David A. Davis
September 19, 2021
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The Epistle of James is known for “works”. When the church thinks of James, the church thinks of “works”. For those who celebrate the Letter of James and those, like Martin Luther, who critique it, it’s about “the works”. When it comes to James, you can’t get away from the works. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…be doers of the word, not merely hearers…those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act, they will be blessed in their doing…do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? … you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself…what good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works…Mercy triumphs over judgment. Mercy triumphs over judgment…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…faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead…Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith…Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead…faith without works is dead…faith without works is dead…faith without works is dead’. That’s all James on “works”. If there is a takeaway from James, it’s “the works”.
So much on works that its way to easy to miss the wisdom. Don’t forget about the Letter of James and wisdom. The wisdom from above. The works come from the wisdom. Wisdom from above leads to the works. Any critique of James centers on the contrast with one of the essential tenants of the Reformed faith: one is saved not by works but by grace through faith. You can’t earn your salvation. It is gift of God. Therefore, the caution to James is what the theological tradition labels “works righteousness”. There is righteousness alright in James. But it is not “works righteousness”. It is “works of righteousness”. Listen again to the text from James:
“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
The wisdom from above. For James, the wisdom from above leads to a harvest of righteousness. There is no shortage of the image or use of the word “harvest” throughout scripture. Think Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Think Jesus and his parable of weeds and the wheat or the parable if the vineyard or couple more parables. Think the Book of Ruth and Ruth gleaning the edge of the field during the harvest. The prophet Jeremiah refers to the people of Israel as God’s first harvest. “Harvest” runs all through the pages of scripture. But James has a different take on the harvest. The harvest of righteousness. In James the Greek word translated as harvest is different from the word found in the gospels. The word used in James is the word for fruit. Here in James the harvest of righteousness is the fruit of righteousness. The only other time the phrase “harvest of righteousness” appears in the New Testament is in Philippians. “This is my prayer” Paul writes, “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the praise and glory of God.” (1:10-11). Like James, in Greek it is the fruit of righteousness. Fruit like in Galatians 5:22, “the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” Fruit like in Ephesians 5:8-9 “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” Fruit like in John 15 when Jesus said “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last”.
“The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” For James, the wisdom from above leads to the fruit of righteousness. And righteousness, well, all through scripture righteousness is righteousness. A reference to what God requires. Righteousness has to do with the godly work of righting what has been wrong. That the kingdom here on earth might nearly be as it is in heaven. Righteousness. Not just our righteousness, thank God, but the righteousness of Jesus Christ working in and through and among us. Righteousness in the bible; it’s a synonym for justice. “The fruit of justice is sown in peace by those who make peace.” And for James, the harvest comes one fruit at time. It comes with a wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, and without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
The Jewish Center of Princeton is sponsoring The Sukkah Village Project in conjunction with the celebration of the Jewish holiday of sukkot. There will be sukkahs like the one being built out-front all-over town for the next week or so. It was an idea that Rabbi Feldman had before he tragically died the Jewish Center is carry out the idea in his memory. Each sukkah will be auctioned off with money going to various non-profit partners. Of the many things sukkot means in the Jewish faith, one of them I remember from Rabbi Feldman is that it is a time for Jewish people to remember that they were once refugees with no homes. Thus, the temporary shelter of a sukkah built outside of the home. The organizers asked several clergy in town to write short devotionals that can be accessed by smart phones at each sukkah in the village by scanning a code. I wrote my brief devotional about the history of refugee resettlement at Nassau Church that goes back now I think a bit more than fifty years and how appropriate it is for the congregation to be preparing to receive another family during the celebration of Sukkot. Fifteen families from 11 different countries. Soon, it seems, sixteen families from 12 different countries. It averages out to one family every five years. One family.
I have told you before and I won’t ever forget the story from years ago now when two of our members being invited to another Presbyterian church to talk about Nassau’s immigrant and refugee work over the years. one of the members of that congregation raised a hand and expressed the concern of how you could justify the time, effort, and money for just one person one family at a time. One of the guests from Nassau responded that morning by describing the incredible impact on their own life and what a particular relationship with and immigrant freed from detention had meant to him. “I wouldn’t have it any other way!” was the general theme of the answer.
Is there any other way to do it? To live the gospel, to harvest righteousness, is there any other way, other than one person, one piece, one piece of fruit at a time? The fruit of righteousness. There’s nothing low hanging about it. Because that would mean it was easy. The harvest of righteousness comes one piece of fruit at a time. And these days and in our world that can be so paralyzing when it comes to know where to start or what to do or how to make a difference, James offers something of an unrelenting reminder, a bit of jab of the elbow, that when it comes to the harvest of righteousness? Every bit counts, every effort counts, every fruit counts. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And the harvest, the fruit, of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” In the wonder of God’s love and in the grace of Jesus Christ, when it comes to James on wisdom, the wisdom from above. It’s more than a conditional clause; an “if then” statement. If you live by the wisdom from above, then you will bear the fruit of righteousness. It’s so much more than a conditional clause. It’s a promise. When you soak in, take in, immerse yourself in the wisdom from above, God shall take your fruit and multiply it in the kingdom and there will be this palpable, living, breathing, harvest of righteous.