What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2.10-26
But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. James 2.10-26
Word of Hope
When I was in Catholic high school, we were taught that salvation came through works. And so we did community service hours in order to guarantee our faith and place in heaven. I didn’t buy it then, and don’t now.
To me the key phrases in then passage refer to faith without works as a dead faith. I see this as a metaphor for live versus dead, comparing faith and a body. In the first century a person was considered dead when there was no breath. This was a time when the chest moving upon and down or seeing “fog” appear on a shiny object placed by the nose determined life. There was no understanding of brain dead. There were not EKG’s EEG’s, MD’s or any of the things we know today. A body without breath was a dead body.
So how does this metaphor work with faith? A living body will breathe. A faithful person will do good works. No breath, no bodily life. No works, no faith. This is not as harsh as it seems. We can hold our breath; sometimes we must. Those who live near water, and work in boats know that if you fall in over your head, you better hold your breath until you are above the water line. Sometimes people who are doing great works need to take a break. This is why many churches allow pastors a time of sabbatical. Does holding your breath mean you are dead? No, it means you need to get your head above water. Does holding back on works mean your faith has died? No, it means you need to recharge. Even Jesus took time out away from his ministry even if only for a few hours.
But, if you hold your breath too long, it becomes painful and impossible to hold. The same applies to works done in faith. You will need to let go and go back to the work that living faith demands. But it is not only ok, but good to take a respite. Your faith will not die.
Loving God, my faith compels me to seek you and to do the work you need for me to do. Embolden my faith, strengthen my resolve, and comfort me when I need to take a break.
Order of Saint Francis and Saint Clare