"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?"
James continues the general theme he has been hammering home since the end of chapter one. Faith is not just about what you think. What you do is also an essential part.
James points out a fundamental contradiction between those who might say they love others and yet do nothing to show it, especially when the needs are obvious. It is similar to Jesus in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus sends a group off to eternal punishment who are surprised at their verdict. Because they did not clothe the naked, feed the sick, or give drink to the thirsty, they are not saved. Similarly, James says that faith that does not demonstrate itself in the concrete love of others is not sufficient to save a person from God’s judgment. It is a “no good” faith, in James’ estimation. We are our brother’s keeper as Christians.
Poverty was fairly straightforward in James’ day. There were people who needed food and clothing and had no means whatsoever to get it. Family was the primary back-up plan, but an orphan or a widow might not have any. There were no jobs you could apply for, like today. There was no government welfare program like today. Either someone found it in his or her heart to give you something or you were lost. The situation is a little more complex today. What does it mean to help someone today? Certainly it still means not to let someone starve. But some people need help to find a job. A person can also become unnecessarily dependent on others. It calls for great discernment.
You have probably heard the saying, “Give a person a fish and he or she has a fish today. Teach them to fish and they will have fish for the rest of their lives.” Certainly a believer will not let someone starve or freeze to death if it is at all within our power to stop it. But even more important is helping others become self-sufficient so that they do not need help the next time. What is difficult is that some people do not want to fish, the causes of which are complex and do not let us off the hook from helping. To love others means to try to help others concretely in all three ways—immediately, by equipping, and by changing mindsets.
Jesus, keep us from becoming callous to the needs of others. Make us excellent teachers of fishing.
“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” John Bunyan