“Faith without works,
Like a song you can’t sing,
It’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”
Screen Door, Rich Mullins
Of all the books I’ve read so far for this study of stewardship, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger is the one I’ve not only enjoyed the most, it’s also the one that has had the most impact on my own thoughts about stewardship. I’ll make a guess right now that of all the books I’ll read about stewardship this semester, this will be the one that impacts me the most.
Rich Christians looks at just about every aspect of stewardship through the lens of how our stewardship – or lack of it – affects the poor people of this world. The author, Ronald J. Sider, leaves no stone unturned in his quest to show the reader how what we do in the industrialized North either blesses or curses those in the developing South. In fact, this book is so complete, and everything I’ve ever wanted to tell people, that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just buy all the copies I can find on Amazon and give them to people, instead of trying to write my own version. Sider covers the environment, finances, spiritual gifts, and time, and pretty much does away with any excuses we might have for not helping those in need.
We walk a fine line when it comes to a theology of salvation. By that, I mean that there are those who believe that they’re going to heaven simply because they’re good people. Romans 3:23-24 says “23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” So those people of the world who believe that they’re “good enough” on their own are, quite simply, wrong. Salvation comes through Jesus, since no one is “good enough”: “8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The great thing about this is that all you have to do is have faith in Jesus (that’s a little simplistic, but my intent is not to go into a whole explanation of how one becomes a Christ-follower) and God wipes the slate clean and one becomes as sinless as Jesus.
But for those of us who have been following Christ for a long time, we often forget that while our salvation isn’t based on works, how we demonstrate our faith is: “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17).
I don’t know why we forget this so often. I’m guilty of it too. The weird thing is that we look to Paul and James to teach us these things, but they are just telling us what Jesus already did:
25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
26"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
27He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'[a]; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b]"
28"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
29But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a Jew traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho is robbed and beaten by thieves, who leave him for dead by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite both pass the victim and decide not to help him, but a Samaritan sees the man and takes pity on him. The Samaritan takes care of the Jew, putting him on his own donkey to get to a safe place to tend to the Jew’s injuries.
This is a radical concept for the Jews listening to Jesus right then: the Jews and the Samaritans hated each other at this time, and helping a Samaritan would probably have been worse than helping a Roman at the time (and you know how much the Jews liked the Romans, since they were occupying Israel at the time). If I understand the law correctly, just touching a Samaritan would make a Jew unclean, something that requires significant ritual and sacrifice to amend.
At the end of the parable, Jesus asks:
36"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
37The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
Jesus redefines the word “neighbor” in that moment, rescuing it from the warped, earthly notion that we have created for it. What Jesus is saying to the Jews, and to us, is that it doesn’t matter what we think about other races, colors, and cultures. It doesn’t matter what we think about someone’s religious beliefs. Our neighbor isn’t just our friend or the person who lives in the same homogenous neighborhood that we live in; our neighbor is whoever shows mercy on us.
Left to my own devices and mentality, I probably wouldn’t show mercy to many people, so I wouldn’t be a neighbor to many. You might be thinking that no one has been a neighbor to you, in that no one has shown you mercy. But Jesus, God Incarnate, has mercy on you, every single moment that you ask for it. Jesus picks us up from the side of the road, saves us from those who would harm us, and is our neighbor. And then he tells us to show mercy to others, to be a good neighbor to them.
John 13:34 puts it this way: “34"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
All people will know that we follow Jesus because of what we do, not through the faith we profess with our mouths. We are saved by grace through faith, but faith without works is dead. Jesus calls us to be neighbors to all, to love one another, and we show our love by doing things for others.
Rich Christians takes on the argument that what we believe is more important than what we do, and Sider explains that faith and works must work in tandem in our lives. In the next few posts, I’ll show you what he says about the typical American Christian and how we can be better stewards. We are to be neighbors to the poor people of this world – as God has shown us mercy, so must we also show mercy to them.