9/2/12, Pure Unspoiled Religion

Deut. 4:1-2,6-8;  James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27;Mark 7:1-8,14-16,21-23

For the rest of September, our lectionary guides us to read through selections from the book of James. James is perhaps my personal favorite of all the New Testament writings.  It’s a highly practical book, simple to read, very straightforward.  And although it mentions Jesus’ name only twice, it seems to set forth the gospel teachings of Jesus more clearly than any of the other epistles.  It doesn’t get all complicated by doctrinal development, which we see in the letters of Paul and in the letter to the Hebrews and even in Revelation.  The letter of James is an open letter to Jewish Christians that recognizes the difficult and prolonged persecution that they have been undergoing. It simply says, “This is how a Christian should live, even in hard times.” For these reasons, in our homiletic reflections for the rest of September we will focus on the readings from James.  Like we did with the 6th chapter of John, I’m going to suggest that we spend this month reading and re-reading this text. I will provide it for the community via e-mail and our website.


This little epistle is a bit of a puzzling inclusion in NT literature.  Scholars speculate if it is from the very earliest stratum of the church -- the Jewish Christians who looked to Jesus' brother James as their leader, even before the Gentile mission. Or does is emerge from a later, second- or third-generation group who struggled to keep the faith amid stress and persecution? There are suggestions that point to both possibilities in the letter itself. We also wonder if this was written to oppose Paul's strong teaching on faith as the means to salvation, or does “James” simply understand "faith" differently? Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation who preached that grace alone through faith alone saves us, felt that this book should be left out of scripture altogether partly because of its strong emphasis on works.

The goodness and perfection of everything God gives is the starting place for the present passage.  Christians,  who God has gifted with the word of truth, are called to reflect that divine goodness and perfection as they live out their lives in the world.

Then we hear: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you, because it has power to save you.  But ACT on this word- because if all you do is listen to it, you are deceiving yourselves.”

 One of the enticing features of James is the author's use of vivid, concrete images that both illustrate the author's points while they to tease our minds into thinking more deeply. Verses 23-24, which our reading has deleted, are an example of this.  “Those who listen to God’s Word but don’t put it into practice are like those who look into mirrors at their own faces.  They look at themselves and then promptly go off and forget what they looked like.  But those who look steadily at the perfect law of freedom and make it their habit- not listening and then forgetting but actively putting it into practice- will be blessed in all they do.”   Presumably the point of looking into a mirror is to tell us something about ourselves -- our hair needs combing, our lipstick is on crooked, our eyebrows have grown bushy.  Hopefully we will remember this at least long enough to address the issue. Who checks her hair in a mirror and then forgets to comb it? But the one who hears without doing, James implies, has what one theologian calls "moral Alzheimer's," a kind of  forgetfulness that leaves the religious self unable to function fully. 

So this is what James tells us: hearing The Word alone is not sufficient. We must also "do." In what, then, does our religion consist? Pure and undefiled religion, according to our reading from James, is this:

·caring for orphans and widows in their distress

·keeping oneself uncontaminated by this world

That's it in a nutshell. The care of "orphans and widows" is a figure of speech used for actions taken on behalf of the less fortunate. In the ancient world widows and orphans were the most vulnerable members of society, singled out for special consideration. We are to bring justice to all those who are oppressed in any way.  And as we do this, our Christian ethic is to give example of God’s moral uprightness. Basically: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. 

James challenges us to imagine a Christian faith based on the promotion of justice and goodness.  What would such a faith and practice look like in contrast to the emphasis that Christians have come to place on adherence to religious doctrines and dogmas?

Perhaps if we as Christians were to follow James's precepts, we would do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. We would measure our faith by our relationships with others in the community. Our primary expression of our religion would be in outreach to the poor and neglected. By such attitudes and actions, James tells us, we fulfill the divine purpose and become first fruits of all God's creatures.


Be sure to take the time to read and reflect on James’ letter in its fullness!  It follows below.  Underline and highlight and make your own commentary as we prepare to discuss it for the remainder of September.


(New Living Translation)


 James 1


Greetings from James

1This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad.


Faith and Endurance

2Dear brothers and sisters,a when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. 3For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.

5If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. 6But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. 7Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.

9Believers who areb poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. 10And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. 11The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements.

12God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. 13And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong,c and he never tempts anyone else. 14Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. 15These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.

16So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. 17Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.d He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.e 18He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession.f

Listening and Doing

19Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. 20Human angerg does not produce the righteousnessh God desires. 21So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.

22But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. 23For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. 24You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. 25But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.

26If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. 27Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.

James 2 


A Warning against Prejudice

1My dear brothers and sisters,a how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

2For example, suppose someone comes into your meetingb dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. 3If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, 4doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?

5Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? 6But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? 7Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble namec you bear?

8Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”d 9But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.

10For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. 11For the same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not murder.”e So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law.

12So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. 13There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.

Faith without Good Deeds Is Dead

14What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? 15Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

17So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

18Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

19You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God.f Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. 20How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?

21Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. 23And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”g He was even called the friend of God.h 24So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.

25Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. 26Just as the body is dead without breath,i so also faith is dead without good works.

James 3 


Controlling the Tongue

1Dear brothers and sisters,a not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.2Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.

3We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. 4And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. 5In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. 6And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.b

7People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, 8but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. 9Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. 10And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! 11Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? 12Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.c

True Wisdom Comes from God

13If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. 14But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. 15For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.

17But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. 18And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.d

James 4 


Drawing Close to God

1What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? 2You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. 3And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

4You adulterers!a Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. 5What do you think the Scriptures mean when they say that the spirit God has placed within us is filled with envy?b 6But he gives us even more grace to stand against such evil desires. As the Scriptures say,

“God opposes the proud

but favors the humble.”c

7So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. 9Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. 10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.

Warning against Judging Others

11Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters.d If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. 12God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?

Warning about Self-Confidence

13Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” 14How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. 15What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” 16Otherwise you are boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil.

17Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.



 James 5 


Warning to the Rich

1Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. 2Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. 3Your gold and silver have become worthless. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This treasure you have accumulated will stand as evidence against you on the day of judgment. 4For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.

5You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter.6You have condemned and killed innocent people,a who do not resist you.b

Patience and Endurance

7Dear brothers and sisters,c be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return. Consider the farmers who patiently wait for the rains in the fall and in the spring. They eagerly look for the valuable harvest to ripen. 8You, too, must be patient. Take courage, for the coming of the Lord is near.

9Don’t grumble about each other, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. For look—the Judge is standing at the door!

10For examples of patience in suffering, dear brothers and sisters, look at the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11We give great honor to those who endure under suffering. For instance, you know about Job, a man of great endurance. You can see how the Lord was kind to him at the end, for the Lord is full of tenderness and mercy.

12But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no, so that you will not sin and be condemned.

The Power of Prayer

13Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. 14Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. 15Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven.

16Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. 17Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! 18Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops.

Restore Wandering Believers

19My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, 20you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.