The other day I briefly mentioned how some Bible scholars have drawn attention to the differences in how Paul and James view “works” in terms of faith. In reading an article on a completely different topic yesterday morning, I came across Isaiah 1:10-20, containing a similar viewpoint to what I believe both Paul and James are trying to emphasize.
In this scripture, Isaiah has a disturbing vision of the Lord’s reaction to Israel’s empty, ritualistic faith. The Lord even refers to them as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah” to describe the ways they’ve approached him in worship. “The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. (v.11)
“If the people of Israel think they are immune from judgment because they are God’s chosen people, they must think again. If their behavior is no different from that of the world, their fate will be no different either. But the Israelites think they are entitled to favorable treatment because they have God’s revealed way of doing offerings.” If they just keep slaughtering more lambs and goats, and burning more incense, surely God will bless them! (Dr. John Oswalt, NIV Commentary on Isaiah)
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
But apparently the Israelites have gotten it all wrong. Worship isn’t simply about ritual that seeks self-benefit. True worship is reflected in everyday life through our transformed relationships. “The covenant in which the sacrificial laws appear is the same covenant where ethical treatment of one’s neighbors is required. It is not possible to have the one and not the other.” (Oswalt, 77)
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
“What God wants is right and just behavior, especially toward those who are helpless to demand such behavior on their own behalf…. Here is the true evidence that a person knows the Lord. Anyone can perform rituals, but the person who acts like God… that is the person who has entered into a life-changing relationship with him, and that is clearly what God wants.” (Oswalt, 78)
Similarly, in Philippians 2:3-4, Paul writes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
And in the letter of James, the brother of Christ points to Abraham, writing, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (2:21-22)
Faith and actions working together. I believe that’s something Isaiah, Paul, and James all agree on.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Cor. 13:14)