A couple years back, I read a story on social media about a new pastor who dressed himself as a homeless man on his first Sunday visit to the church as its leader. According to the story, only three of his congregation of around 10,000 people greeted him. No one answered his requests for money for food. And when he attempted to sit in the front row as the service began, he was quickly moved to the back by ushers.
When the time came for the elders to introduce the new pastor, the congregation clapped and looked around in anticipation and excitement. The “homeless man” then walked to the front and revealed himself. Taking the microphone, he then read from Matthew 25:34-45, in which Jesus concludes the parable of the sheep and the goats by saying, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
The story has since been debunked as fiction, but its takeaway is still valid: real faith requires compassion and visible action.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this story was partially inspired by today’s passage, in which James, after addressing the issue of favoritism in the church, poses the question, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?” (v. 14)
Here, we see James drawing an unbreakable link between faith and deeds. He paints an almost ridiculous scenario, of someone telling a starving, naked person to “go in peace, be warm and well fed”—but not actually doing anything about it. The comparison crystallizes his key point: faith, without any visible action, is dead (v. 17). Dead—totally lifeless, ineffective, and useless.
In this age of social media, we can see James’ key point in action in these ways. For example, we may type #prayforSyria in a post but ignore a struggling refugee family who has just moved into our neighborhood. Or we could include #blessed in a selfie or food picture; while at the same time fail to pass on that blessing to those in need. Or we might share an inspirational video telling the story of a persecuted church, but fall short of helping our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ with financial or practical aid.
What I believe James is challenging us to do as true disciples of Christ is to ensure that the faith we have in the gospel message overflows into good deeds. We do this not in order to gain God’s favor, but simply because we are so grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice and so in awe of His unconditional love for us, that we can’t help but work out our faith in positive actions in our society.
—Caleb Young, Australia
Questions for reflection
1. How do we make sense of today’s passage in the light of other Bible passages, like Ephesians 2:8-9, which say that justification is obtained by faith alone?
2. How does today’s passage help us better understand true faith in Jesus?
3. Do you see a tension between belief and action in your life?
Caleb is a fan of film, food, fun, family as well as other things that don’t begin with the letter f, like travel and the theater. He considers himself a citizen of the world: born in New Zealand, raised in the Fiji Islands, now living in Australia, and the holder of three passports. He is also a storyteller, whether that be in filming a testimony of God’s work in a person’s life or writing an article or creating a concept for a good narrative story. In it all, he is a young adult navigating through life, striving to become more Christ-like, and is grateful to a gracious Savior who loves him despite his flaws.