The Letter of James presented Martin Luther with serious problems because, as we’ve just heard, it says that ‘a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’, whereas Romans 3.28 says that ‘a person is justified by faith apart from works’, and for Luther that was the heart not only of Paul’s gospel, as we might say, but of the gospel. Luther therefore placed this ‘epistle of straw’ (as he called James) at the end of his New Testament, along with a few other texts that seemed not to fit as he thought they should with what Paul says in Romans. This crux of interpretation is actually one of the easier crosses to take up and most interpreters now have little difficulty accepting that Paul and James are making complementary rather than contradictory points.
In fact the taking up of one’s cross, which is what Jesus asks his disciples to do, seems to be neither simply a matter of faith nor simply a work but something in between, or rather something involving both, an allowing or an accepting, something more like prayer which is impossible without faith but whose ‘merit’ (if we may use that term) is not simply proportionate to the energy we put into it. It is more like opening up to, and becoming aligned with, the work of God, this kingdom of God coming with power, which is clearly God’s work but which comes about through the love and obedience of the man, Jesus Christ. And who are we to object if God has given us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ (as Paul himself puts it), if God has given us a standing in His sight through our participation in the Spirit and our baptism into Christ? Of course James does not spell all that out which is why his practical approach, refreshing as it is, can begin to seem like a kind of moralising.
The passage from Mark’s gospel assures us that following Jesus is not a matter of gaining the world, a great achievement of ours, but is something paradoxical and not easily understood, renouncing myself, taking up my cross, and losing my life for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel. While we are thinking about interpreting texts, and reconciling divine grace with human freedom, the needy neighbour is sent our way so that we can put to the test our claim to be following Jesus. Surely this is an emphasis in the letter of James which undoubtedly belongs to the heart of the gospel.