Therefore Therapy and Works Therapy via Brother James
A Reflection on James 2:1-17, 2nd Reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Sept. 9, 2018.
There weren’t many bright spots or occasions for humor during the days and weeks after the accident which gave my son his traumatic brain injury.
But we took ‘em where we got ‘em.
One day, as I sat beside the little bed holding my little boy as I held his little hand in the hospital’s ICU, it was announced that my son would soon begin Ergotherapie.
I cocked my head.
“Ergotherapie?” I said.
I looked at my Dad, a constant in that awful space.
We both knew German fairly well, but the problem right then was that we knew enough of Latin and in that moment forgot enough Greek to cause trouble.
At the same time, we grinned, and said, “Therefore-therapy?” and burst out laughing.
No, really, it’s funny…but, um, maybe really only if you’re a word nerd in desperate need of something to make you cackle.
The Latin word ergo, you see, means ‘therefore.’
Think Cogito ergo sum, namely ‘I think, therefore I am.’
The doctor was not amused.
”Nein,” he said. “Auf Englisch, occupational therapist, glaube ich.”
The Greek kind of ‘ergo,’ as in ergonomics, the study of how things work, not the Latin kind of ‘ergo,’ as in therefore.
Now, don’t ask me to sketch out the synaptic jumps made when I thought of this story after reading this text from James.
The whole text kicks us—especially Lutherans, one could say—smack dab in the ass (which does not come from the Latin but turns out does come from the “Greek orros ‘tail, rump, base of the spine.” Who knew?)
Many Lutherans would be surprised to know that along with the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, our Martin Luther wanted to kick James right on out of the Bible.
James scored his particular antipathy.
Never one for understatement, Luther said, “…St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw…for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. (LW 35:362).”
Geez. How do you really feel about it, brother Martin?
What got him hot around the collar (so to speak) was tied to this verse found in Chapter 2 (and in the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for tomorrow):
14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
That last verse there, 17, that one really stuck in his craw.
Given his context, of course, it makes sense, right.
What with the indulgence controversy swirling around him, and his understandable indignation about the economic and spiritual exploitation of believers who were asked to chuck ubiquitous coins in ubiquitous coffers for their salvation (aka St. Peter’s and the pope’s art habit), well, Luther was more than a little wary of works.
But recently, any number of voices within the Christian tradition are making the case that we need to get our James on.
Because James gets at, and gets, the ‘therefore’ of Christian belief.
Might want to sit down for this one, for it is, unfortunately, a news flash:
I love me some Luther, don’t get me wrong, but his context both opened his eyes and blinded him.
He realized that we are entirely dependent on the grace of God for everything, and that insofar as it’s all grace, we can’t earn it.
If you earn something, it is therefore by definition not grace.
So he saw that.
And others hadn’t, for quite some time.
But what he didn’t see, perhaps because he was so blinded by the light of his (legitimately radical) rediscovery of grace, is:
Because we are saved by grace, therefore we are freed to be ambassadors of it in the world.
Because we have been shown mercy, therefore we show others mercy.
Because we have been declared just, therefore we act on behalf of justice.
In this same chapter, brother James says this:
2My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
That’s some works righteousness, baby.
And I do not mean that as a slur.
Works in the name of, because of, in fact precisely due to our faith are righteous.
I think, that is, that these days Christians need some Ergotherapie, some Therefore Therapy, some Works Therapy, for their faith.
In a day and age when this present administration facilitates the separation of children from their families (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/amp/ncna907006#click) and blasphemously in the name of Scripture, when touted lower unemployment rates mask profound wage disparity, when systemic racisim and poverty and war and ecological disaster are all so clearly linked (for those who have eyes to see, as MLK did all those decades ago), when creation itself is groaning (à la Romans 8:22) while this administration intentionally edits out references of it despite scientific proof of it, when access to equal education opportunities is thwarted at the very beginning of a child’s life simply because of birth into a family of color or in poverty, when equal access to health care, particularly for the most vulnerable, is actually questioned and blockaded, well…James would have some words for those of us who say we are Christians, and go to Church, but don’t engage in actual Because-I’m-a-Christian-Therefore-I-Can’t-Not-Engage-in-Righteous-Works action.
You know what those words would be?
“15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and 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?
17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Too many people are dying, too many people are dead, because of faith without works.
Ergo, if you, as James asks, “really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ,” then get yourself out of that pew and into the streets and work your righteous orros right on off.
Believe it or not, that is good news, gospel, not only for those whom you will serve, but for you too.
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