Even on a local scale, problems like poverty and hunger can overwhelm our imaginations. My own city of Lancaster, Pa., is like countless others. Pockets of true poverty cluster in the old city and dot the countryside. Affluent developments surround the city, while hip new housing is popping up in the center of the city. An impressive urban revitalization campaign has transformed the city’s image, making downtown an attractive place to eat, shop, and play.
Recently, however, a study by Franklin and Marshall College has shown that Lancaster’s resurgence has not helped its poorest residents. Just the opposite has occurred. Between 2000 and 2013, per capita income has grown by 20 percent in the city’s center while it has declined in every other section. What looks like progress from the outside contradicts the harsh reality that thousands experience.
It’s a typical scenario, in which outcomes such as life expectancy and high school completion rates vary dramatically, even in adjacent zip codes and school districts. Faced with such stubborn realities, many individuals feel at a loss concerning how to make a difference.
Sometimes things can be simple. Like dirt and food. In Surrey, British Columbia — part of the Vancouver metropolitan area — God’s Little Acre Farm provides fresh produce for the hungry. Jas Singh started the farm in 2011 with just three acres to cultivate. With minimal resources — the farm rents over 70 acres but does not own land — and relying heavily on volunteer labor, this little farm has grown to provide literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce per year to food-short households. The farm does hire laborers, but hundreds of volunteers cultivate and harvest the land.
It can be that simple. The epistle of James insists that hearing the word of God necessarily entails living it out: “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22, NRSV)
God’s Little Acre, a farm in Surrey, BC, Canada, is helping to feed the hungry.
Some contemporary Christians excel in works of justice and mercy, while others seek moral purity. James recognizes no such distinction. As example of what it means to live according to the word, James settles upon all three: ordinary acts of justice and mercy complemented by moral uprightness. Doers of the word look out for the vulnerable and the needy, and they maintain their distinctiveness from the world.
As the epistle says,
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
This passage from James comes with a mixed legacy in Christian interpretation. Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers valued the law and honored its relevance for Christians. But the reformers also emphasized that people cannot earn their salvation by doing good works. Although Luther and others affirmed the law’s value, their emphasis lay with the necessity of grace and faith instead.
James poses a problem for the grace-not-works position. James includes many passages that sound very much like sayings from Jesus, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The exhortation to be doers of the word and not mere hearers (1:22) sounds very much like Matthew 7:21-29.
There Jesus warns that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven” (7:21). He also speaks of the one who “hears these words of mine and acts on them” (7:24), calling foolish the one who hears and does not act (7:26).
James says that people who hear but fail to do what they hear deceive themselves (1:22). James’ take on the law sounds very much like Jesus.
For these reasons Martin Luther questioned the value of James, and Luther’s argument continues to wield strong influence. Many Christians regard the law as a threat: an impossible standard according to which God must necessarily condemn human beings.
But marginalizing James’ message is a mistake. The author of James was a Jew who followed Jesus. Like other Jews, this writer regards the law not as a threat but as a source of joy and blessing. James calls it the “law of liberty,” promising blessing to those who do the law.
James celebrates doing the law, leading with key examples that are doable. Look out for a widow or an orphan. Feed a hungry person.
The early followers of Jesus were in no social position to eliminate poverty or overturn the economic system of the Roman Empire. Like Jas Singh, however, they could feed hungry people. Ending hunger is overwhelming. Growing produce for hungry people is not.
This post originally appeared at ONScripture and has been edited for length.