Isiah 35:4-7a Psalm 146 James 2:1-17 Mark 7:24-37
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” James, who tradition says is the brother of Jesus, asks this question in his letter to the Jews living outside of Palestine. Many of us find great comfort by what Paul tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:8-9).” We know what we have done and what we have not done – and we know that we have forgotten many of our sins. So, to be saved by grace is a relief!
James, however, challenges us to remember that though we may be saved by grace, we have a duty to care for others. He begins this portion of his letter advising us not to show partiality to those who are dressed in fine clothes and who wear expensive jewelry. He then asks, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” This should make us think about Jesus and his ministry to all those in need. He associated with sinners, touched and healed the sick, and brought good the news of God’s favor to the poor.
James then says, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” Again, we are thankful that we it is grace that saves us and that our salvation is not dependent on our good works.
James continues, “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.” To fully appreciate what James is teaching us, I think we need to address the question: “What is faith?”
Dictionary.com offers three definitions: “1. Confidence or trust in a person or thing, 2. Belief that is not based on proof, and 3. belief in God or in the doctrines or teaching of religion.” Theologians, however, define faith as our response to an experience of the divine. We experience God’s presence in our life and we know that God exists and that God is loving and compassionate. The dictionary definition is right in that we can’t proof God exists, but we can and do know because of our experience.
I believe that James, by suggesting that faith without works is dead, is implying that our experience of the divine is about more than simply being convinced by our experience that God exists. When we truly experience God’s compassion and mercy, we are transformed. Being transformed, then, by God’s love we want to respond to people in need with more than platitudes. We feel a need to find clothing for the naked and food for the hungry.
In our gospel reading a Gentile woman approaches Jesus and asks him to cast out the demon who possesses her daughter. Jesus, responds by telling her he has come to help the Jewish people. He refers to the Jews as children and the Gentiles as dogs. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This seems harsh and rude to me, but the mother is determined she answers him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
To this Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” When she returns home, she finds her daughter “lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” Elsewhere in the scriptures Jesus tests the faith of people who come to him and then, when they are healed, he says, “Your faith has healed you.” I like to think that Jesus wasn’t being rude to this mother, he was testing her, but that’s beside the point.
More important, Jesus does have compassion and cast out the demon AND he does so in response to her mother’s faith and determination. We are taught that faith can move mountains, but we all know faith and prayer cannot always overcome a disease or solve all our problems. What faith can and does offer us in these times is strength to endure the trails and tribulation of this life. When we have been transformed by our faith we can draw the strength we need from God when we feel like our world is falling down around us.
Today’s gospel reading is not, however about the times when we struggle. It is about Jesus responding with love to the needs of others. After casting out the demon from the mother’s daughter, Jesus heals a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Note that Jesus orders the man not to tell anyone what has happened. Surely Jesus knew it would be impossible to silence a man who had just been given the gift of clear speech. Whatever words this man says to the people who knew before, testify to the fact that he had been healed.
Our faith may be private, but when we realized just how great a gift we have been given, we are compelled to share it with others. This is what we are told the deaf man does and what the others Christ heals do: “the more [Jesus] ordered them [not to tell others], the more zealously they proclaimed it.”
I was once told by a nurse that she had just received a tremendous compliment. She was asked what church she attended because, her co-worker said, you never speak ill of others. This told me several things – first and foremost, it told me her faith was not without works. Second, it told me that it is possible to zealously proclaim what Christ has done for us by doing it for others. I’m happy to report this nurse is an Episcopalian – not here, but an Episcopalian none-the-less. That is not the point, however, she lived her faith and I believe this is what James is teaching us is the only true sign that we are continuing to hold fast to to our experience of the divine. Whether we do it with words as those who were healed did, or we do it by how we live our lives, it is a sign of the transformation that occurs in our lives when we come to know the love of Christ. This transformation is contagious and is what offers us the hope that the division in world will be healed and God’s kingdom will reign on earth as it is heaven.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, creator and redeemer of all humankind, open our eyes to see your presence in our lives, transform us with your love that we might live our lives in faithful service to you. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.