Ps. 146; Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-10, 14-18; Mark 7:24-37.
Works, What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? — So, faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (vv. 14 & 17).
Most of us remember the Wendy’s ad campaign, featuring an elderly lady demanding of the competition, “Where’s the beef?” James addresses the false notion that bald belief of Jesus’ identity is of itself salvific; a “faith” even possessed by devils (James 2:19; cf. Mk. 1:23, 24). Of such vacant “faith” James asks, “where’s the beef?”, or in Lutheran talk, “where’s the evidence of salvation’s ‘good works?’”
Still, it is imprudent to speak of works until the works of the man Jesus is in focus; as the saying goes, “don’t put the sanctification cart before the horse of our justification.”
This is the seventh consecutive Sunday of Jesus’ teaching “about the loaves”, the beef if you will, sandwiched between miraculous feedings, 5,000 on the Jewish western side of the Galilean Sea (Mk. 6:30 ff.) and 4,000 across the pond at a Gentile location.
The fountainhead of these lessons is feeding the 5,000 after which St. Mark commented, because of the Apostles hard-hearts, they did not “understand about the loaves” (Mk. 6:52).
As for the crowd that was fed-by or heard of that feeding, they arrived in Capernaum thronging the Lord; but Jesus spurned their adulation not discerning the significance of what was experienced; instead, the crowd rejoiced merely in sated bellies (Jn. 6:26). Today in the Resurrection, it is crucial the church understand her NT Loaf, the knowledge of God’s ongoing work in Christ (cf. 17:3).
The “faith-works” to which James refers is not works of the law, excluded from God’s salvation in Christ (Gal. 2:16, Rom. 3:20); rather, in Christ we are endued to works of love, expected of begotten children from above (Jn. 3:5-7); that the Father’s gift of the Spirit in Baptism and Eucharist be received in faith for transformative lives in the new creation, new men and women in the likeness and purity of Christ.
After Jesus taught of himself as being Bread of Life out of heaven (Jn. 6:35), Pharisees, scribes and his own disciples became distressed at the implication, a claim to be Torah incarnate—they did not know the half of it; so, Jesus puts a fine point on his teaching, “[U]nless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you … For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (Jn. 6:53, 55, 56).
At this, it was only the Apostles who did not abandon; beginning to understand about the loaves; from Peter, “we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (v. 69). Jesus had fulfilled God’s order of salvation, “first to the Jew” (Mt. 10:5, 6; 15:24; Mk. 7:27; Jn. 4:22; Rom. 1:16;); but was rejected, preferring the law, at which Jesus departed into Gentile territory, Tyre and Sidon, and then the Decapolis region, concluded in feeding 4,000 mostly Gentiles with the loaves and fish.
The question for us, who are about to participate in the church’s Eucharist; is, how do these two feedings differ, 5,000 Jews from 4,000 Gentiles? We turn to James who says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18b). What in the world does he mean; and how do we answer his crux questions: whose and what works? James says, “my works”, and in the end so will you and I.
Both feedings portended Jesus’ self-donation on the cross for a new eating in the resurrection. In Capernaum, Jesus obliterated the Mosaic dietary commands (Mk. 7:14, 15) and Jewish response rejected him; but Gentiles were not bound to works of the law, unfettered they received Jesus’ word of their gracious inclusion into heaven’s new Bread.
So, again we ask, what works and whose works is James urging for saving faith? Here we look to the extraordinary faith of the Syrophoenician woman, seeking more than a one-off exorcism for her daughter; their conversation concerned the broader matter of Jesus’ bread. Ultimately the woman desired what Capernaistic Jews rejected; release from the satanic dominion in the world, abiding in Jesus’ food for a new exodus journey to God.
Did the woman or the restored deaf-mute understand the theology that Jesus as Son and new Israel invites all to a new Passover out of bondage, hardly; but as Gentiles, without Mosaic legal constraints, they happily received gracious release and restoration for participation in Jesus’ way to the cross, his work for Jew and Gentile.
Jesus tested the woman, “… it is not right to take the [Jewish] children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mk. 7:27); still the woman laid hold of this negative word in faith to advantage. She did not argue her status, but accepted that both she and her daughter were unworthy, no better than street-dogs; confronted by Jesus’ “No!”, she trusted his repute, his character for compassion; that is the essence of saving faith, knowing God and his Christ.
The woman pressed Jesus for an unmerited place in his house, under his table. By faith in Jesus’ work for her rescue, her daughter was freed from possession and she elevated to the family of God, not a household pet, but a new woman who possessed an absolute claim on Jesus’ table Loaf; and so are you and I.
Gentiles lived in a spiritual desert, without claim on promises from God; still, God’s work and word in Christ earlier witnessed by a former-demoniac, “Legion”; the Syrophoenician woman; and the former-deaf-mute all proclaimed among the Gentiles undeserved wholeness from Jesus; thus, by God’s word, the 4,000 Gentiles would receive feeding in faith.
Isaiah prophesied of this new Passover; “And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness …” (Isa. 35:8) come by word and Loaf, resurrection Food for faith in the work of Christ.
We live in a world where man by his efforts eats bread by the sweat of his face (Gen. 3:19); but from Jesus, we freely eat Food for holiness and heaven. Eating Jesus’ Bread recreates us to true humanity; by grasping Jesus’ work of faith toward our Father we are Spirit-endued to works of love in the Way.
By the Spirit, James, like the Syrophoenician woman, appropriated to himself, his brother Jesus’ holiness, both his works and faith. James in Christ, as you, say in Truth, “I by my works will show you my faith”. Amen.