word. But, says James, if we don’t keep a tight rein on our tongues, we are just kidding ourselves. James has much more to say about our tongues. What we think of as a little harmless little sin (“sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”), James says is a fatal flaw. An out of control tongue renders our religion worthless.
Then comes this lovely definition of true religion. Religion is not just talking a good line about the Word. It is walking a fine line in the world. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” We need to be careful about how we walk the fine line drawn in this verse. It’s the kind of Scripture loved by Enlightenment humanists like Benjamin Franklin, for whom loving God simply meant loving humankind. All theology is simply ethics, and ethics of a certain kind, a social justice kind of ethics. James surely doesn’t mean that this is all there is to religion. He means that fancy talk cannot substitute for real action.
It is important to see that he doesn’t limit religion to social justice or to individual morality, as many commentators on this verse do. The action he calls for is dual. In fact, it is polar, the opposite poles of religion in our Christian world today. Pure religion is about getting involved with the real needs of the world (orphans and widows as representative of the defenseless and marginalized) and staying away from worldly pollution. Large portions of the church choose one pole or the other. So some liberals are passionate about social justice issues, while some conservatives are all about personal morality issues. Democrats focus on defending human rights, while Republicans want to defend unborn babies and heterosexual marriage. While he doesn’t speak directly to the controversial issues of our day, James is very clear that we can’t choose on side of pure religion over the other. Our religious words must be matched with lives that care about social justice and personal purity. To think otherwise is to be deceived.
Writing to a Denmark filled with “Christian” people who didn’t act very Christian, Soren Kierkegaard told this little parable. Once upon a time, there was a land inhabited only by ducks. Every Sunday morning, the ducks got up, washed their faces, put on their Sunday clothes, and waddled off to church. They waddled through the door of their duck church, proceeded down the aisle, and took their familiar places in the pews. The duck minister entered the pulpit and opened the duck Bible to the place where it talked about God’s greatest gift to ducks—wings. “With wings we can fly. With wings we can soar like eagles. With wings we can escape the confines of pens and cages. With wings we can become free. With wings we can become all God meant us to be. So give thanks to God for your wings. And fly!” All the ducks loudly quacked, “Amen.” And then all of the ducks waddled back home.