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BIBLICAL PAGES

by Fr Giuseppe Fabbrini

LECTIO

on the Church as the People of God

 

7. James 2:21-26

Introduction

The Church as the ‘People of God’
The Risen Jesus “came and stood among” His own. The theology of communion of the Church as the People of God is founded on Easter.
The People of God does not originate from the good will of individuals to become one in faith and in worship of the Lord, but rather from the encounter with Christ, the Risen One, whose presence everyone is actually experiencing in faith. All of them are at the same distance from Him, all of them related to Him and one with Him, as the points of a circumference. And the ‘circumference’ finds out – as a gift – that it is indeed a People.
But that is not enough.
The Risen Jesus says to His own: “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you”. And He breathes on them the Holy Spirit, so that they can proclaim the Gospel to the world.
The People is not born to be static but dynamic. Faith can be seen thanks to good deeds; and good deeds are a kind of ‘sacrament’ that proves one’s faith.

 

Lectio

James 2:21-26
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
22 So you can see that his faith was working together with his deeds; his faith became perfect by what he did.
23 In this way the Scripture was fulfilled: Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright; and he received the name ‘friend of God’.
24 You see now that it is by deeds, and not only by believing, that someone is justified.
25 There is another example of the same kind: Rahab the prostitute, was she not justified by her deeds because she welcomed the messengers and showed them a different way to leave?
26 As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds.      

 

Meditatio

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
The preceding passage ended with a question: “Fool! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless?” (Jm 2:20) In order to answer, St James makes use of the Book of Genesis, drawing his first example – Abraham’s story – from it.
Abraham is called ‘our father’. God justified him when he brought his son Isaac to the altar in order to sacrifice him. St James identifies the reason why Abraham was justified with his promptness to sacrifice his son to God; with his ‘deeds’; with his ‘obedience’. Abraham’s deeds and obedience were based in his faith, but faith was put into practice in a concrete way.

22 So you can see that his faith was working together with his deeds; his faith became perfect by what he did. 23 In this way the Scripture was fulfilled: Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright; and he received the name ‘friend of God’.
Lines 22-23 refer to the hypothetical ‘adversary’ in St James’ dialogue: “So you can see…” From this first Biblical example we gather that Abraham’s faith was working together with his deeds. According to St James, deeds and faith are not opposed to each other. On the contrary, he proves that there is an inseparable unity between faith and deeds. It is faith that co-operates with deeds. The primary value is therefore faith! Faith without deeds, or deeds without faith, would be just a nonsense. In St James’ view, faith and deeds must go together. Moreover, Abraham’s faith was fulfilled by deeds. Therefore, faith without deeds would be a ‘sketch’, incomplete, unfinished. Faith is fulfilled only through deeds.
In St James’ view, faith is a dynamic reality: to trust in God and to confess one’s faith is not equal to fullness; fullness can be gained through the deeds of love and obedience to God.
The Scripture was fulfilled by Abraham’s concrete promptness to offer his son to God: “Abraham put his faith in the Lord” (Gn 15:6). Abraham’s deeds show his faith, his obedience out of faith, his promptness to act in accordance with God’s order. This is the reason why he was ‘justified’ by God. This is also the reason why Abraham received the title ‘friend of God’ (according to the Biblical language, this means ‘God’s beloved’).
By this example St James is telling his adversary: Why don’t you understand that faith motivates and props up deeds, while deeds fulfil faith? In fact, they are inseparable from each other.

24 You see now that it is by deeds, and not only by believing, that someone is justified.
Now St James draws from Abraham’s example a theological principle, a general rule: man is justified according to his deeds and not just thanks to his faith. Thus, he is not saying that faith on its own cannot justify, or that deeds alone can justify. He is saying that they must go together and that they must work together. One must not be opposed to the other. God justifies man because of his faith, but not just because of his faith, but rather if his faith is put into practice through deeds.

25 There is another example of the same kind: Rahab the prostitute, was she not justified by her deeds because she welcomed the messengers and showed them a different way to leave?
St James quotes a second example from Scripture in order to demonstrate that faith without deeds is dead. It comes as a surprise that Abraham’s example is coupled with Rahab’s one, as she was a prostitute. However, in the Jewish tradition Rahab was a very prominent figure, thanks to her behaviour towards Israel. The line quoted does not explicitly refer to faith, but it takes it for granted. Its aim is to confirm that deeds too – and not faith alone – are taken into account when God has to justify someone. The deeds thanks to which this heathen woman was justified were: her giving lodging to the two Israelite spies without denouncing them; allowing them to secretly flee from Jericho. Thanks to Rahab’s justification, she and all her family were spared from the town’s destruction.

26 As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds.   
This is the conclusive sentence, making a comparison. A dead faith is like a corpse and cannot save. The deeds of love come from a faith which is alive and which can save. (Therefore, Rahab too had faith, given that thanks to her deeds she was saved.)

Conclusions

Abraham and Rahab: the former, a father in faith and friend of God; the latter, a heathen prostitute. But both were justified by God, given that by their good deeds proved and put into practice their faith.
This gives us reasons to hope. We can start from full trust in God, like Abraham did; or we can start from a wretched life like Rahab’s. But if we prove our actual faith by our concrete deeds, we shall rejoice at finding ourselves justified by God.
In the same way, we can find many ‘Abrahams’ within the People of God, as well as many ‘Rahabs’. But the People is ‘holy’ because ‘it belongs to God’, and God justifies those who work in the world prompted up by faith, faith which is the concrete experience of the Risen Lord.  

 

Oratio

I pray You, Father, on behalf of myself and of the People I am a ‘living stone’ of. Please support the faith that the Church gave to me at Baptism, that faith which makes me intimately one with the Risen Lord, Your Son made Man, in whose genealogy I can find both Abraham, Your friend, and Rahab. Please support the faith thanks to which I am a part of Your History of Salvation.
Please make me strong in faith so that I can work the deeds of faith. And make of both mine and Your People’s deeds the sign of faith which lies underneath, so that all those who will come to benefit from the deeds of love, will be able to appreciate and love the faith which is the reason why they are performed. Amen.

 

Contemplatio

The People of God lives in history and works in history. It is not an NGO, but it is certain that its DNA bears the mark of the concrete experience of the encounter with the Crucified and Risen Lord.
For this reason it is a People of faith: not an academic and spiritualistic faith, but a concrete one, put into practice by actual deeds and works.
It is a People of hope, because the works prompted by faith give hope, and lead men to the One who is forever coming to us and standing “in our midst”.
It is a People of Charity, because by the works of faith it shows God’s sublime love, offered to us by Christ’s Cross and Resurrection.