We Christians talk a big game about the Bible. Some of us say the Bible is "authoritative," or "divinely inspired," or "infallible." Some Christians say they believe every word of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. I heard about one preacher who said he believes the whole Bible from Genesis to maps - as in the maps of ancient lands included in the back of his Bible.
Some churches have a huge Bible at the front of the sanctuary, and they don't start the Sunday service until someone ceremonially flips it open. Some churches stand whenever Scripture is read aloud in worship.
There are many ways people venerate the Bible. Some say the Bible should never be put on the floor. Some say you should never write in your Bible, or fold down the corners of pages, because it's so holy.
Many folks broadcast their esteem for Holy Scripture. They put the 10 Commandments on billboards. They put Bible-verse bumper stickers on their cars. They wear T-shirts that say, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it."
Families seek to honor the Bible, too. I have visited homes where there are Bible verses on the walls. I've walked into houses where there is a big Bible with gold lettering and white lace on the center of the coffee table. Many homes, including my own, have more copies of the Bible than any other book.
Politicians and public officials praise the Bible as well. They quote the Bible in speeches or name it as their favorite book. In 2016, lawmakers in the state of Tennessee, where I live, made national news by approving a bill that would make the Bible the official book of Tennessee. Alongside milk, our state beverage, and the raccoon, our state wild animal, they wanted to add the Bible as our official state book.
We find myriad ways to elevate the Bible as a sacred symbol. Unfortunately, our capacity for symbolically honoring the Bible can outrun our commitment to putting its main themes into practice.
James says, if you really want to honor the word of God, do what it says. Too many Bible verses make it to our ears but not to our hands. Too many scriptures mark our contemplation but not our action.
According to James, if we hear the word of God, or read the word of God, without putting it into action, we are deceiving ourselves. It's like looking in a mirror to find that our hair is messed up, we've got a smudge on our face, and we have little green bits of broccoli stuck in our teeth, and then walking away without doing anything about it. James' point is not about physical appearance, though; it's about the heart. The Bible is a mirror we can look into to see where our witness is messed up, to see where there's a smudge on our heart, and to see how God wants us to enact the word in the world. The Bible is not a searchlight that reveals other people's shortcomings; it's a mirror that reveals our own. It summons us to a higher level of living.
We are not Christian because we hear the word of God. We are not Christian because we mentally affirm that the word of God is true. We are Christians because we believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
When we consider the phrase "Word of God," it's important to remember that the Word of God is primarily Jesus Christ. In speaking about Christ, John 1:14 says, "the Word became flesh and lived among us." The Word of God, then, is no abstract principle; it's no theoretical notion; it is a concrete and embodied word. When the word of God became flesh in Christ, it not only spoke but also healed the sick, and touched the outcast, and cuddled children, and overturned temple furniture. Since the word became flesh and lived among us, it is the very nature of God's word to be living and active; to be not only spoken and heard, but also enacted. Therefore, we misrepresent the very nature of God's word when we hear it and don't do it, or when we talk a big game about the Bible and don't put it into practice. James is calling us to embody the word of God by doing it.
"But preacher," someone might say, "there are so many things Scripture tells us, so many commands in the Old Testament, so many teachings in the New Testament. Where do we even start to become doers of the word?" James offers an answer in verse 27, where he says, "pure and undefiled religion before God...[is] to care for orphans and widows in their distress." Orphans and widows were some of the most vulnerable persons in the ancient world. They represented disadvantaged demographics within society. A primary way to do the word of God, therefore, is to care for persons who are vulnerable, to love persons who are marginalized, and to help persons who are deprived.
In short, a key way to do God's word is to practice "social justice." Years ago, when my professors first introduced me to the idea of "social justice," it sounded to me like mere ideological rhetoric. But as I read the Bible more and more, I came to see that God's special concern for the destitute permeates the pages of Scripture, and the call for God's people to seek justice for the oppressed resounds throughout the Bible. A few years ago, a researcher at Baylor University named Aaron Franzen conducted a study pertaining to the frequency with which people read the Bible, and how that impacts their views on various issues. His findings showed that despite a variety of predispositions and backgrounds, the more people read the Bible, the more they are concerned about seeking socioeconomic justice for the poor and vulnerable.[i] This research confirms what many Bible readers have known for centuries, that a key way to do God's word is to serve persons who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Again, this cannot be something we just hear in God's word or talk a big game about. It's something for us to do. To every Christian that talks a big game about the Bible being authoritative, or inspired, or infallible, James might say, "What are you doing to resource the underprivileged?" To every church that stands when Scripture is read in worship, James might ask, "What are you doing to empower the oppressed?" To every family that has Bible verses on the wall of their home, James might ask, "What are you doing to support the vulnerable?" To every politician who praises the Bible or wants it to be the official state book, James might ask, "What are you doing to care for the impoverished?" To every preacher who studies God's word and stands to declare it on Sundays, James might say, "What are you doing to support the dispossessed?"
One of the true geniuses of the twentieth century was a man named Albert Schweitzer. He was an exceptional organist, an outstanding physician, and a brilliant Bible scholar. He spent much of life studying the word of God and making important arguments about what it says. Schweitzer's arguments about the life of Jesus are still required reading at some theological schools. At one point in his career, Schweitzer surprisingly decided to leave his life of privilege and prestige in Germany in order to become a full-time missionary in the Belgian Congo. He went and did medical mission work at a hospital deep in the jungle. During a BBC interview, Schweitzer was asked why he left his amazing life in Germany to go the Congo. He replied, "I have decided to make my life my argument."
May it be so with all of us who praise the Word of God.
Let us pray.
God of grace and mercy, we thank you for the living Word, Jesus Christ. We thank you for the word revealed in the Holy Scripture, and we ask that your Holy Spirit would help us to be doers of the word for your glory. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/october/survey-bible-reading-liberal.html [accessed April 7, 2016].