James - Chapter 2: Faith must produce works
This chapter is probably the most referred to in the whole of the letter of James, but not necessarily the most understood one, and here we also read the verses which Martin Luther found so hard to accept when exposing the thoughts of what we now call The Reformation.
It is good to bear in mind that all through this letter, James has in mind what we can call an "imaginary challenger" to whom he tries to respond. Often this challenger speaks for us in our journey of faith.
In chapter 1 James presented the contrast between those who merely hear the word and those who put it into practice (1. 25). In this chapter this is replaced by the contrast between Faith/Works. What in (1. 25) is referred to as "the perfect law, the law of liberty" here becomes the "royal law" (2. 8) = to love your neighbour".
And immediately the situation is presented to the reader: the partiality towards the wealthy and powerful seems to be a common feature of society. This is the case in this letter, which must pick up on the social reality that is present at the time, it was also a matter dealt with by philosophy at the time, where one school castigated another for caring more for patrons and their comforts than for the truth. Early on Christianity developed a new way of addressing members - from benefactors and friendship it began to speak of brothers and sisters.
This is a crucial change of paradigm - the 'family' language based on belonging and not on merit, aand certainly not on creating a sense of obligations. And this is why James speaks of favouritism and partiality as a warning. In God's eyes status is not a reason to determine a person's standing. Verses 2-3 present the image of rich/poor, honour/dishonour.
Interestingly some commentators present the idea that the word "assembly" = synagogue might mean something other than the religious-social place, but could refer to the court, as the language seems to indicate a judicial setting. This is affirmed because in later years Jewish laws stipulated that those who came before a judge had to be treated equally, and so dress in away that would not emphasize their rich status. Specially as in earlier stages it was the poorer people who accepted Jesus as Messiah and this created tensions in the Jewish community.
Hence the reminder of the 'royal law' (2:8) of love of neighbour, which is so important in the Jewish writings (Leviticus 19:18 or Deuteronomy 16:19 James here presents the law as an integral reality where selecting is not possible. And in this context James sets out that it is not a catalogue of violations or individual transgressions which are to be kept track of, rather mercy is the way of fulfilling the law (2:13). Mercy triumphs over judgement.
For James this understanding of mercy is crucial - it is the expression of love: Love the Lord your God with all your heart (Deuteronomy 6:5-6), and Love becomes a concrete expression of Faith, in such away that Faith without works is not possible. And this continues today to be a disputed reality in many churches... Faith is the expression of love of God which not always leads to a concrete expression which reaches out to others. This expressed by James in 2:24 with one word "alone", which makes the whole difference.
And James turns to two examples of the Jewish world: Abraham and Rahab. Abraham is called the friend of God and Rahab who is probably less known as she is not from the people of Israel, though through her action she saved herself and her family and assisted the Jews to enter the promised land (Hebrews 11:31) and is even mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). They are both cited as examples of hospitality which is one of the key points of a faithful life.
What James points when saying that "faith without works is dead" is that in his understanding religion is a matter of practice, of obedience to the will of God. And in a time where faith is nothing more than private and individual, where even gathering for worship is seen as unnecessary, James warns us that this - in his view - is neither faith, nor religion.