Help End Hunger: It's Simple (James 1:17-27)
By Greg Carey
Even on a local scale, problems like poverty and hunger can overwhelm our imaginations. My own city, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is like countless others. Pockets of true poverty cluster in the old city and dot the countryside. Affluent developments surround the city, particularly on two sides, while hip new housing is popping up in the center of the city. (The city's small size reflects its founding in 1729. The county is home to 600,000 people.) An impressive urban revitalization campaign has transformed the city's image, making downtown an attractive place to eat, shop, and play.
Recently, however, a study by Franklin and Marshall College has shown that the city's resurgence has not helped its poorest residents. Just the opposite has occurred. Between 2000 and 2013, per capita income has grown by 20 percent in the city's very center while it has declined in every other section. What looks like progress from the outside contradicts the harsh reality thousands experience. It's a typical scenario, in which outcomes such as life expectancy and high school completion rates vary dramatically even in adjacent zip codes and school districts. Faced with such stubborn realities, many individuals feel at a loss concerning how to make a difference.
Sometimes things can be simple. Like dirt and food. In Surrey, British Columbia, part of the Vancouver metropolitan area, God's Little Acre Farm provides fresh produce for the hungry. Jas Singh started the farm in 2011 with just three acres to cultivate. With minimal resources - the farm rents over 70 acres but does not own land - and relying heavily on volunteer labor, this little farm has grown to provide literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce per year to food-short households. The farm does hire laborers, but hundreds of volunteers cultivate and harvest the land.
It can be that simple. The Epistle of James insists that hearing the word of God necessarily entails living it out: Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (1:22, NRSV). Some contemporary Christians excel in works of justice and mercy, while others seek moral purity. James recognizes no such distinction. As example of what it means to live according to the word, James settles upon ordinary acts of justice and mercy, complemented by moral uprightness: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (1:27). Doers of the word look out for the vulnerable and the needy, and they maintain their distinctiveness from the world.
This passage from James comes with a mixed legacy in Christian interpretation. Martin Luther and the other Protestant Reformers valued the law and honored its relevance for Christians. To this day Lutheran children memorize the Ten Commandments as part of their preparation for confirmation. But the Reformers also emphasized that people cannot earn their salvation by doing good works. What justifies believers before God, they argued, is grace operating through faith. Righteous deeds have no role in that process. Although Luther and others affirmed the law's value, their emphasis lay with the necessity of grace and faith instead. To this day, many Protestants regard the law as a bad thing.
James poses a problem for the grace-not-works position. James includes many passages that sound very much like sayings from Jesus, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The exhortation to be doers of the word and not mere hearers (1:22) sounds very much like Matthew 7:21-29. There Jesus warns that "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven" (7:21). He also speaks of the one who "hears these words of mine and acts on them" (7:24), calling foolish the one who hears and does not act (7:26). James says that people who hear but fail to do what they hear deceive themselves (1:22). James' take on the law sounds very much like Jesus.
Not long after our passage James doubles down on the point. The letter even mocks the hypothetical person who clings to faith apart from works. "Can faith save you?" (2:14). If someone lacks food - there's that key example - and a believer offers that person a mere verbal blessing, what good does that do (2:15-16)? "Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (2:17).
For these reasons Martin Luther questioned the value of James. It's okay to read James in church, Luther maintained, but the letter flatly contradicts Paul's emphasis on grace, James did not really write it, and therefore it holds secondary status. John Calvin dissented from Luther's critique. Today most biblical scholars would disagree with Luther's interpretation of both Paul's letters and James. Nevertheless, Luther's argument continues to wield strong influence. Many Christians regard the law as a threat: an impossible standard according to which God must necessarily condemn human beings.
Marginalizing James' message is a mistake. The author of James was a Jew who followed Jesus. Like other Jews, this writer regards the law not as a threat but as a source of joy and blessing. James calls it the "law of liberty," promising blessing to those who do the law. This law-affirming spirituality is reflected in the Psalms. Psalm 1:2 describes those who delight in the law and meditate upon it day and night. Psalm 19:7 praises the law for reviving the soul. Psalm 119, the Bible's longest chapter, is entirely devoted to celebrating the law, which propounds "wondrous things" (119:18) and is better than gold and silver (119:72). God's words are sweeter than honey (119:103).
James celebrates doing the law, leading with key examples that are doable. Look out for a widow or an orphan. Feed a hungry person. The early followers of Jesus were in no social position to eliminate poverty or overturn the economic system of the Roman Empire. Like Jas Singh, however, they could feed hungry people. Ending hunger is overwhelming. Growing produce for hungry people is not.
_ God's Little Acre, a farm in Surrey, BC, Canada, is helping to feed the hungry. _
Bible Study Questions
1. When you consider our world situation, what challenges feel most overwhelming to you?
2. Do you perceive a conflict between James insistence on doing the law and Paul's teaching concerning faith? What is at stake for you in this conversation?
3. What are the most accessible ways to make a practical different in your own community?
For Further Reading
Elizabeth T. Groppe,Eating and Drinking
Richard Stearns, The Whole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?
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