Works – Trump – Faith

Image result for Faith and works

This is a longer post, but I hope it doesn’t discourage you. The title is deliberately provocative, especially from a Lutheran perspective. I trust if you read till the end, it will make sense. Today’s lectionary reading  was James 2:14-26.

In the letter of James it says “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), which seems a direct contradiction of what Paul writes in the letter to the Romans, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28). In fact the whole letter of James seems to be a rebuttal of the theology of St. Paul. In Romans Paul argues vehemently that it is by faith in Christ (alone) that people are saved, and he gives the example of Abraham from the Old Testament to show that even before Christ people were made righteous not by what they did but by how they believed or trusted God. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3 / Genesis 15:8). But James says: “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” So it is easy to see why some scholars believe that James was responding directly to Paul. Furthermore James’ mention of the prostitute Rahab can be seen as a direct response or rebuttal against the author of another new Testament book, Hebrews. Hebrews counts Rahab among a long list of people who were saved because of their faith: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace” (Hebrews 11:31), to which James replies, “was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?” (James 2:25).

So what’s going on here? What is a reader of the Bible to make of it. Is it by faith or by works? By trust in God or by obedience to God that we are saved? And why these seeming contradictions?

A pastor friend of mine likes to compare the Bible to a giant conversation, a conversation about God that occurred over many centuries. We modern readers of the Bible are listening in on this conversation, without knowing everything we need to know to understand what the partners in this conversation are saying. But by listening carefully, and by paying attention to the overall tone and direction of this conversation, we can discern themes and truths that are bigger than what any one author of the Bible could say alone. Like in most conversations, some of the biblical authors were better listeners than others, some were more systematic in their arguments than others, some said more, some said less, some were more convincing than others. And we as modern readers are, in a way, continuing the conversation, listening, weighing arguments, discussing meaning, giving considerations and offering viewpoints, sometimes getting boisterous and loud, sometimes just quietly, maybe skeptically, taking it all in.

So Paul and James indeed seem to contradict each other about the relationship of faith and works. But does James not have an argument valuable to the conversation? Paul and James seem to have different definitions of faith and works. Paul means “works prescribed by the law” which he contrasts with faith in Christ. “Works of the law” means the specific laws given by God to the Israelite community through Moses. His main concern was to say that this law, though good and holy and true, was not given as a path to salvation in the first place. It was given as a way of preparing the people of God for the coming of the Messiah Jesus. Since Christ died for all, both those who were religious followers of the Jewish law and those who were not, it is simply wrong to assume that by doing certain “religious” things, God looks with favor on us. I like to think James would have agreed with that. But while Paul was all about opening up the possibility of salvation through Christ to all people, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, James seems to be concerned about upholding ethical standards for those who belong to the Christian community.  For James, “works” have a more general ethical character. Thus he counsels the rich to share with the poor; he tells the congregation not to favor the wealthy or disrespect the poor. He warns Christians to bridle their tongue and to resist cravings for power and pleasure. He says “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)

It has been noted that many of James’ teachings closely resemble things Jesus taught. For example, James writes, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4) Jesus taught, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). James writes, “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no,…”. Jesus taught, “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is  the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool … Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No…”

Despite all this, Martin Luther sided with Saint Paul, arguing that James does not preach Christ. He called it a “straw epistle” and even thought about leaving it out of the Bible altogether. Luther wasn’t the first to find James difficult to reconcile with other parts of the New Testament. In fact, the letter of James was accepted by the Western church as ‘Scripture’ only in the fourth century, in the Syrian church not until the fifth century. But I think  James still has valuable lessons to teach us, especially with respect to wealth and power, helping the poor and the sick, and being patient and modest. I think Paul would have agreed with all these ethical teachings of James. So would Luther. Sometimes I think, with a little distance, we can hear truth, even in conversations mired in contradictions.

P.S. When I told my wife about this post, she suggested an example of how James’ emphasis on works over faith might be a necessary corrective to false notions of faith. Recently Donald Trump met with a number of evangelical Christian leaders in New York. In a follow up interview one of the leaders said that he believed Trump had recently become a “born again Christian”. Of course it is not up to him, or the press, or to anyone else to say whether Donald Trump is “saved” or not. Only God decides that. But there are yardsticks which the Christian community should use to determine whether someone’s faith is genuine or not. That’s where the letter of James comes in.

Trump seems to say whatever happens to occur to him. He insults his opponents regularly, but also women, minorities and people with disabilities. He speaks a lot about his wealth, his business acumen, his ability to “make America great again” when he becomes president, even though he has no political experience. He wants to keep refugees, particularly Muslims, out, and build a wall to keep Mexicans from entering the U.S., blaming foreigners for economic stagnation and violence, and stoking racist sentiments. Meanwhile Trump has built his “fortune” by shady dealings in real estate, for example building casinos that were never finished, contractors and workers not getting paid, Trump eventually declaring bankruptcy. Trump has refused to publically declare his taxes, which every U.S. presidential nominee, except Nixon, has done, leading many to conclude that Trump has not paid any taxes. In other words, Trump may have built his wealth on the backs of taxpayers.

James says, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.” And: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 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.” And: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And: “Do not speak evil against one another.” And: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there doing business and making money’. Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (4:13-14) And: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you…. The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (5:1-6)

Of course, no one knows what Donald Trump believes but he himself. And no one but God can know a person’s heart, and of course God can save Donald Trump. That’s the point Paul is making by putting faith before works. God is sovereign in God’s grace. But when someone declares their faith, or is said to be a fellow Christian, but doesn’t act in a manner consistent with the love of God and the will of God as declared in Scripture, we should with James question that person’s genuineness.

Reading Psalm 75

Psalm 75

“Jacob Sheep”

The psalms are poetry. One characteristic of poetry is that the reader isn’t told everything; instead many things are left to our imagination and intuition. Poetry does  not try to convince us about something by reasonable argument. Instead it tries to change the way we look at how things are by appealing to our imagination and intuition.

Take Psalm 75. The speaker switches from the 1st person plural (“We give thanks…”) to the 1st person singular (“I will judge…”), without telling us who is speaking. So we are left to supply who that might be. Obviously, in verse 2, the person speaking is God; God was addressed by the speakers in the first verse. But the poem switches characters without transition, like a scene on a stage or in film. So we have to imagine the camera cutting from one scene to another. Maybe the first line was spoken (or sung) by people in worship in the temple, the “song of praise” of an ancient liturgy. In the 2nd to 4th verses, where God speaks, we might imagine a priest talking, perhaps quoting from a book, similar to the reading of scripture (“The word of the Lord”) in our worship. The sixth to eighth verses are in a different voice again, the 3rd person, used to describe what God does. This section could be called a teaching, or a sermon. Perhaps we imagine a priest or scribe explaining what was read in temple worship. In verse 9 there is a return to praise, this time in the first person singular and directed to the future: “I will sing praises…”; like a “sending song” at the end of the service. The final verse  gives a summary of the psalm’s teaching, in the first person singular. Maybe we imagine the priest or a prophet speaking these words like an oracle from God at the end of the service: “All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.” It is a final affirmation that God is and will be in control.

Psalms require us to use our intuition and imagination together with our investigation of the text. One place to start is to ask where and when this song was first sung or performed, who was singing or chanting it and what was the intended result. Why was it preserved in the form that it now has in our Bible. Another question is what symbols or metaphors are being used and what do they mean? For example the word horn: What does it suggest? How is it used? What is meant by “lifting up” or “cutting off” a horn?

In a culture where sheep and goat herding were very prevalent, the horn was an image that spoke to everybody. Every child knew horns grow on mature animals, the bigger ones on the male. They are used in defense and to determine position within the herd. Rams are known to ram and sometimes lock their horns with each other in a fight for control. Transferred to human society, horns were an appropriate symbol for power. Power can be military, economic or religious, or some combination of all three. It can be national, or trans-national (empire), it can be personal (“charismatic”) and it can be intra-personal (e.g. patriarchal). In all these instances, power can be used wisely and foolishly, respectfully and arrogantly.

Obviously our psalm is critiquing power, warning the arrogant and reminding all rulers of God’s power. God is portrayed as just and all-powerful. God will “judge with equity”, God keeps the earth from falling of its foundations (literally “pillars”, poetic language), God puts down the arrogant, or the wicked, who claim power from sources other than God, and God will ensure that the righteous will eventually (“at the set time” v. 2) triumph.

We might ask: Where, in whom, or in what is power located in our time and place? In a non-herding, democratic, technological, globalized culture, what other images might we think of to describe power in its various forms? What are the temptations of power today; where  is there arrogance? Where does the psalm’s critique apply to myself? How might it apply to others? How could this psalm be translated into a modern poem and used in worship, in song?

I’ll end this post with the text to a song by G.K. Chesterton that is not a direct paraphrase of psalm 75 but shares in poetic form some of the same sentiments.

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

Words: Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1906


Five is not enough

I began the Reformation Bible Reading Challenge telling others that it would take only five minutes to read the assigned passages each day. That may be true, if all we’re doing is strictly reading. But I take back my words. The challenge is not getting through the text, but getting into the text. I don’t mean that we each have to read commentaries and dictionaries, as helpful as those can be. But we have to give our minds and hearts time to get into the words on the page and for the Word to get into our hearts and minds.

It is sometimes called contemplation, which simply means to spend time with something. Some call it “lectio divina”. The technique is simple: take time, read several times, slowly, deliberately. Ask yourself what speaks to you, what word or phrase stands out. Be silent. Take inventory of the thoughts and feelings coursing through your mind and heart. Try silencing the distractions within and around you. Pay attention only to the words of scripture and what they do in your heart and mind. Let yourself be filled with that word or phrase that speaks to you.

In our overstimulating age of continuous information, less is more and more is less. Less information, more contemplation. More concentration, less distraction. For every five minutes of Bible reading, I suggest planning at least fifteen minutes of silent listening. Then share what you have heard, not just what you have read. I’d love to hear/read from you.



The Quest for Happiness

Yesterday I listened to a podcast of a psychologist’s lecture to the people at Google. Google is in the business of giving people choices. Thousands upon thousands of hits per second, for every search term you type in. What psychology has found is that happiness does not increase in proportion to choice. In fact the opposite. Too many choices often lead to paralysis, people making no choice at all or being unsatisfied with the choice they made, because they gave up so many other “good” choices. Of course, having no choices is bad, but having too many choices can be just as bad. Happiness is to have choices, but not too many.

Today’s psalm seems to be about just that conundrum. Happiness  verses choices. Psalm 1 is one of the wisdom psalms. Psalm means song, and there are 150 of them in the Bible. (Two of them were actually cut in half to make the number round, e.g. 42 and 43 are really one.). The psalms are like the hymn book of the Bible. They contain songs of praise (e.g. 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul”), and prayers for help or of complaint (e.g. 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). There are also psalms of instruction, or wisdom (e.g. Psalm 1), which often take the form of contrasting two paths, or two kinds of people, e.g. the righteous and the wicked. All the psalms are poetry, that is they are written in a structured verse form.

Psalm 1 is very clearly structured: It begins with three parallel lines describing the “happy person” (NRSV uses the gender neutral plural “they”).

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;

In Hebrew poetry there is often repetition or progression of ideas or expressions. Here it is “follow – take – sit”, as well as “wicked – sinners – scoffers”. Each consecutive line strengthens the previous one. The same thing happens in verse 3. After contrasting the righteous person as someone who delights in the law of the Lord, rather than the advice of the wicked, it describes them as

    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.

Again, there is a threefold description: “planted by streams of water – yielding fruit – leaves not withering.” Switching from tree-metaphor to real life, the fourth line states: “In all that they do, they prosper.”

The Psalms are found in the center of the Bible and have always formed a very central place in the church’s devotional and worship life. The line in verse 2 of Psalm 1 says that the righteous “meditate on his law day and night”. In the middle ages monks used to recite all 150 psalms daily, literally meditating on them day and night! The law of the LORD here may refer to the Torah in the strict sense of the first five books of the Bible, or in the wider sense of all of scripture, including the Psalms. Jews and Christians have usually taken it to mean the latter. Many Christians still pray the psalms, using one or several of them daily. I like the idea of taking time with scripture, not rushing through it. Meditation to me means to ponder the meaning, putting some effort into understanding a word, a verse, or a passage, doing a little research, but also some soul searching. Perhaps  we could begin with today’s psalm.

Who have I taken advice from and was it good advice?  Did it make me happy?

Where have I been mislead, and where have I misled others?

How often have I sat with the scoffers, like an armchair politician, degrading others with unkind thoughts or words?

What gives me delight, happiness, blessing, life, and purpose?

What are the real, important choices among all the trivial ones I make today?

“I hate Revelation”

Proverbs 3:13-18

Happy are those who find wisdom,
    and those who get understanding”

Rodin: “The Thinker”

Several times during the last few weeks I’ve heard a comment similar to the one in the title of this post. As a congregation we have been reading parts of the book of Revelation, which, I admit, is a difficult piece of literature. We also have been reading parts of the book of Ezekiel, another difficult and strange part of the Bible. So I understand the frustration and don’t profess to understand what these books all mean. The last two days, on the other hand, we have had it easy. The readings from Psalm 8, from Proverbs and the letter to the Ephesians are not difficult. They talk about creation, making good choices, hope, and unity. Proverbs are wise sayings. And wisdom is something we all understand. It’s the opposite of stupidity. Whoever has experience in the latter, can appreciate the need of the former. Understanding the world, how it works, the interplay of the elements, the role of humans in creation, the need for humility, self control and for giving God the glory. It all kind of makes sense.

But what about the stuff that doesn’t make sense? The undeserved misfortunes, the fires that swallow the homes of humans and animals, towns and forests? What about the violence and cruelty in human society and in creation? What  about disease and suffering that can not be attributed to foolish life choices? What about an ALS patient’s dying dragged out over years of agony? What about the still-born child, the  teen driven to suicide? Who is wise enough to understand these things?

Conventional “proverb wisdom” doesn’t always cut it. Sometimes we can only sit in silence, like Job’s friends, for seven days. Maybe the only thing we can say after seven days is “Jesus!”

In Ephesians Paul prays that God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, “may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him”. In first Corinthians 2, Paul talks about the crucified Christ as “the wisdom of God and the power of God”, and he contrasts it with the wisdom and power of this world. The wisdom that is Jesus is not a proverb wisdom. We can’t reduce Christian faith to John 3:16 or some other neat package.  The revelation that is Jesus is not a clear-as-midday kind of revelation. We can’t read biblical prophecy like a weather forecast. I suggest we need to read the Bible as  wisdom hidden in the “foolishness” of the cross, and revelation hidden in the “weakness” of the cross.

Jesus, the real, complete, suffering, dying, and risen Jesus of the gospels, is a key to the other parts of scripture. Focusing on his love, we may even end up saying: “I love Revelation!”

I don’t know what came over me

Have you ever caught yourself saying something you didn’t plan to say? Sometimes we have “foot-in-mouth-disease” and say something embarrassing.  And sometimes we might actually say something wise, profound or truthful that we didn’t know we had in us. Either way, we might wonder what came over us.

The reading from the book of Numbers 24:1-14 is a portion of a much longer episode about the prophet Balaam, whom king Balak summoned to curse the Israelites as they passed through his kingdom. It’s worth reading in its entirety, if for nothing else than Balaam’s talking donkey.

This passage seems terribly out of context, and completely unrelated to the one from Luke 1, which is the announcement of Jesus’ birth by the angel Gabriel. But the key word this week after Pentecost is Spirit, and that word occurs in both lessons. Balaam is overcome by the Spirit of the LORD and he utters a blessing instead of a curse. And the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, which will result in the birth of the Son of God.

So what do these passages teach us about the Spirit of God? The Spirit makes things happen counter to expectation, counter to human plans, counter even to biology. If the Spirit of God is in fact God himself, as the doctrine of the Trinity says, then, I suppose, the unplanned, unmediated, and supernatural things we sometimes encounter should not make us doubt our senses. What do you think?

Have you received a surprise blessing today? Have you found yourself to be a blessing to someone? Have you done something today where you were surprised at your own courage? Do you think this was the work of the Holy Spirit?


Tips for reading the Bible

Including some from a book called “51% Christian”, by Mark Stenberg:

  1. Don’t read the Bible alone. Sign up for a smart, critical-thinking Bible study at your local church. At Glory we have one on Sunday morning at 9:30 am. At least I like to think it’s smart. Talk to others who are reading the same passages. Post a question or comment on this blog.
  2. Get a good commentary. A good study Bible will also do the job. The Oxford Annotated Study Bible or the Harper Collins Study Bible are both excellent. They contain some of the best that modern scholarship can offer in the form of introductions to each of the books of the Bible, numerous foot-notes and cross references, maps, and more.
  3. Read the Bible backwards. Reading backwards is like looking at the picture of the jigsaw puzzle you’re trying to assemble. For example when reading the gospels, start with the crucified and risen Jesus. The gospels were written as a result of this event. When reading the Old Testament start with the prophets who announced God’s original will of liberating people from slavery. Read the Bible backwards by keeping in your mind the picture of ultimate peace and justice, life, beauty and healing for the world described in the book of Revelation, chapter 21-22. It’s the goal of history and a key to understanding what came before in the Bible.
  4. Remember that the living word is not a book, or letters on a page. The Bible, though called the Word of God, is witness to the living word which is Jesus Christ. We know his love through the Holy Spirit, based on the witness of Scripture.
  5. Celebrate the passages or verses that speak to you, or that you find particularly meaningful. Try to memorize them. Try to think of related passages and look them up.
  6. Stick to one translation. The NRSV is probably the best from a scholarly linguistic standp0int. The NIV uses some non-inclusive language, but is otherwise okay. The Good News Bible is not always accurate, but very readable. Comparing translations can be helpful when dealing with a difficult passage. But continuity in style is better for retaining the content.
  7. Use your imagination.
  8. Note what you are feeling as you read. Confusion, doubt, uncertainty, anger – these feelings can be just as important as serenity, faith, assurance, and peace. Explore what in the text gives you these feelings.
  9. Turn what you are feeling into prayer.
  10. When confused, don’t give up reading, but read more. Read longer passages in context.