The ‘Practicing What We Preach’ Paradox

A reading from the letter of James.

Every generous act of giving , with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-will be blessed in their doing.

If anyone thinks they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

~

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark.

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘ Isaiah prophesized rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines,”

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘ Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For its from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

~

The book of James has always held a special place in my heart. Being short and simple was of course a bonus when you put it side by side to books like Isaiah and Hebrews. However, it was not only that it took less than a day to finish reading, but because the book held a message that contradict many other books in the New Testament.

In fact, the preacher this Sunday mentioned that Martin Luther was rather hesitant to include this book in his newly translated Bible at all! Implicit evidence of this can be found as the book was tucked away behind the four main Gospels at almost the end of the Bible.

Many new readers of the Bible often miss the contradiction between the New and the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, God was more of a stern fatherly figure that punish insurbordination rather harshly and belonged solely to the Jewish race. The New Testament on the other hand, portrayed God more as a loving fatherly figure that would forgive all of our sins should we choose to believe in him and belonged not only to the Jews, but the rest of the world.

The rational was that the coming of Jesus Christ (who Christians generally believe to be an incarnation of God) brought an end to the Old Testament, by paying the price for the sins of all humanity. Hence, after the coming of Jesus Christ, all of us could be saved by grace and grace alone (not by good works). This of course, made Christianity very very VERY appealing to everyone (most of whom were the slaves of the Romans) because lo and behold, here is a religion for EVERYONE regardless of race, gender, tribe, clan, age and more importantly, income.

Well that is all good and snappy, another problem arises. If God will forgive us of all our sins, no matter how cruel, terrible and disgusting they are, would this also mean that he would continuously do so? To elaborate, I sin on Saturday, confess on Sunday, and sin all over again on Sunday! Sadly, the Bible (barring the book of James and some letters of St Paul), is rather silent on this. Furthermore, since I am not God, I would refrain from passing judgement regarding this matter.

However, what I can say is that the book of James presents a rather unique contradiction to the philosophy found in other parts of the New Testament. For the book of James tells us that faith by itself is dead without works! One cannot choose to accept Christianity and turn away from the actions that reinforce the teachings of Christ. Implicitly and explicitly, the book of James tells us that although we are saved by God’s grace and not through good works, it does not mean that we should not practice what we preach.

To be honest, I completely agree with the fact that hearing the Gospel and reading the Bible more often than not, fail to translate into a person developing a better character. In fact, I have seen some people who after years of studying the Bible, conclude that we can sin everyday, confess on Sunday and WALA, enter Heaven. The book of James may not be the first book you use to bring people to the faith, but surely it is a book that must be read nonetheless.

~ Ee Suen Zheng

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