Back to ethics

August 24, 2009

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves
is the kind of statement that drove Luther up a wall. Luther famously
thought James to be “an epistle of straw,” and he stored up a few words of faint praise with which to damn the letter:

does nothing more than drive to the law and its works. Besides, he
throws things together so chaotically that it seems to me he must have
been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of
the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper.

In my early
days as a preacher, I tacitly agreed with Luther. I perhaps would never
have spoken out loud his frank criticisms of James, but I was so
attached to narrative as a genre and sheer grace as a theological theme
that James’s little moral lessons—on everything from holding one’s
tongue to showing patience in suffering to the ethics of ushering in
worship—seemed to me to be, if not straw, at least small potatoes. I
wanted people to be hearers of the word; doing was for Sunday school.

seasons change. Some of the biblical documents that Luther (and I)
found so wanting—James, Revelation, Hebrews—contain the very stuff that
many congregations now lean forward eagerly to hear. Why?

In one of his early books,
Don Browning makes the case that pastors of a certain generation were
trained to suspend moral judgment as pastoral caregivers. When people
came to their pastors for counsel, this constituted an implicit
statement, “I know what I am supposed to do in life, but I have gotten
to the place that I cannot do it.” In the safety and privacy of the
counseling relationship, the pastor was to communicate, in effect, “In
here there is no right or wrong, only total acceptance and unconditional
grace.” The hope was that in this nonjudgmental environment the broken
places could be healed and the parishioners could get back into the
moral fray.

But now the culture has changed, observes Browning.
When people come to their pastors today, their cry is often not “I know
what I am supposed to do; I just can’t do it,” but “I do not know what I
am supposed to do.” In a Jon and Kate Plus 8
era, people can be quite unsure about what constitutes the shape of a
life that matters, about what it means to live a life that has moral
substance. To suspend the categories of right and wrong would do nothing
but exacerbate the situation.

This does not mean, of course,
that the church and its pastors should become hectoring and judgmental
moral exhorters, but instead that pastors should call more freely upon
those swaths of scripture that appeal to the wisdom and ethical
traditions of the faith and should seek to help people discern what the
total acceptance and grace of the gospel look like on the moral ground.

And therein lies the power in the Epistle of James. In Luther’s day, the need was to lift up the broad and sweeping themes of sola fidei
and radical grace—it is no wonder that James’s moral small ball made
Luther a tad cranky. But now, James’s very ability to hold a magnifying
glass to the ethics of everyday life—his capacity to urge us toward such
deeds as providing a blessing in the exchanges of daily conversation,
making peace in close and sometimes strained personal relationships,
caring “for widows and orphans in their distress” as a life well worth
living, seeking in family and vocation to live in such gentle ways that
we reap a “harvest of righteousness”—comes as a deep and cooling

Additional lectionary columns by Thomas Long appear in the August 25 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe. Long will also be giving the Century's annual lecture next month.

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