Read: James 2:14-26
One old man asked another: “I heard you had a death in your family?” “Yes”, the other answered. “Was it you or you brother who died?”, asked the first, rather distractedly. “It was me...”, the second answered, now confused. “So sorry to hear my friend, so sorry, condolences”, muttered the first, as he went his way.
How soon can we forget about one another's needs, or not even listen properly to the other person!
While it's true that we can't carry the burdens of the world on our shoulders, it's also true that the Lord Jesus carried those burdens and that we are called to follow Him in carrying one another's burdens. This is how the Kingdom of God works and how the King cares for his people.
James explains that, as much as it's true that we are saved by personal faith in Jesus Christ, an ineffective faith, faith without doing works that makes a real difference in the world, is a dead faith, even compared to the demons' faith. A much ado about nothing. Lacking substance.
A person's hand is able to grasp and lay hold of something. The palm of the hand is hidden, while it holds onto the thing it has grasped. But this same hand, if it's a real, human hand, also has a visible part: the back of the hand. In the same way, by faith, which we compare to the palm of the hand, we lay hold of Jesus Christ and the salvation He gained for us; the heart isn't seen, only God knows the heart and its faith; “with the heart we believe”, says Paul. If we truly believe, we also speak, tell others about the great deeds of God “with the mouth we confess.” Still something is missing: heart and mouth may seem to operate correctly, but if deeds are not present, the faith is a dead thing. A body without life. Like a hand with a palm, but without a backside. The hand looks like a mere paper-hand, which has no back-side. No obedience, no love in action can be seen.
A Christianity on paper: Confessions. Meetings and their minutes. Powerful sermons and amazing worship. Dynamic preachers. Books and CD's. But if not a faith that “helps”, all of it looks like a huge shop with many wares and bright advertising, but very little real commerce taking place. A spiritual bubble. The commerce of the “Christian Shop” is all about giving in action: God giving His only begotten Son; his children giving themselves to God and others. The “profit” made is all about the Kingdom penetrating this world with is life-transforming righteousness.
The Apostle James gives three examples of living faith: One, about a certain Christian who speaks nicely but doesn't do anything that helps. Two, about our father in faith, Abraham, who believed in a very concrete way. For him, faith and action was the same thing. Three, Rahab, who also believed in a manner which very much helped and in the end provided herself with a new future in God's covenant community. Her faith saved her, in more than one way.
Here's the imaginary case of a Christian who meets someone who is cold and hungry: The Christian speaks nice, blessed words to the other. He wishes the other warmth and satisfaction. No, he not only wishes, he speaks a word that sounds really authoritative: “be warm!”, “have enough to eat!”
In our day, some would say that he spoke life, that words have a power in themselves, that God made the earth by just speaking and that a powerful word can have a powerful effect.
Then, this powerfully-speaking Christian turns around and goes his way. His cellphone had perhaps just rung. He'd just remembered that there are more important things to be done. His own warm jacket and full stomach makes him quickly to forget about the other's shivering body, pale and dusty with poverty. The tear he'd almost shed a moment ago, yes, even his indignation at the injustice in the world, evaporates as he goes his way. The guilty conscience that plagues him sometimes at night, isn't strong enough motivation to make him do anything practical. He rather shrugs it off.
He may rationalize that the poor, hungry person didn't have the right spiritual recipe, didn't believe enough, somehow deserves his suffering. He may ask his Christian friends: “where do we start anyway, the need is so big?” Then continue to watch a dynamic spiritual show on his big-screen TV.
In this respect, some Christians don't think that much different from non-Christians who believe in the idea of karma, that suffering is the result of one's own sins and that a person may better be left to suffer. How far can we miss the mark, leaving the ways of the Kingdom of God behind!
So much more is this Christian missing the mark, when the other happens to be his employee or someone to whom he owes money! “Don't tell someone: 'I'll give it to you tomorrow', when you have it with you right now”, says Proverbs. Don't keep someone's overcoat in pledge, says the Mosaic Law.
Yes, the Christian may even be the one responsible for the other's coldness and hunger, while at the same time wishing him well. The Spirit of Christ comes to us to convince us of such hypocrisy in our lives, so we may repent of it and obey.
So James asks: “What does it help, my brothers?” He wants to see help, change. He wants to see the Kingdom of God becoming effective in this world of people. He wants to see a powerful deed of sharing and justice, because the Kingdom of God is not only about powerful words, but about the wise power of righteousness, justice, equity (Proverbs 1:3) and love in action .
In a country which has a high HPI (human poverty index), where the HDI (human development index) still lags behind, where the GINI co-efficient (indicating economic disparity) is one of the very highest in the world, but also a country which has one of the highest Christian populations in the world – the compelling question of James 2: 15-16, “what does it help, my brothers?” What does all our Christianity help those who are cold or hungry? - should bring us to our knees, and again on our feet to serve the way our King wants, till the day He comes back in glory with his holy ones (Matth. 25: 31-43).
As the confession of Belhar challenges us: “we believe that God calls the church to follow Him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry.” This is no mere tokenism or allaying a bad conscience, it really helps, my brothers!