One of my favorite current series of commercials is for DirecTV. These commercials feature board members for Cable Corp Inc., a fictional high powered cable company, sitting around a posh board room table trying to figure out ways to compete with DirecTV whose products, prices, and services are apparently killing their business. In one commercial, a board member is bemoaning that customers love DirecTV because they can watch movies in "full 1080p," to which another board member responds, "Yes, but they can't watch movies in 1,000,080p." The rest of the board, completely confused because Cable Corp Inc. doesn't broadcast in 1,000,080p, asks him to explain. In his mind, it's quite simple: Cable Corp Inc. doesn't broadcast in 1,000,080p and DirecTV doesn't broadcast in 1,000,080p. The two companies, then, are on equal footing. Thus, he responds to his board members' inquiry: "Oops! Look like someone's just leveled the playing field!"
The humor of this commercial, of course, lies in the fact that although this flamboyant board member can talk about competing with DirecTV, he takes absolutely no action toward real and meaningful competition. And this, essentially, is James' argument concerning faith and works in our reading for today from James 2:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (verses 14-17)
To paraphrase, James says, "You can boast about the 'features' your faith has all you want. You can even try to 'level the playing field,' as it were, by making excuses as to why others' faith results in action while yours remains stagnate. But if your faith helps no one, you're merely fooling yourself. For your faith is meant not only to justify you before God apart from works (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9), your faith is meant to help others because it results in works."
James then continues by offering two examples of persons whose faith resulted in works. The first one, especially to a first century Jewish mind like James', would have been a no-brainer: Abraham. As James notes, Abraham was "called God's friend" (verse 23), was the very patriarch of the Jewish nation, and was well known for his many yeoman-like feats of faith. He was a paragon of what it looked like for faith in God to result in action toward others.
But James isn't done yet. He has another example up his sleeve: that of Rahab. Rahab? Granted, she is remembered for helping the Israelites in the book of Joshua as they sought to conquer Jericho, but she is also a Gentile rather than a Jew and she worked in the "world's oldest profession." Putting Rahab next to Abraham as an example of faith being put into action hardly seems fair. For the two are scores apart in their level of piety, Rahab being much lower on the scale. Why would James do such a thing?
Finally, it is faith, not their works, which made both of these people a part of God's Kingdom. Indeed, their faith is the only thing which Abraham and Rahab seem to have in common. But their faith did indeed result in some sort of action, even if Abraham's actions are remembered as much more numerous and much more precious than are Rahab's. And that's fine. For James' point is not the amount of action that a person's faith results in, but that a person's faith does indeed result in some sort of righteous action.
In James' mind, it is fruitless and futile to compare our actions of faith to another's actions of faith. We don't need to try to "level the playing field." Instead, we need simply to press ahead, content with the actions that God himself has prepared for us, as Paul says: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10). God has works of faith for each one of us. There's no need to compare ourselves to others and try to outdo one another.
So today, what work of faith does God have for you? Comforting a mourner? Caring for someone who's sick? Assisting an elder? The possibilities are endless. My prayer for you today is that you cheerfully put your faith into action. For this not only pleases God, it helps others. And we can all use a little help.