What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Sometimes a bit of time and distance can help us put theological problems into perspective. Consider the very real question that the Medieval Church spent thousands of hours arguing over: “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?” It’s easy for a 21st century Christian to scoff at such a pointless hypotheticalism, especially considering all of the very real needs of the poor in Medieval Europe that could often be ignored by the same theologians. That’s not to say that Biblical scholarship is a waste of time or an unworthy pursuit, but we feel the same dissonance between our supposed beliefs and actions when we say a brief prayer for “the poor” from our climate-controlled building in the richest country in human history. We might argue over the age of the earth, the likelihood of evolution, the legitimacy of transgender people, the morality of homosexual relationships, and all the while the needy remain needy.
James reminds us that faith alone is not enough. The fact that James wrote this passage nearly 2000 years ago shows us that, from the beginning, we have had difficulty remembering what exactly Jesus wanted us to do in the first place. Our faith, our moral high ground, the strength of our conviction, the clarity of our arguments is dead without the actual sacrifice of addressing the needs of others. As much as we would like to reach back through history and shake the Medieval Church by the shoulders, we’ll have to settle for reminding ourselves what our mission is: to love and to serve others, to know God and to make Him known.