Saint James, Law, and Gospel

A Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: St. James 1:17-27; St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, our Perfect Law Giver. Amen.

If we’re being honest, we’ve all known someone like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading: quick to chime in with an accusatory question and judging “side-eye.” In contemporary speech, “Pharisee” is synonymous with exactly this type of person, an arrogant and legalistic disciplinarian slavishly devoted to a strict interpretation of the rules quick to render an unrequested verdict.

“Your disciples eat without washing their hands? Bless their hearts.”

“Oh. You let your children watch that movie? Aren’t you worried that it might corrupt their young mind?”

“You listen to that kind of music? I shouldn’t be surprised. ‘Garbage in, garbage out,’ as they say.”

“I just don’t understand why anyone would possibly believe that.”

And, with the irony lost on the speaker, “You go to that Church? Aren’t they kind of…pharisaical?”

And you immediately know from their tone of voice that the question isn’t really a question. The only way to avoid their judgment is to agree with them quickly, directly, and explicitly. I would wager that if I asked, each and every one of you could write down a list of “modern Pharisees” – a detailed inventory of arrogant people, passive aggressive family members, condescending friends, patronizing coworkers, legalistic churches, and judgmental organizations that drive you absolutely bonkers. (And yes, I could produce my own list, too.)

If we’re being even more honest, though, we’ve all known ourselves to be that person quick to pass judgment because surely we know exactly the right way to do things, have all the right answers, know exactly what we’re talking about, and everyone needs to listen to us.

When we read through the Gospels, we too often paint the Pharisees with a broad brush, depicting them as arrogant and judgmental. It’s easy for us to forget this, but the Pharisees were very much like us – decent people trying their hardest to love God. They were the church folks of their time, people trying to live faithful lives following the covenant. What we see today isn’t a group of strict disciplinarians demanding obedience but rather devout people worried that someone is leading the faithful astray. How easily we all fall into that same trap, holding on too tightly to human tradition and our own self-assuredness. From the passive aggressive to the vitriolic and confrontational, from the minor issues to the major, we all have a trace of the Pharisee within us.

We miss our connection to the Pharisees for a very Lutheran reason: the distinction between Law and Gospel. Luther, and even more so some of his contemporaries and heirs, offer a helpful distinction between the Law – what one must do – and the Gospel – the Good News of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Interpreting Saint Paul’s letters, Luther and others talk about the Law, which convicts us of our sin, and the Gospel, which sets us free.

Allegory of Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach the Elder

In one painting, the Lutheran artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (who served as something kind of like the official illustrator for the Reformation) painted the distinction clearly. On the side of the Law, Christ sits enthroned as the Judge of the World, Adam and Eve fall into sin, venomous snakes plague the Hebrews in the Sinai, and Death and the Devil prod a sinner with a spear, pushing him towards a flaming abyss. On the side of the Gospel, John the Baptist points a sinner towards Christ on the Cross, the Lamb of God tramples Death and the Devil underfoot, and Christ exits the tomb victorious. A thick tree marks the clear dividing line between the two sides. It’s a stirring painting, to be sure, even if it’s not exactly subtle.

This sharp distinction, which Cranach so bluntly illustrated, reflects much of Luther’s approach to Scripture. Luther was so determined to distinguish between Law and Gospel that he criticized books of the New Testament for blurring the distinction; he called Saint James’ letter “an epistle of straw, compared to the others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” Or, in other words, “Oh. So you’re preaching on that book? But isn’t it kind of…pharisaical?”

Saint James writes about works, about the importance of doing, about the Law. James, much like the Gospels according to Saints Matthew and Luke, spends of his writing dwelling on how Christians treat the poor, how the Church lives, about the works that we do. And it can be enough to make you wonder: who can possibly live up to this standard? Like Luther, we ask: who can follow the Law so perfectly?

The answer, of course, is that none of us can. We don’t gather together in humble confession every Sunday because kneeling is so good our knees. No, it’s because we have fallen into sin and need to hear again the Good News of God’s forgiveness.

But as Saint James tells us, every good gift, every attempt to serve the Lord, every action taken out of love is from God. Despite our own imperfection and sin, we cannot so hastily abandon God’s perfect Law. How could we possibly turn our back on the Lord’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves?

We’ve taken our distinctions between Law and Gospel too far, as though we can somehow perfectly distinguish all of the myriad ways God is involved in the world.

“Thou shall…” Law.

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Gospel.

“Thou shall not…” Law.

But then we get to the Sacraments. “This is my Body, given for you. Do this…” Huh. Well, it’s a command, which sounds like Law, but it’s also a promise of God’s grace…Lawspel?

“A new commandment I give to you: love one another.” What do we do? Jesus is giving us a new Law in the middle of the Gospel!

When we consider how God gave the Hebrews the Law after delivering them from slavery in Egypt, or the prophets’ calls to repentance and assurance of God’s steadfast love, Christ’s own teaching, what we see is not so sharp a distinction. We cannot draw a thick line between Law and Gospel the way that Luther wanted to, the way that Cranach did. When confronting the Pharisees, note what our Lord says: not that the Law is unnecessary but that God’s commandment is superior to human tradition. Elsewhere, Jesus says he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

For all of his attempts to distinguish between the two and his less-than-nuanced rhetoric, Luther was keenly aware of what Saint James is getting at today: not that we are saved by the Law but that the Law shows us how to live as God intends. And so while Luther taught that the Law shows us our sin, he also taught that it reveals who God has always intended us to be. It reveals how the Church is called to exist in the world. And Luther was keenly aware that the Gospel places a demand on believers, calling us to love God and neighbor.

The Law and the Gospel are not opposites but intimately linked. The Law is good news for us because through it, God has shown us how to live as citizens in the Kingdom of God. The Gospel places a demand on our lives, calls us to do good works as citizens of that same Kingdom. The Law does not give us license to angrily judge others or to trust in our own understanding but shows us how to be “doers of the word,” serving God and neighbor out of love.

Dear ones, we do not earn our salvation through our works, nor are we are set free from the need for good works. Rather, we are set free for good works. This is what Luther meant in On Christian Liberty when he wrote:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

In our Baptism, we are set free and united with Christ that we might be his hands and feet to build up the Kingdom of God, to do the work of Christ in the world. We are set free by God’s grace to obey the perfect Law, to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We are set free to serve the widow and the orphan and all who have need.

We are set free from our greed and set free to feed the hungry.

We are set free from our fear and set free to love our enemies.

We are set free from our pride and set free to be servants of all.

We are set free for life in God’s Kingdom and to obey the perfect Law – but in knowledge that we are not perfect. We will stumble. We will fall. We will return time and again to our sinful ways. But our divine Lawgiver is merciful; our Lord is perfect even when we are not. And so when we fail, time and again, when we return to the sins of greed, fear, and pride, our Lord is ready to forgive us. The grace poured out upon us in these waters will sustain us. Here, at this Table, we are strengthened by the Body of Christ, the True Bread of Heaven. Here is the forgiveness of sins for when we fall short, and here is also the grace to endure.


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