Don’t Outsource Compassion

Saint Martin and the Beggar, El Greco, 1597-1599, National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC)

Saint Martin and the Beggar, El Greco, 1597–1599, National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC)

If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them,
“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, ”
but you do not give them the necessities of the body,
what good is it?
(James 2:15-16)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
James 2:14-18
September 12, 2021

Today’s selection from the “Letter of St. James” is often interpreted as a criticism of St. Paul. It seems to contrast salvation by faith with salvation by works. This lies behind Martin Luther’s statement that James wrote the “Epistle of Straw.” This is not the case indeed Paul and James are both good Jews and share a common set of beliefs and attitudes.

They both held that the LORD wished to create a covenant with humanity. A covenant is a sharing of life and love so close that one becomes part of the same family. Through this covenant we are not only “related” to the LORD but to all his people as well. This attitude is found throughout scripture.

To look at just two examples.  From the very beginning of the Jewish people”

If there is among you anyone in need,
a member of your community in any of your towns
within the land that the LORD your God is giving you,
do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.
You should rather open your hand,
willingly lending enough to meet the need,
whatever it may be.

(Dt 15:7–8)

To a time closer to Jesus:

As water extinguishes a blazing fire
so almsgiving atones for sin.

(Sir 3:30)

Both Paul and James, whether James is the kinsman of Jesus or his disciple, would have agreed that participation in the covenant required active charity. They both also understood that salvation was a gift from the Lord. The contrast here is not between salvation by faith or salvation by works. Neither would have believed for a moment that salvation was not a gift from God, but if that faith was active or passive. Faith in the LORD must motivate every part of a person’s life and that most especially includes how he or she behaves.

James is a very practical person. Last week he addressed a perennial problem in all groups: partiality. By showing greater respect to one person than another we show that we have not understood Jesus’s commands and no matter what our words or even what is in our hearts we are cannot call ourselves Christians. His focus was on the entire community, and he continues this today.

If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,

(Jas 2:15)

By referring to a brother or sister, he means a member of the Christian Community. Nothing to wear does not mean naked but poorly dressed and publicly in distress. “No food for the day” reflects that people were paid “day” wages which only lasted for the day and if they did not work, they did not eat. This is a person who is well enough known to the whole Parish to be given the traditional farewell of “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” (Jas 2:16) but was not given assistance from someone who could have done so. St. James asks how can this be called “Faith.”

He is not alone. Although we link St. James with St. Paul, a closer link may be found with the Gospel of St. Matthew. Many passages in St. James may be found in Matthew. The reasoning for this is more proper to Bible study and we will examine it if we study “The letter of James” at some future date. If so, we will discover that scholars are unsure if James read Matthew’s Gospel or if they both read the same source. That is not important for us now. We need only acknowledge that James and Matthew both placed active faith as the command of Jesus.

When the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus if he is the Messiah or should they wait for another, Jesus responds:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them.

(Mt 11:4–5)

Most clearly, however, is the separation of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. Indeed, it is important to remember that it is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew assumes that the people in his community are praying and attending the Eucharist, but the determining factor being a follower of Jesus or not is in how a person and community treats the poor and marginalized. Like those called to judgment in Matthew, Christians who did not see the suffering of their fellow parishioner will face a dire future no matter how punctilious their religious devotions:

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matt 25:41).

James develops this for the rest of this chapter. Most tellingly he writes:

You believe that God is one. You do well.
Even the demons believe that and tremble.

(Jas 2:19)

These were Jews and would have instantly known the reference to the “Shema” a prayer they said several times a day.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.

(Dt 4-5)

When Jesus is challenged and asked to state which is the greatest commandment, his answer does not separate love of God from love of neighbor:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
On these two commandments
hang all the law and the prophets.”

(Mt 22:37–40)

Matthew and James give us a message for all times yet a particularly important one for today. Pope Francis has noted that it is easy to outsource compassion, but we must bring the poor and outcast close to us. This is the love that shows an active faith, this is the love with which we can build a new normal which will be quite new indeed.