September 9, 2018
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|[Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23]||[Psalm 125]||James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17||Mark 7:24-37|
by Jeanyne Slettom
The Timeliness of James
The September lectionary readings focus on the general epistle of James, and the pairing of this book with our present socio-politico-economic reality could not be better timed. These commentaries will therefore focus on James, with occasional dips into the other readings.
James 2:1-19, 14-17
Last week ‘s text argued that those who hear the ethical teaching of Jesus and do not act upon it are hypocrites, substituting their own ideologies for religion. In James’ forthright words, their religion is “worthless.”
This week’s readings pick up the theme, stating bluntly (in words that grated on Martin Luther) that, “faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). These are the words that caused Luther to inveigh against James, calling it “an epistle of straw.” Luther saw this verse as a direct challenge to his argument for justification by faith through grace, apart from the works of the law.
Various exegetes have offered ways to reconcile these two, but rather than go down that rabbit hole, I am more interested in the approach taken by liberation theologian Elsa Tamez, who sees Luther’s objection as part of a long trajectory of what she calls “interceptions” of the text.1 That is, she suggests that if sent today, the letter might be intercepted by government security agencies and branded as subversive for its denunciations of those who use their power and wealth to oppress. This opens up several possible explorations; e.g., what texts do we “intercept” upon hearing? Why? One could even argue that ongoing efforts to “spiritualize” Jesus at the expense of his ethical teaching intercept not only the text, but Christianity itself.
In this week’s text, James paints with an even broader brush: it is not just the rich who oppress, but it is anyone who treats people differently based on their economic status. In James’ language, when we “make distinctions” (2:4) between people based on obvious indicators of wealth, or show “partiality” (2:9) in treating the wealthy with greater deference and respect, we are literally blaspheming the supreme ethic of Jesus, which is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. In prophetic parlance, the sin of blasphemy is comparable to committing treason.
How many ways does the U.S. show deference to the rich? The catalogue is heartbreaking: better schools in districts that are more well off, better healthcare, better roads—even better online pricing!2 The recent tax cuts show overwhelming preference for the wealthy. Failed “trickle-down” economic policies persist despite the proven “trickle-up” reality.
But there is an underside to the problem of partiality that shows up not in economic measures of inequality but in something that is less tangible, but no less keenly felt. James calls it dishonoring the poor (2:6), but we are more apt these days to call it blaming the victim, or shaming. The poor have always been treated with less respect, but now, under the guise of “personal responsibility” the social call to aid the destitute has morphed into welfare benefits being conditional on good behavior. As Yascha Mounk writes: “Over the last thirty years, the notion of personal responsibility has become central to our moral vocabulary . . . to our political rhetoric, and to our actual public policies.”3 He continues: “While older generations had thought that responsibility entails a duty to help others, the conception of responsibility that now prevails is punitive.”4
James has an unambiguous answer to all this: “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?” (3:15-16) And then the clincher: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17). Words do not feed starving children.
A policy that uses “personal responsibility” as a justification for withholding food is an example of the fallacy of single causation. In logical arguments, this is a variant of causal reductionism, that is, assuming a single, simple cause—in this case, laziness or irresponsible choices—for a problem as complex as systemic poverty. In process theological terms, it is an example of the fallacy of simple location—which assumes that anything can exist by itself, unrelated to anything else. From a process-relational view, the opposite is true: we are profoundly relational; there is no “me” without “we.”
Yes, we make choices, of course we do, and they have beneficial or unfortunate consequences, but no choice is made in a vacuum. We cannot separate a homeless person from, on the one hand, the myriad choices made by uncountable people over large swaths of time, and, on the other hand, one cold night in November without shelter. Or, as environmentalist John Muir has written, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”5 Perhaps this is one reason that Jesus told the parable of the tares . . . so we wouldn’t leave anyone shivering while we tried to figure out if they were worthy of shelter, or if they deserved a warm bowl of soup.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber, who has revived Martin Luther King’s of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, connects both of these points—faith without works and the partiality shown to the rich—succinctly. Barber fuses the issues of poverty and climate change, calling out the deference to rich neighborhoods and disrespect of poor ones shown by cities in the matter of industrial waste and pollution. Speaking at a church in North Carolina about pollution from the state’s coal-fired electrical plants, Barber said, “Jesus said love your neighbor. I don’t care how many times you tell me you love me, if you put coal ash in my water you don’t love me. Because if there was nothing wrong with the coal ash, then put it in the wealthy communities.”6
The feminist interpretation of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman makes the excellent point that this woman is the only person in the New Testament to match wits with Jesus and come out the winner; she also manages to teach Jesus something about his own ministry.7 There is also widespread scholarly consensus that the story addresses the early mission to the Gentiles. But in these days of heightened xenophobia, there is another interpretation that merits attention. It comes from Calvin Roetzel, New Testament scholar and authority on the apostle Paul.
In a new memoir, I Knew We Wuz Poor, Roetzel makes eloquent use of this story in the eulogy he wrote for his beloved sister Wanda. Roetzel begins by clarifying the designation “Syrophoenician” as signifying one who is “other”—an object of disdain. She would have been viewed as an outsider, someone with whom “marriage, commerce, the sharing of a meal,” or any social engagement would have been forbidden. There is a veritable wall between this woman and the Jews, so when, to save her daughter, she interrupts Jesus and the disciples, it is out of pure desperation.
At this point, Roetzel writes, “Jesus says something that I wish he had not said,” namely about not taking something meant for children and throwing it to the dogs. (Apparently Luke concurs, as he omits the story altogether from his gospel.) This insinuation would have been just as insulting in Jesus’ day as the recent spectacle of a U.S. president using it to slander a woman. In the gospel story, the woman could have reacted any of a number of ways, but instead of being angry or shamed, the woman’s response was brilliant: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).
Roetzel continues, “Her response totally demolished the artificial wall of separation dividing Jew from Canaanite, or Syrophoenician.” Jesus immediately declares the woman’s daughter to be healed, and “Suddenly the old wall of separation was shattered; a centuries-old partition was removed. When faced with the life or death situation of a child, walls make no sense.”8
When faced with the life or death situation of a child, walls make no sense. No manner of “othering” can hold in the presence of a child’s suffering, whether the distinction of “other” is made on the basis of poverty, immigration status, race, religion, or “irresponsible” choices made by the child’s parents. A child is suffering: the wall needs to come down. For all we know, James’ vehemence on this point was forged in this exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, when Jesus had his own partiality shown to him.
As noted above, Luke omits the story altogether. Matthew includes it, but ascribes the daughter’s healing to the woman’s faith (Matthew 15:21-28). Does this reflect early efforts to “intercept”—by way of “spiritualizing”—the ethical teachings of Jesus? If so, by pairing this Markan version of the story with the epistle of James, the lectionary writers have given us a great illustration of what’s at stake in partiality—the life or death of a child—and shown us that if partiality is a not an option for Jesus, it certainly is not an option for any of us.
If we do not attend to a person’s basic bodily needs—food, clean water, clothing, shelter—then all the scripture and doctrine in the world won’t save them. Faith alone, however piously expressed, no matter how studded with scripture, if it does not manifest itself in compassionate action, is no faith at all.
- Elsa Tamez. The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead. Translated by John Eagleson. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1990.
- https://www.forbes.com/sites/neilhowe/2017/11/17/a-special-price-just-for-you/ – 1aea633e90b3.
- Yascha Mounk. The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017, 4.
- Mounk, 5.
- John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra. Boston: Riverside Press, 1911, 110.
- Carol A. Newsome, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline Lapsley, editors. The Women’s Bible Commentary. Third Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012, 484-85.
- Calvin J. Roetzel. I Knew We Wuz Poor: Coming of Age on an Arkansas Farm in the Great Depression. New York: Page Publishing, 2018, 94-95.
Jeanyne Slettom is a UCC minister whose primary interest is process-relational theology. A theologian and teacher, writer and publisher, she has taught at Claremont School of Theology and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cites and served churches in California and Minnesota. In addition to being the publisher of Process Century Press, she is theologian-in-residence at Macalester-Plymouth United Church in St. Paul and an award-winning preacher whose online liturgies and commentaries have been used by practicing preachers around the world. She is passionate about ecotheology, prophetic resistance, and a ministry of transformation and hope. A past director of Process & Faith, her PhD is in Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate University. She lives and works on the banks of the Mississippi River.