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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 21: FAITH VERSUS GOOD WORKS

The Gospel message of Jesus was a continuation and an expansion of the oracles of prophets like Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. But the oracles of those men that dealt with issues of social justice, mercy and compassion as the basis of religious life had been eclipsed by the legalistic, rabbinic Judaism that was so influential during the time of Christ.

What started out as an attempt to regulate the activities and responsibilities of every-day life by religious precepts, had deteriorated into a system of rules and regulations, the observance of which had become the measure of a person’s righteousness before God. . and before men. Piety and godliness had come to be defined by adherence to the proliferating statutes of religious laws.

Jesus had a scathing denouncement for those observant Jews who were so concerned with observing the minutiae of those laws that they neglected the underlying principles which informed them. “Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You who pay your tithes of mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the more impor-tant matters of the Law- -justice, mercy, good faith...You blind guides; Straining out gnats and swallowing camels.”[1]

Like the great prophets who had challenged their people hundreds of years before, Jesus also emphasized social justice issues. When men like Amos, Isaiah and Hosea spoke of the need for individual, as well as societal responsibility in alleviating the suffering of the people among them, it had been a significant change in emphasis for the Hebrew people. For hundreds of years they had emphasized God’s responsibility to meet the needs of those who were not served by existing means of dispensing charity or by occasional random acts of benevolence.

The Book of Psalms preserves the ancient outlook. Many of the Psalms were written circa 1000 B.C.[2] and witness to the belief that while it is man’s duty to pray for the poor, it is God’s duty to rescue them for the greed of other men.

“Why O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance, the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises...O God, do not forget the helpless...you are the helper of the fatherless. Break the arm of the wicked and evil man...Your Lord defends the fatherless and the oppressed.”[3]

“May God arise, may his enemies be scattered...a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”[4]

“Let the name of the Lord be praised both now and forevermore...He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”[5]

“Keep me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked...I know that God secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.”[6]

“Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord set prisoners free. . .The Lord sustains the fatherless and the widow.”[7]

But centuries after most of the Psalms were written; the Prophet Isaiah had a different message for his people. It was they, not God, who were responsible for insuring a rule of justice and compassion. Their traditional rituals for gaining divine favor amounted to a claim upon god: “Why have we fasted (Lord) and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?”[8]

Through the oracles of Isaiah, God had an answer for them. “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? (This is the kind of fast) I have chosen; to loose the chains of injustice, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- -when you see the naked to clothe him?. . .if you spend your-selves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.”[9]

Centuries later, in the tradition of Isaiah, Jesus denounced the Pharisees and teachers of the Law for the religiosity that was a cover for their ungodliness. He called them hypocrites, whose pious practices and demeanor were worthless in the sight of God. “Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You who are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of corruption. In the same way you appear to people from the outside like good honest men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”[10]

Jesus warned his listeners not to be impressed by the piety and religious observances that were a cover for injustice. “Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes and love to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets, who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers. The more severe will be the sentence they receive.”[11]

He told his followers that, ultimately, all the nations of the world would be judged by the same standard: a standard that had nothing to do with religious beliefs, with doctrines or with one’s ancestry. Those who were righteous in the sight of God were those who chose to do the right thing by making their treatment of others the measure of their godliness. It was human beings who oppressed and subjugated others, creating a world of tyranny and injustice, so it was up to humans to meet the needs of those who suffered because of that injustice.

Jesus said those he would claim as his followers were those who took responsibility of meeting the needs of those whom society treated with contempt or as nonentities, not even worthy of notice. The souls of men would be judged by very down-to-earth standards.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’  Then the virtuous will say to him in reply ‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?’ And the King will answer ‘I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’ ”[12]

Jesus went on to say that the King would then turn to the people on his left, telling them they were being judged unrighteous because they lacked compassion and con-cern for others.

“For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”[13]

Typical of those who follow the letter of the law and ignore its spirit, those who were cast off demanded to know “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and we did not come to your help? And Jesus said I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least among you, you neglected to do it to me. And they will go away to eternal punishment and the righteous to eternal life.”[14]

But just as the teachings of the great prophets of Israel had been eclipsed by the teachings of rabbinic Judaism so, also, the social justice teachings of Jesus were nullified by those Christians who made a fetish of what Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Romans: “For we hold that a man is justified and made upright by faith, independent of and distinctly apart from good deeds.”[15]  In the same Epistle, Paul repeated the statement of an Old Testament prophet named Habakkuk, who had written “The just shall live by his faith.”[16]

Paul’s teaching was a reaction against the endless proliferation of Jewish religious laws and a belief that their fulfillment was a guarantee of God’s favor. But “the just shall live by faith” has become a platitude, endlessly repeated by those contemporary Christians who like to keep their religious beliefs separate from their everyday activities. It is also a favorite of those who live by a hierarchical system in which Faith reigns supreme and good works are given a patronizing nod.

Paul’s doctrine, that faith reigns supreme, received the unqualified endorsement of Martin Luther. As an Augustinian priest, he had suffered torturous doubts regarding his own salvation. No matter how many penances he endured, or how many good works he did, he felt himself to be hopelessly lost. But then, Paul’s statement came to Luther with all the power of an epiphany: “The just shall live by faith.”  He could stop trying to gain salvation by the good works that were never enough to make him feel righteous.

Unfortunately, Luther was not content to rejoice in his freedom from self-condemnation and went right on over to self-righteousness. In the Peasants’ War of 1524, he opposed the social-economic demands of the peasants who were the tenant farmers of their day. They were the poor and the powerless who were being mercilessly op-  pressed by their manorial Lords. They were demanding justice in the courts, restrictions of the amount and kind of labor that landlords could force from them to do, and the abolition of serfdom.

Imbued with Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, Luther ignored Christ’s demand that his followers aid the poor and oppressed. Instead, he encouraged the aristocracy to beat back the revolution and appealed to the general public to do the same. He wrote a pamphlet against “the thieving, murdering peasant hordes,” and was instrumental in crushing their uprising. With Luther’s help, the German aristocracy was able to bring about the defeat of the disorganized and poorly armed peasants who suffered terrible reprisals when they were forced to return to their former condition.

Luther’s heritage of religiosity that sides with the powerful and prosperous as long as they invoke the name of God, lives on in observant Christians who, like the ancient Pharisees, keep the Sabbath holy, give their tithes to support churches and perform random acts of charity when so inclined. But they are prone to block societal attempts to help the disadvantaged. When governments attempt to spend tax dollars to feed the hungry, provide housing for the homeless and medical care for the sick, there is often great resistance to these acts of compassion and kindness. Objections are voiced that the recipients of such services may be undeserving; that money will be wasted by government bureaucracies; that providing services for the indigent undermines their character.

Like Martin Luther, many modern Christians look to Paul instead of Jesus for guidance in such matters. They consider themselves righteous in the sight of God because they are born-again believers. And they cite St. Paul as their authority for this claim. “For we hold that a man is justified and made upright by faith, independent of and distinctly apart from good deeds.”[17]

These Christian disciples of St. Paul also ignore what the Bible says in the Epistle of James. Traditionally known as the half-brother of Jesus, what he wrote accurately reflects what Jesus taught: “What good is it my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed’ but does nothing to help him, what good is it?[18]

James’ Epistle goes on to say that faith in God’s ability to supply the needs of others, while refusing to do anything to meet those needs, is a denial of God’s will. A denial by the very people who claim to believe in, and serve, the one God.

“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder. You foolish man, are you not willing to recognize that without works, faith is useless?. . .For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without good works is dead.”[19]

The refusal to believe that what a person does is just as important as what they believe is also a determination to follow the teachings of Paul, instead of Jesus. Although Christians believe that Christ died for their sins, and is their Savior, many reject his teaching that along with their faith, what good works they do, in response to the needy, determines their discipleship, as well as their eternal reward.[20]


[1]  Matthew 23:23-24  JB

[2]  It is now accepted that most of the 150 songs of praise in the Book of Psalms date from around the time of King David, circa 1000 B.C. But in the early part of the 20th century, advanced scholarship decided they were not all that ancient. That assessment turns out to have been based on a bias of the time which viewed debunking ancient traditions as a sign of true scholarship. Then, in mid-century, various archeological finds gave evidence that tradition was closer to the truth than the opinions of those avant garde scholars. Most of the Psalms are as ancient as originally claimed

[3]  Psalm 10:1-2, 15, 18  NIV

[4]  Psalm 68:1, 5  NIV

[5]  Psalm 113:2, 7  NIV

[6]  Psalm 140:4, 12, 13  NIV

[7]  Psalm 146:5, 7, 9  NIV

[8]  Isaiah 58:3  NIV

[9]  Isaiah 58:5-7, 10  NIV

[10]  Matthew 23:27, 28  JB

[11]  Luke 20:45-47  JB

[12]  Matthew 25:31-40  JB

[13]  Matthew 25:41-43  JB

[14]  Matthew 25:44-46  JB

[15]  Romans 3:28  AMP

[16]  Habakkuk 2:4  AMP

[17]  Romans 3:28  AMP

[18]  James 2:14-16  NIV

[19]  James 2:48-20, 26  NIV

[20]  Matthew 25:31-46  NIV

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