Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Christianity there has always been a tension between two poles. At one
end of the spectrum stands Martin Luther, who said that Christian faith
is about trusting in God to put us right - or make us righteous -
through the saving death of Jesus. Luther came to this conclusion when
he was a professor of New Testament studies in a little town in Germany
called Wittenberg. One year he decided to teach his students about
Paul’s letter to the Romans and that’s when it suddenly dawned upon him
that Christian faith is all about trust.
the other end of the spectrum , stands someone like Ignatius Loyola the
founder of the Society of Jesus. He spent a lot of his later life in
crisis, first struggling to overcome severe wounds that he had suffered
when he was a soldier and then during two short periods locked up in a
cell by the Spanish Inquisition. He came to believe that the Christian
life is a similar sort of struggle, a lifelong call ‘to prayer,
self-examination and surrender’ to God’s grace, a struggle which we all
have to undertake in order to overcome what James calls ‘the sordidness
or moral filth and wickedness’ that otherwise tends to take us over.
preachers used to travel round Europe, and then other parts of the
world, with a sort of travelling circus, creating a carnival atmosphere
as the backdrop for their missions. When they had gathered a crowd they
would then spread the shocking message that we are all in constant
danger of falling into moral decay and that this will lead inevitably to
our eternal death and damnation. They were the pioneers of the sort of
revival campaigns later pursued by people like John Wesley and Billy
Graham, except that their remedy for sin wasn’t simple trust in the
saving death of Jesus, but a life dedicated to prayer, service and
receiving the sacraments. For people like Ignatius Loyola, Martin
Luther’s quick fix - have faith in Jesus and everything will be all
right - seemed like cheap grace, not the real thing.
they may have been, but Loyola and Luther had at least one thing in
common. They were both great communicators. Luther was someone who
dedicated his whole life to popularising difficult ideas so that
ordinary people might better be able to understand them. During a
lengthy period of enforced inactivity, he made a very fine translation
of the bible into German so that everyone would be able to read it and
know what God wanted them to do. However, the same impulse that led him
to translate the Bible also led him to make some rather simplistic
statements - always with the best of intentions but not always with the
that some people might be pressed for time, or might just not be very
good at reading, he advised them to concentrate on John’s Gospel, the
letters of Paul and the first letter of Peter. These books didn’t tell
us much about the life and teaching of Jesus, but every Christian should
be advised - said Luther - to read them first and to read them the most
them,’ he said, ‘You find depicted in a masterly manner how faith in
Christ overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness,
and salvation. This is the real nature of the Gospel … St. James’s
epistle is really an epistle of straw compared to them, for it lacks
this evangelical character.’
course, Luther was only making a comparison. He wasn’t saying that the
letter of James isn’t worth reading at all, only that - if you didn’t
have time to read the whole of the New Testament, you could safely miss
James out. And this didn’t stop him from quoting James whenever it
suited him. But the sound-bite has stuck, and James is now often
referred to as the book which Luther called an epistle of straw.
truth is, though, that Loyola and Luther may represent two separate
poles - one emphasising trust, the other emphasising struggle - but they
are joined by a lot of common ground and the letter of James sits in
that common ground. Luther soon began to wonder, for instance, how you
could be sure that you had put your trust in Jesus, and how other people
would know that you had done it. God
would know that your faith or trust had put you right with him, but
other people would only know - and you would only see for yourself - if
being put right with God led you to the right kind of actions.
passage from James actually seems to begin with a powerful reminder of
God’s grace. Every generous act of giving is inspired by God. So when we
think we’re being especially kind and loving to Cousin Maud, who only
gave us a pair of bed socks for Christmas last year whereas we’re
sending her an angora sweater for her birthday, it’s God who is
inspiring us to act generously, it’s not something that any of us would
be capable of by ourselves. Every perfect gift is from God, whereas our
own natural inclination is to behave like my two little granddaughters,
who always want whatever the other one has.
Loyola was struggling to overcome his doubts and problems, he always
knew that he was struggling with God’s help, just as - whenever he was
able to do the right thing - Luther knew that God was helping him to do
it because he had already been put right with God.
then reminds us that there is no shadow of turning with God. He is the
same yesterday, today and forever. He is the Father who created the
stars, who said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. In him there
can be no darkness at all. He is totally generous and utterly reliable.
gave us birth by the word of truth,’ could be a reference to just what
Luther was talking about when he said that we need to trust in the
saving death of Jesus. According to John’s Gospel the word of truth is
Jesus himself; according to the second letter of Timothy it is the
Gospel message. Either way, we’re reborn when we accept Jesus into our
lives or accept his message into our hearts, and we do this by putting
our trust in him. Then, says James, perhaps borrowing an idea from Paul,
we become part of the first fruits of God’s great harvest, when the
whole universe will be put right with him.
far, then, the letter of James sounds as though it could easily have
been written by Luther’s heroes, Paul and John. But then comes a change
of tack. James goes on to say that good people, people who have been put
right with God, don’t go on to act in haste or to do and say things
when they’re angry. They take a deep breath.
this was Luther’s real problem with James, because he was quite an
angry person. He famously nailed a notice to a church door in Wittenburg
announcing a university lecture - or perhaps a series of lectures - in
which he would set out 95 reasons why the Church authorities of his day
were in the wrong. That’s a pretty long list. He was never someone who
was slow to speak or get angry, and yet he believed that his actions had
helped, not hindered, the spread of God’s righteousness.
Luther and Loyola felt they were sordid, wicked people who needed God’s
grace to put them right, but Loyola was probably closer to James in
believing that God implants the Gospel message, or the spirit of Jesus,
deep within us from our birth where it waits to be released, or perhaps
quietly works away in the background, until the moment when we
consciously turn to God for help.
The implication of this, as John Wesley was to recognise, is that even if we have to trust in Jesus before
we can be put right with God, God can then work on our character, at
least in some of his followers, to make us better and kinder people.
was always much more pessimistic. While putting our trust in God might
lead us to do more of the right kind of things, we can’t really expect
to get much better in his view. Being right with God is always only
about Jesus dying to put us right, it’s not about anything we can do
even with God’s power working in us.
James goes on to talk about ‘the perfect law’ he’s not harking back to
the Jewish Law, he’s thinking of something more like a scientific law.
Scientific laws describe, explain and predict the way things are, and
he’s describing and explaining the way God acts - and will always go on
acting - to set us free from human nature and give us true liberty.
Those who make a habit of focusing on these things will find that some
of God’s generosity and love will rub off on them and bless them.
James has a word of warning about being religious. It always puzzles
people who don’t come to Church, but the Bible generally has some pretty
harsh things to say about people who are religious. It’s the kind of
thing which later led another German professor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to
say that we need ‘religionless Christianity’.
I think James means is that being consciously religious can be a sham,
it’s worthless and useless unless it’s grounded in God’s love and
compassion and unless it actually produces righteousness alongside all the talk
about being made righteous. This is true whether we take Martin
Luther’s root to religious faith and say that we have placed our trust
purely in the death of Jesus, or whether we take the root of Ignatius
Loyola and place our trust also in prayer, serving God and receiving the
sacraments. And it’s true whether or not we are seen by other people to
be doing the right sort of thing. We also have to be doing right things
for right motives.
characterises the right sort of religion as caring for orphans and
widows and avoiding contamination with the world’s values of prestige
and plenty. There’s nothing special about widows and orphans in God’s
scheme of things, except that they are good examples of people at the
bottom of the pile, people who have no power or influence, and certainly
no money, with which to reward us for our help. The truly religious
person helps others just because it pleases God.
reading from the Gospel seems to be a comment on the same sort of empty
religiosity that James attacks. The pharisees and teachers of the law,
who otherwise agree with much of what Jesus is saying, are puzzled that
he allows his disciples to eat without first washing their hands. Jesus
responds somewhat harshly, and people have wondered whether, after his
death, his reply was sharpened by the conflict between the early
Christians and their Jewish neighbours. But, even without the insults,
the underlying message is clear - real religion is about who we are and
our true motives for doing things.
he ran the Polly Peck business empire twenty years ago Asil Nadir was
celebrated as an amazing example of enterprise and business acumen.
Today he’s in prison because appearances were deceptive. Are our
appearances deceptive, or is our religion pure and undefiled?