Fourteenth Sunday in Pentecost
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself.
One of the difficulties we have with the biblical text we read is that we have only words – words that were written down and copied dozens perhaps hundreds of times. The words have also been translated into language we can understand by fallible human beings. There is no way we can read the text, particularly when we are reading quotes of spoken words. We can often get clues from the text, like when it says that Jesus wept or that He had compassion on the people. Sometimes we can tell when He is angry or when He is frustrated or when He is sympathetic.
But there are times when something important is missing from the text. Communication is far more than just the words. We need to see body language and hear the tone of voice to really understand what the speaker means. Our text for today is one of those passages that would be less confusing if only we could have been there at the time to hear how Jesus spoke to the woman. Was there a tone of annoyance or one of compassion? Was Jesus angry for being disturbed when He wanted solitude or was He playing on the race relations of the day?
There are a dozen different ways we can understand Jesus' comments to this woman which seems to infer that she is nothing but a dog. It is shocking to us to hear Jesus refer to the woman as if she were a mangy street mutt begging for a morsel that might keep her alive. Of course, we might think of the reference in a much less offensive way – as if she were like a house pet that needed to be patient for a moment, her time would come. Perhaps it seems to us that Jesus wants to push her away or we can see Jesus encouraging her to be bold. It all depends on whether we hear Jesus speaking with a tone of compassion or with a hint of annoyance in his voice. While the term "dogs" was probably meant in negative terms, there is something about this passage that hints at the compassion we know Jesus exuded to all He met.
I suppose we receive this passage according to our own perspective. Have you ever had a request that seemed to be answered like this? Have you asked God for something and His answer seemed to say, "I've got better things to do with my time!" Maybe you have asked for something and the answer came back, "Now is not the time." It may be that you sense God's resources are limited and though He has compassion He is unable to meet that need. Maybe you've felt God encouraging you to be more bold in your prayers.
What about the attitude of Jesus in the second story? He followed a strange ritual, putting His fingers in the ears of the deaf man, spitting and then touching his tongue. This sounds like some sort of pagan practice – I can almost see the old witch doctor in a frightening feather mask and cape screaming some strange words at the demons causing the deafness and muted voice. Was Jesus reaching out to this man in a way he might understand? The same, perhaps, is true of the woman. She expected to be treated as a dog – anything else, even compassion, might have been more frightening to her.
There is no mention of God in these passages, no mention of faith. She said the right words and her daughter was set free. The man's friends begged Jesus, so Jesus did what He had to do. Here we get a hint at Jesus' tone. Mark writes, "… and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened." Jesus went out in search of some time alone. I suppose He thought He might find some peace and quiet away from the Jews, but His presence had an impact wherever He went. He was recognized for what He had done. Word of His healing power traveled far and wide. He sighed. Was it a sigh of sympathy for a world wracked with dis-ease or a sigh of frustration that they were seeking Him for only physical relief from their ills?
There are several lessons we can learn from this passage. From the woman we learn about humble boldness. She knew her place in Jesus' world, even if Jesus did not really think of her in that way. She knelt before Him and agreed with His assessment that she was a dog. But she was bold enough too seek His grace, even if it was the leftovers. Her words made Jesus act. He said, "For this saying go thy way; the demon is gone out of thy daughter." At first Jesus indicated that He would not do anything for the woman. Matthew's version of the story is even more explicit. There He told the woman that He came only for the lost sheep of Israel. Her words changed His mind. The child received the healing the mother sought.
So, from this we learn that God can change His mind. With humble boldness – a boldness that first knows our place and trusts God's mercy anyway – we can seek God's grace even when we think there's no chance to receive an answer. He will hear and He will be present in our circumstances and we will know the transforming power of His grace.
Transforming power is what we see in the Old Testament lesson. Isaiah speaks to those who are afraid, "Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you." He lists the ways in which they will see the transforming power of God. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk and the tongue of the dumb will be loosed with songs of thanksgiving. Even the world in which they live would be transformed – streams will flow in the desert and thirsty ground will become pools of water. All this would happen when God is in their presence.
It must have been hard for the Israelites, living as exiles in a land they did not know with a people they did not understand. They were far from their homes, but even worse was the fact that they were far from their God. They felt abandoned, but they also knew that it was they who had turned. They were repentant, crying out to God for salvation. They wanted to dwell once again in His presence, to know His transforming power.
Isn't it interesting that God's presence would loosen the tongue of the mute so that they might sing for joy? Yet Jesus commanded the man in today's passage not to tell anyone. No matter what He said, the man would not be silent. He could speak and the words that poured forth from his lips were songs of joy. Perhaps he sang a song much like psalmist. "Praise ye Jehovah. Praise Jehovah, O my soul." Praise Jehovah is the word "Hallelujah." After living as a deaf and dumb man, unable to hear or speak, it was natural for the man to sing "Hallelujah!" His life was transformed but that brief encounter with Christ.
We don't know how long the man had been deaf and dumb. We don't know how long it had been since he had been able to say "I love you" to his family or "thank you" to his friends or to hear those words returned. We don't know how long he had been unable to take care of the daily business of life. The brief encounter with Jesus gave him the voice to speak and the ears to hear, he could not receive such a great gift without praising God. Hallelujah!
Do we respond to God's grace with such enthusiasm? Do we receive the answers to our own prayers and rush out into the world proclaiming the wonderful things God has done? Can you imagine singing today's Psalm as you walk down the street? Even moreso, can you imagine yourself living out that praise in very real and tangible ways?
The Psalmist writes, "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no hope." Instead we are called to trust in God, who gives hope to those who look to Him for help. God is not limited, He will not perish. He has created the world and all that is in it. His presence transforms, brings healing and peace. He sets the prisoner free and feeds those who are hungry. "Jehovah preserveth the sojourners; He upholdeth the fatherless and the widow." We have heard these words recently. In last week's lesson, James wrote, "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." God calls us to be His hands and His feet and His mouth in this world – to be His presence among those who need His grace.
Though Jesus repeatedly told the man to keep silent, his joy was so great he could not keep silent. Do we feel that same sort of joy? Do we receive God's grace with such an enthusiasm that we can't help but share it with others?
I'm not an expert, but in the simplest terms the electricity from a battery is created by a chemical reaction. The chemical reaction is started by the movement of electrons from the positive to the negative terminal. When the appliance is turned on, the current is allowed to move in and through the battery causing the chemical reaction that creates more electrons. If you just take a wire and hold it to both ends of a battery, you will create electricity in the wire. An appliance (load) is placed along the wire to slow down and control the electrons, using the electricity for practical purposes. If there is no path along which the electricity can run, the battery does nothing. It just sits there, lifeless.
Faith is like a battery. It is a gift from God, placed in our hearts which is meant to transform our lives. In other words, the faith is installed so that we will do something. When we are 'turned on' we can make things happen. By faith we can be God's hands, His feet, and His mouth – His presence in this world.
What happens when a battery is not used? Though a battery has a long shelf life, they do not last forever. Eventually they become useless. It is even worse if they sit too long in an appliance without being used. It can become corroded and destroy the appliance. It is best to use the battery once it is installed, to make the light bright or the radio sing. The battery is useless otherwise. Isn't it interesting that the appliances are lifeless without the battery and the battery is lifeless without the appliance? We need faith to accomplish anything and God installs faith into our hearts so that we will be His hands, feet and mouth. James writes, "Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself." Just like a battery.
Our lesson from James seems like two different passages, separate in topic. In the first half of the passage, James discusses favoritism. It seems that people in his day and age were drawn to those who had wealth. I suppose it is natural. After all, people with wealth can get things done. If a wealthy person is happy, they might just give a sizable donation to the building fund or create a trust for the upkeep of the meditation garden. Besides, those fine clothes and shiny rings are beautiful to see. Poor people are often dirty and they smell. They have nothing to give so why would we want to waste our time and energy?
Yet James asks, "Do you really manifest faith in Christ by showing favoritism to the rich?" The psalmist warned against such things, "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals." James warns against this favoritism because it is divisive and judgmental. Also, we miss out on an even greater wealth in the hearts of the poor, for God has given them such a great measure of faith and love.
We learn from the time we are very small children about the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." We favor those who are able to return every bit of our charity. We favor the rich in the hopes that the rich will return that favor and move. If we favor the poor, our return is much less. Yet, there is an even greater law at work, the law of God, the "Royal Law." This law is not about an equal action and reaction, it is about love. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If we love only those from whom we can receive a benefit, but not love those who have nothing to give, then we sin.
So, James follows up this treatise on favoritism with a comment about works. We are called, by faith, to a life of mercy. But if we do not show mercy, our faith is as good as dead. Mercy means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Mercy means loving our neighbor whether they are rich or poor, native or foreigner, healthy or sick, young or old. Mercy means being God's hands, feet and mouth for them. It means being God's presence in the world so that the world will be transformed by His power.
Jesus did just that. Whatever His attitude about the people who disturbed His peace, Jesus was God's presence in the world. He was this, not only in word, but also in deed. He brought transformation. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the death, feet to those who could not walk and voice to those who could not speak. He did this for us, too, even though we may not have ever thought ourselves as blind, deaf, lame or dumb. We were once prisoners to sin, but He set us free and brought us through the desert with life giving water. He gave us sight to see the truth. He gave us ears to hear His Word. He gave us feet to go out and He gave us voice to sing praises to God. He calls us to live our thanksgiving in very real and tangible ways, ways that will transform the world. He's put the battery of faith in. Now turn it on and go. Praise God and do whatever you can to make a difference. Manifest the faith that has been given so that the world will see the glory of God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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