August 30, 2021
The Proper 18B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 7:24-37 from the Lectionary Gospel; Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 146 from the Lectionary Psalms; and James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 27 (Lord’s Day 10)
Author: Chelsey Harmon
The lectionary perhaps does us a big favour by pairing these two stories together because the first half of our selection, when read in isolation of what came before and what directly follows, is one of those passages that challenges our picture—even our theology—of Jesus. The conversation between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is heavy and convoluted.
Broadly, there have been three general interpretations to verses 24-31. The first is to “whitewash” Jesus’ language. This hinges on the fact that the offensive words are in diminutive forms (in the Greek), so it’s more like he’s calling her a “puppy”—part of a household scene of a family (and pets) gathered around a table. A second approach is to focus on the possibility that the disciples were present, so Jesus is taking “the fall” and playing devil’s advocate, allowing himself to look foolish and mean, so that the disciples might learn what he meant earlier about the expansion of the gospel’s audience. A third view takes seriously the opening of the story: Jesus was tired and wanted to be alone, so when the woman finds him, he is likely annoyed, but ends up doing as God is sometimes depicted in the Old Testament: “repenting” or turning in a course of action.
I don’t find the first approach all that useful because instead of sitting in the piece of the text that surprises and upsets, it seeks to avoid the discomfort. Discomfort serves like a funnel in the Scripture: we aren’t meant to escape it but go through it, and slowly.
These days, I find myself somewhere between the second and third broad interpretations. We don’t have any clue which of the disciples were with Jesus as he sought out a resting place, so hinging the homiletical point of this text on their presence seems a bit tenuous to me. Though it is highly likely the twelve were with him, this story isn’t about them. And even if I’m quite comfortable with the possibility that Jesus is purposefully making himself look like a jerk, I also hold to the view that Christ was without sin and therefore did not sin against this woman by calling her an awful name. (Nor do I wish to support a reading of this text that allows for such language by Christians towards anyone today.)
And here’s where the textual context comes in to help. Last week, I concluded my commentary with a note that we are at a pivot point in Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Mark as it expands to non-Jewish communities. This encounter is the first of those, and nipping at its heels is the healing of the deaf man, and the set is rounded out by a miraculous feeding of the masses deep in Gentile territory. (The lectionary pairs the Syrophoenician woman and deaf man’s interactions with Jesus in our selection, but next week we’re skipping ahead, past the feeding miracle.)
Jesus, along with reorienting the source of purity, also took away a “religious” practice or tradition that singled and separated people as in or out. (Mark 7.1-23) Then the very next story is of Jesus facing that reality himself, head on. Commentator and preacher Brian Blount, talks about how Jesus reflects his own traditional understanding of his ministry and how what he has implied about God’s boundary-breaking, he is now faced with making explicit. (Preaching Mark in Two Voices, pg. 126)
The interpretative waters are muddied for us because we have a “complete” picture of Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity. I think, deep-down, most of us think that Jesus knew this woman was coming, even though the text tells us he was looking for peace and quiet. As God, he knows everything, right? This is what makes the second broad interpretation above so enticing: our neat and tidy picture of God stays intact; our love for his willingness to humble himself grows. But the Scriptures also speak of the second person’s kenosis (or emptying of his heavenly powers) in order to become fully human, and of the presence of the Holy Spirit with him, both filling him completely and then occasionally resting upon him for special works.
What if this passage is about Jesus himself realizing something wonderful and choosing to live kingdom values then and there? Do you notice the progression in the text? Jesus goes from teaching a value, facing a real-life situation where the value applies, then diving into the deep-end of practice by healing the deaf man and feeding the multitude of people considered “outside.” It’s as though, while on a break and wanting some rest, Jesus hears the woman persist in humble advocacy for her daughter and thinks, “Oh! This is that!”
For Christ, who kept all the purity laws perfectly, the best way to express the will of the Father was inclusion. We have moved from the principle (last week), to the realization of personal application and wholehearted expression. To realize how the will of God is meant to be expressed in your life, simply because it hasn’t been expressed thus far in that way, is not a sin; it’s an invitation.
This reading is supported by the metanarrative of Mark as Jesus changes the way he interacts with the Gentile community in a way that mirrors his presence in Jewish neighbourhoods. Previously, the only time Jesus was among the Gentiles was in chapter 5, when Jesus healed the demoniac and tells everybody to spread the word. Here, though, as R.T. France points out in his commentary, the Markan secret motif returns in verse 36. France further comments that the healing of the deaf man in our passage is a parallel to the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida—a passage that serves as another key pivot point in the gospel of Mark—a “symbolic introduction to the following account of the gradual enlightenment of the disciples.” In the parallel, can we infer a similar symbolic meaning for non-Jewish people coming to understand the truth about Jesus Christ? (The Gospel of Mark, p. 300-1)
We know that faith is possible among the Gentiles. We see it in the Syrophoenician woman. She calls Jesus, “Lord,” (perhaps translated as “Sir” in your Bible like it is in mine…) and some commentators believe that it is this title that Jesus responds to when he heals her daughter and says, “For saying that…” because “Lord” functions as a statement of faith. Either way, her response that the crumbs, the littlest bit of even the leftovers of Jesus’ work, would be enough, is a statement of all too unique faith.
There’s a lot of good news here. That not every missed invitation (thus far) is a sin of omission. That even Jesus “learned” about the fullness of the kingdom of God and all its glory and he shows us how to grow in our own expression of those values. That we are invited into that full and expansive gospel. And that, no matter who we are, who others see us as, how we’ve been cast out or regulated, the littlest bit of Christ is more than enough to welcome us into the family of God—and there’s nothing anyone else can say about that. And even if we’ve been gotten the message that we don’t deserve it, we can approach the throne of grace and advocate for ourselves and for our beloved to know the healing power of God.
In our paired healings, Jesus acts both in presence and from a distance. He heals with words and with physical action. It is, as the people who see the healed deaf and mute man say, “He has done everything well!” The English translation doesn’t quite capture their response even though it tries to by using a word a bit out of use today, “astounded.” (At least, when I hear it used, it’s in reference to being shocked in a negative way.) The Gentiles were overwhelmed by what they were witnessing. It was amazing! It knocked their socks off! They couldn’t get enough so they kept talking about it! “He has done everything well” becomes their awestruck sermon.
I remember the experience and privilege of mentoring an adult convert to the faith. We started out by reading the gospel of Matthew together, and from the genealogy, she kept saying, “This is amazing!” The Holy Spirit had opened up her eyes to see the greatness of God in its words, and to see her story in the text. She identified with various outsiders, like Rahab, who was welcomed into the family of God and used by God for his purposes. We kept reading and she kept reflecting on how God had done similar things in her life, though she didn’t know it when it was happening. She too believed that Jesus has done everything well.
How many people are sitting in our communities but still feel like outsiders? How many have refrains of faith going unspoken because they do not fit our comfortable and tidy pictures of God? How many are holding on to the smallest portion of faith in Christ and need to hear that that small seed is enough for now? Where do we need to “be opened” and step into wholehearted living of God’s kingdom values of inclusion? Can we challenge them, as the Syrophoenician woman did? How is God making the deaf to hear and the mute to speak today?
To further support the metanarrative interpretation of Christ’s realization of his own call among the Gentiles, Robert A. Guelich points out the way that the woman’s interaction with Jesus parallels the one that Jarius, a synagogue leader, has with Jesus in chapter 5. Jairus and the woman in our text today are the only two people to fall at Jesus’ feet (“bowed down”) in the Gospel of Mark. Both come on behalf of their daughters; both come in faith that Jesus can do something about it. The Gentile woman is implicitly raised to the level of an important Jewish man, equalized by need for Christ and by faith. (Word Biblical Commentary, Mark 1-8:26)
Poet Malcolm Guite has a piece on Jesus’ command in this passage. In the preface to the poem, he highlights how, when we read the text out loud, our own tongues get tied by the Aramaic words Jesus speaks to the deaf and mute man: “Ephphatha;” in essence, we are brought to a place of identifying with the man in need of healing. “Be Opened” serves as a call to our own plugged ears and tongue-tied-ness. What in us needs to be opened? Listen, read, and apply it for yourself: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/be-opened/
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Author: Scott Hoezee
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
“The early bird catches the worm.”
“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
Sound familiar? They should as these are among the better known modern-day proverbs that have a lot of currency throughout North America. I am not familiar enough with other cultures to know if in modern times there are equivalent sayings in other countries and languages but what I know for sure is that in especially the United States, proverbs like the ones quoted above are both common and revealing in terms of attitudes toward wealth and, conversely, toward poverty.
I mention these here because by scooping up three sets of verses from Proverbs 22 that have something or another to do with money and the poor, the Lectionary seems to be steering us toward thinking about this. Of course, in Proverbs, that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. According to an oft-told story, it is said that at a London restaurant, Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to the kitchen because “it lacked a theme.”
Anyone who ever considers preaching from most any snippet of The Book of Proverbs knows the feeling.
Yes, the overarching theme of the book is Wisdom. Beyond that, though, it’s a little hard to string together any sizeable stretch of verses in this book and be able to come up with a common theme for that segment of Proverbs. Instead the various proverbs that make up this book tend to have a little of this and a little of that with a dash of something else thrown in every few verses such that it’s all-but impossible to find something resembling a theme on which to base a unified sermon.
Still, by doing a little editing of Proverbs 22, the Lectionary is steering us toward a theme. But what is striking about many of these biblical proverbs that have anything at all to do with these themes is how at variance they are with so many of the proverbs that are popular today such as the ones I quoted above.
Consider: A lot of biblical proverbs—as well as the laws of Israel and the later tirades of the prophets against Israel for not following those laws more diligently—presume that there will be poor people at any given time and that they are to be accorded special rights. The Bible does not generally encourage big investigations into what made Person X poor in the first place or what he or she should do now to turn that situation around. I suppose the Bible does not rule out those things, either. And if in a given situation you were able to help someone get lifted out of poverty on account of your having helpfully diagnosed what was keeping him trapped in cycles of poverty, that would of course be the right and fitting thing to do.
But in general the Bible’s position seems to be that in all of life you will sooner or later encounter poor people and when you do, you have to deal with them in certain ways, mostly in ways that trend toward all things generous (and most certainly very far away from all things exploitative or punitive or cruel).
So the proverbs that were once current in ancient Israel and thus enshrined in the Bible mostly take that tack. As just mentioned, however, American proverbs in particular don’t typically advocate on behalf of the poor or push people in the direction of generosity of spirit over against the poor. Maybe that’s because the proverbs we most prize these days all tend to run in another direction in terms of how well-motivated individuals can be the captains of their own destiny so as to ensure a rich future (and not an impoverished one).
Our modern proverbs tell us that when people succeed, it’s their own doing. By proxy, then, we believe that those who do not succeed have mostly only themselves to blame. Hence we maybe are not inclined actively to exploit such poor people, but neither do we always feel any peculiar obligation to craft policies or laws to give them a lot of extra help. In a land of opportunity, those who fail do so because they didn’t have the sense to open the door when opportunity knocked (and another popular proverb tells us this may happen just once as it is) or they lack the gumption to go out and make their own luck, create their own opportunities.
Of course, the Book of Proverbs is large and sprawling enough that tucked into various corners of this book is a lot of good advice on not being lazy, not being a sluggard. So it’s not as though there is no connection—even in this book—between a person’s actions (or lack thereof) and the consequences that may accrue to that person as a result. Among its many charms, the Book of Proverbs does tend to catch up a great deal of life!
But Proverbs 22:2 reminds us that at the end of the day, God is the God of rich and poor alike, and both must look to God either in gratitude for what they have or for help in getting what they lack (but desperately need to live). That proverb is meant to level the playing field, to help rich and poor alike to see each other at eye level and in compassion. The wise person knows that once that happens, there may not be a one-size-fits-all way forward for every conceivable situation a person may encounter, but the options of what you will do in those varying situations will almost certainly move more in the Proverbs 22 direction than in those directions in which we often feel the most tempted to go today.
The Book of Proverbs offers a concentrated graduate course in the art of living. It is an education founded on the premise that life adds up to something coherent and good, stable and full of shalom because there is a Creator God who made each person and each thing. Further, God made each person and each thing to work in certain ways (and not in others) so that if everybody functions the way they were made to function, life would get webbed together into a marvelously complex, inter-locking system of mutual affirmation. There simply is a wise way and a foolish way to do most anything.
That’s why most of the Bible’s proverbs are not prescriptive but descriptive. They don’t command you to do something but simply notice what works and what flops. The wise one takes notes on life, not to answer the question, “What should I do?” so much as to answer the question, “Hmmm . . . what’s going on here?” So, for instance, a wise person might watch all those shouting-match (and sometimes chair-throwing!) daytime talk shows in which families appear on the show so that the whole world can watch them swear at each other, take swings at each other, and just generally disintegrate on national TV. And a wise person might note that nine times out of ten some form of deviant sexuality lies at the prurient and puerile base of those dreadful spectacles.
In those situations you could swing in with the Ten Commandments and start barking out moral imperatives to the people. But a wise one would perhaps start with the straightforward observation, “Something isn’t working there at a very basic level. What is it? These people are not happy. They are not united. Their lives are deeply disjointed and as a result a good many of them are having no fun at all. Let’s sift through the layers to see where things started to go wrong and maybe then we can figure out a better way so that you can all live together happily under one roof instead of falling apart in front of strangers who are turning your tragedy into their afternoon entertainment” (and if you doubt that we ingest other people’s pain for our own pleasure, look at the faces in the audience in the photo above from an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show”).
The overall point is that we try to order our lives around various principles and proverbs in the belief that what we are finally aiming at is a coherent, cohesive life which fits with the larger picture of creation which God himself sketched at the dawn of time. The fear of the Lord means we believe that there just is a certain way that life is supposed to go. Wisdom and the pursuit of a prudent life stems from and depends on the up-front belief that despite how messed up and fragmented life often looks, in the long run all those diverse pieces belong to a single puzzle, the picture of which is held in the mind of the one true God in Christ Jesus the Lord.
Because in the New Testament it becomes clear that Jesus is the Wisdom of God incarnate. Somehow, despite the odd way in which he lived and despite the scandalous quirk of his death (which seemed like the ultimate dead end), somehow this Jesus started to put the puzzle pieces back together again in a way more dramatic than anyone before or since ever managed to do. In Christ, the apostle Paul liked to say, God has turned the wisdom of the world into folly. One piece of conventional wisdom that Jesus overturned was the loopy notion that life is whatever a given individual makes of it.
Not true, Jesus said. Life is what God makes of it. The fear of that Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In Christ it is the end, the goal, of all wisdom, too. Blessed are those who pay attention, for theirs is the big picture that just is the new creation!
Author: Scott Hoezee
Psalm 146 is one of the final poems in the Hebrew Psalter and is part and parcel of the revving up we get as the whole Book crescendos in a climax of praise. And there is no doubting that Psalm 146 is a song of tremendous praise. But that does not mean it has no time to teach a key lesson along the way. The first lesson that gets taught here reflects a tension that ran straight through the history of Israel. It goes back to the days of Samuel when the people began to agitate to get a king for themselves the same as all the other nations had.
Samuel was scandalized by the request. They already had a king: it was the Lord their God Yahweh! The people’s request for an earthly, human king felt to Samuel like a slap in God’s face. What’s more, Samuel tried to dissuade the people by saying that the problem with kings is that sooner or later the power always goes to their heads and they will tax you and mistreat you and just maybe make your life miserable. But the people persisted and in a somewhat surprise move, God himself tells Samuel to let it be. God would go along with it—he’d even tell Samuel where to go to find the first king.
I have always found it curious that God ostensibly tapped a man who would in the end prove to be a singular disaster. Saul may have had some noble qualities but he was also mentally unwell, could turn into a coward now and again, and was not averse to dabbling in necromancy and the darker elements of the spiritual realm. The kingdom is finally torn away from him and then we get David, of course. But I sometimes wonder: did God purposely choose Saul as a way to say to the people “Be careful what you wish for?” I mean, God had to see a lot of that—all of that?—coming.
In any event, the advent of a monarchy in Israel set up a history-long tension thereafter: in whom would the people place their ultimate trust and hopes? With the distraction of all those kings—the great ones like David and Solomon and the horrible ones like Ahab and Amon—could the people stay focused on God as their ultimate King and their final hope? The answer is that it was often tough to stay focused on God. The closer-to-hand help of a king with a good army seemed a safer bet and was in any event easier to see. Such a king was concrete, a visible reality. “If the king is strong, we’ll be fine, we’ll be safe, we’ll be prosperous. Long live the king!”
Thus in addition to praising Yahweh as the sovereign God of heaven and earth, Psalm 146 very early on gives a solemn admonition: do not put your trust in princes, in mere men, in mortals. They will die one day same as everybody else. There is a set and finite limit on what they can accomplish or on how many of their best-laid political programs they can carry out. What’s more, those dead kings cannot help you after they die and they surely cannot help when you die. The better bet is to put your trust in God alone because there is no limit, temporally or otherwise, to what God can and will accomplish.
Do you want to help set a secure future for your children and grandchildren? Well, even if King “X” does a great job and you are fully on board with his programs and policies, guess what? By the time your grandkids are adults, King “X” will be dead. But not God! God alone can secure things for Israel throughout all generations. Yes, perhaps God will use people, including kings and princes, to get his work done now and then, here and there. But God is the only sure through-line for all history and for however long history unfolds into the future too.
We are not really sure when the Psalms were composed but there is evidence they existed for a long time and were a key part of Israel’s worship. Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and even if he did not actually write every poem ascribed to him in the superscriptions in Psalms, he surely wrote some. Maybe even Psalm 146 was written and sung already during the reigns of David and Solomon. If so, it was probably more of a hard sell to get people really to embrace this poem. It’s one thing to tell people not to put their trust in princes when the king is a train wreck of a human being. But when the king is adored by all and is by all outward appearances a triumph of a monarch . . . well, then people might respond to “Put not your trust in princes” by saying, “Why not?!”
But Psalm 146 is not calibrating its theology to the relative success or failure of any given monarch. It is proclaiming a truth that endures over and above and beyond the ups and downs and the unpredictable vicissitudes of politics at any given moment. This psalm aims to celebrate the eternal Creator God who endures with goodness and mercy throughout all generations and forevermore. In fact, it is probably a psalm we all need to take to heart precisely in those times when we feel we have reason for high confidence in our leaders. Because those are the moments we are most tempted by the very political idolatry Psalm 146 warns against.
In the late summer of 2019 there was a brief dust-up when a Christian leader said something about President Trump along the lines of his being the “chosen one.” The President himself later tweeted something along those same lines even as not a few Christians in the U.S. regarded President Trump as uniquely chosen by God, that his very election was a miracle orchestrated by God. (Hence Trump’s defeat in 2020 could not have been of God but had to be the result of an evil conspiracy.)
Whatever one makes of all that, the fact is this happens with frequency in all nations and in also the history of the United States. How many did not see Franklin D. Roosevelt as a kind of savior figure who would rescue people from the Great Depression? Abraham Lincoln was similarly regarded even though he did his best always to deflect to the guidance of providence and of the one true sovereign God. Millions invested all their hopes in Barack Obama, believing he would somehow be a transformative figure who would change the whole tenor of the U.S.
Inevitably many feel let down eventually by any given leader. None is perfect, few live up to the hype and hope that got invested in them. Barack Obama campaigned on “Hope and Change” but four years after his election, things had not unfolded in every good way many had thought would happen. So in 2012 when Vice-President candidate Sarah Palin mocked all that and wondered how all that “hopey-changey” stuff had worked out, people were offended but also chagrined: there was a glimmer of truth in what she said.
We are the most tempted to displace our ultimate hope in God when we latch onto leaders who embody everything we wish were true. And while we are right to support and help leaders who have the right goals, it’s a challenge to do that while not for one moment forgetting there is only One who is our true hope and that One will never let us down—not now, not ever.
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Author: Doug Bratt
When I hear James tell his brothers and sisters in Christ in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson not to “show favoritism” (1), I’m tempted to respond, “That’s easier said than done.” Favoritism isn’t, after all, both common and dangerous. It’s also terribly difficult to eradicate.
Favoritism is an at least perceived fact of daily life. Almost all children, for example, assume their parents play favorites. Experts devote entire articles to favoritism in the workplace, including how to both recognize and remove it.
James 2’s proclaimers might provide an on-ramp for the Holy Spirit into contemplation of this text by inviting hearers to get in touch with feelings of having been treated as second or third best in their families or workplaces. They might even share examples of the favoritism they’ve experienced (or practiced).
Our text’s James, of course, addresses the favoritism played by people who are materially rich against people who are materially poor in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. He invites us to imagine how on a day on which his readers’ worship service was just getting started, two people walked into it. One of them clearly had much money that he had spent on his clothing and haircut. The other person was obviously poor, with little money to spend on his clothing, haircut, or personal hygiene products.
Since James’ audience’s church wasn’t very big, everyone could see the head usher make a big deal of the man who was rich. He eagerly greeted him, gave him a bulletin, and showed him a good seat that he may even have held for him as he sat down. Perhaps the usher even nudged a few people out of the way to make a place for the man who was rich.
However, the same usher indicated that there was no place in his church for the man who was poor to sit. He might even have told him there weren’t any bulletins left. The usher certainly told the worshiper who was materially poor that all the seats were so full that he’d have to stand somewhere in the back near the door.
God’s adopted children can almost picture the kind of church to and about which James writes: all the people with PhD’s and money are spread out across the front of the church where everyone can see them. However, their employees and students are packed like sardines way into the back corners of church.
James noticed what was going on. So he may have taken out his pen and scratched out a letter of protest to the church’s members, including its leaders. “My brothers and sisters in our glorious Lord Jesus,” he grieved, “don’t show favoritism” (1).
Many of the churches about which I know try to make a difference in the lives of people who are needy. The church I serve, for example, runs a food pantry, mentors students who are at-risk, and conducts a Bible study in a senior citizen controlled-rent apartment complex. Yet not many people who are impoverished even walk through our doors to join our largely white, middle- to upper-middle class congregation for worship. So we don’t get much practice at welcoming people who are poor into our building during our worship service.
That’s a reason why I wonder what would happen if what occurred in a neighboring church took place in our church. A man walked into the sanctuary of one of our area’s largest and loveliest evangelical churches and down its center aisle to a seat right behind the pulpit as the pastor preached.
His fellow worshipers’ recognition of that worshiper’s various struggles seemed to paralyze all of them – except my friend whom I’ll call Joe. He quietly climbed to where the man had taken his seat and sat down next to him. While many of Joe’s friends may have hoped he’d talk their visitor down from his lofty perch, Joe simply took his place right next to him for the rest of the service.
If someone were to walk down our churches’ center aisles during worship, wouldn’t we naturally prefer they be mentally and economically healthy? Jesus’ friends naturally prefer to surround ourselves with the kinds of people who look, sound, give and even smell quite a bit like us. In fact, studies suggest North American churches are becoming not just more racially and politically, but also socio-economically monolithic.
It isn’t, however, just socio-economic status that naturally engenders favoritism. This week I read about a Christian Reformed Church that a colleague whom I respect pastors. In an opinion piece in one of his local newspapers he wrote, “This week, our church leadership team decided that when our church opens for live gatherings next month, all attendees 12 and older will need to be fully vaccinated.”
When God, through James, calls us not to discriminate against those who are different from us and/or disagree with us, God graciously disrupts our natural ways of treating them. When God calls Jesus’ friends to welcome them as warmly as God welcomes us, God invites us into the joy of imitating God.
However, the protection that God uses James to extend to people who somehow differ from us goes even deeper than just calling God’s children to welcome them into the church. Some of James’ contemporaries apparently believed that faith is more a matter of what we believe than of what we do. In fact, he suggests that some of his fellow Christians were contradicting what they said they believed by what they actually did.
God, however, won’t just let James’ readers walk past people who are different from them, leaving them only flowery words. God reminds James’ readers that true religion is not just a matter of what we believe or even the rituals we practice. It’s certainly not just a matter of the nice words we sometimes say to people. God insists that true religion is also about how God’s adopted children treat especially those whom society so easily marginalizes.
In fact, God goes so far as to say through James that faith without Christlike activity is actually dead. Religious practice on Sunday without faithful living the other six days of the week is basically worthless. Instead of faithfully receiving God’s grace that grants eternal life, it only perpetuates spiritual death.
Thankfully, then, the faith that God graciously gives God’s dearly beloved people is a living faith. It doesn’t just say and know all the right things about God, God’s world, and God’s creatures. James insists that the faith that God graciously gives us is a faith that, among other things, actively cares for the poor, as well as people with whom we disagree.
Readers may know, of course, that such talk made people like Martin Luther nervous. Once he rediscovered the grace of justification by faith, he didn’t appreciate James’ repeated calls to do good works. However, one theologian wonders whether Luther had other reasons that some of us share for criticizing James. The great Reformer could be, after all, very critical of peasants and other people who were poor.
James implicitly asks how the ways the church treats people differs from the way society often treats people. Do Christians view the poor as well as people with whom we disagree the way Jesus viewed them? Or do our congregations just duplicate our culture’s deadly and deathly standards of prestige and conformity?
Mary Glover lived in Jim Wallis’ neighborhood and helped distribute food in his ministry’s weekly food pantry. She was so materially poor that she needed a bag of groceries each week. Yet Mary was also a kind of leader of the food ministry; she often said its prayer before it opened its doors on Saturday mornings. She was, after all, the ministry’s best pray-er. She was one of those people, writes Wallis, “who pray like they know to whom they’re talking.”
Mary would often begin by praying something like, “Thank you, Lord, for waking us up this morning! Thank you, Lord, that our walls were not our grave and that our bed was not our cooling board. Thank you, Lord!”
However, Mary also prayed in a way that showed that God had shown her what was at stake in Christians’ treatment of people who are materially poor. After all, she always prayed: “Lord, we know that you’ll be comin’ through this line today, so, Lord, help us to treat you well.”