James 2: 1 – 17.
Throughout history, some of the criticisms of our faith’s antagonists concerning Christian practices were noticeably objective. For example, the staunchly anti-Christian Roman Emperor Julian said, “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor but ours also; welcoming them into their community, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes (Charles Schmidt. The Social Results of Early Christianity [London: Wm. Isbister, 1889]). While the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them and causes contempt for our gods (Gaetano Baluffi and Denis Gargan. The Charity of the Church, a Proof of Her Divinity [Dublin: M.H. Gill and Son, 1885]). Julian’s high priest urged pagans to imitate Christian charity, as it was the latter that won the support and gratitude of the people. Irrespective of race, religion and fraternity, the early believers were unrestrained in expressing authentic faith in their generosity.
Faith’s definition in Scripture as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1) may seem didactically abstract to many! However, as Biblical faith possesses a dynamic component in its practical demonstration, perhaps the inquiry ought to be, how does one describe ‘faith’ when one encounters it? How do you distinguish between genuine faith and that which simply pays lip service to it? James attempted to delineate a couple of faith’s attributes in his Epistle.
Throughout Biblical history, Yahweh’s compassion predominated among the poor, the widow and the orphans, and Christ’s ministry did not deviate from them. Without a doubt, early believers were largely poverty-stricken, and therefore, were dependent on the largesse of those with means in the assembly. James posed a hypothetical scenario of a partial judgment in a congregational meeting’s seating arrangement, where a poor believer clad in dirty clothes was prejudiced against a wealthier member. Snobbery is not uncommon in all walks of life, and James categorically stated that such pernicious prejudice is motivationally evil (James 2:1-4). The contrasts in a mentality that he drew between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have-nots’ are not illogical; for often, wealth equates to earthly power and privilege, and this perception is disconcertingly conventional. Whereas, one in his unending poverty repeatedly compensates for his predicament by focusing on a brighter prospect of his heavenly expectation. James then reverses divine values by exclaiming that God had purposefully chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith (c.f., Matt 5:3). This remarkable insight revealed a practical reality that accepting our temporal lot in times of poverty tends to strip away the peripherals of life, focusing us on the essentials in Christ. The poor are usually far more discerning towards human hypocrisy and priorities! Consequently, believers ought to err on the side of charitable graciousness, forsaking contempt against the less fortunate brothers-in-Christ; according to James; to renege is to blaspheme against the name of God (James 2:5-7).
James then followed through with a theological brief on law-breaking, linking the command to love your neighbour as yourself (i.e., being blindly impartial) with aspects of the Ten Commandments. He stated that to have broken one commandment, we have become condemned transgressors as having broken the whole Ten (James 2:8-13; c.f., John 15:12; Rom 3), and henceforth, extending mercy to others ought to be a way of life, for he warned that God’s justice forbids mercy to the merciless! The Hebrew word ‘chesed’ is translated ‘mercy’ in this context, and its meaning encompasses the idea of a loyal love or lovingkindness, to the extent of meeting another’s physical, economic and practical needs (Matt 18:33; Mark 10:47; Luke 10:37). ‘Chesed’ is not about sentiment nor is it governed by emotions or feelings; it led Jesus to the cross because He loved (chesed) us. James subsequently comes to the crux of his point on being merciful without bias: faith without works is dead (James 2:14-17). When we walk by faith and not by sight, and see a person in privation, “a brother or a sister is without clothing and in need of daily food,” and we assuaged their adversity, we have extended mercy. Going forward, our attitude towards the stewardship of our God-derived resources would signally determine our consistent motivation in this respect for ‘chesed’ (c.f., Matt 6:1-4; Matt 6:25-34). Therefore, real faith is pervasively generous.