It is Christ who saves us, yes, not our works. And it is by faith in him that we accept salvation. But this does not mean that all our other actions count for nothing. The authenticity of our faith is tested out by the fruit it bears, particularly in our relations to each other—more particularly still, in our relationship to the poor. The Letter of James is not unique in stressing action. Most of the words attributed to Jesus do the same.
Concern for the poor and the marginal is not a pet theory fabricated by liberation theologians or some left-wing ideology. It is as old as Isaiah: “Say to those whose hearts are frightened, be strong, fear not. ... The eyes of the blind will be opened the ears of the deaf be cleared.” Our God is concerned with the fate of those visibly wounded and at the margins of life.
The Letter of James makes it even more clear. It speaks of our ritual assemblies. How do we relate to the members of our congregation? Let us imagine an immaculately dressed man in designer clothes, or a gilded superstar with gold on neck and fingers. Then we see a bag lady, a little confused, in shabby clothes, maybe murmuring to herself. To whom do we attend? Whom do we wish to win over? Whom do we avoid?
Suppose further you were to take notice of the well-dressed man and say, “Sit right here, please,” whereas you were to say to the poor person, “You can stand.” Is this not a corrupt decision?
Ouch! The writer then reminds us that God chose the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. Unfortunately, we often choose only the rich to make them a little poorer for the sake of the building program.
As for Jesus in the Gospels, there is no doubt he accepted and loved rich and healthy people, especially those who knew their own wounds and poverty. But he always had time for the marginal and the dispossessed, the maimed and the broken. If we were to measure the amount of space in the Gospels devoted to the hurt or poor and compare it to any other pet issue we cherish as the “litmus test” of our faith, there is little doubt that the sick and needy are more important than any other reality.
Witness Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. He attends to the deaf man, a passive mumbler. He draws close. He touches him and prays. And his power shines forth. If we say that we are disciples of Jesus, if we hold that he is not only our savior but our way as well, then his manner of concern must in some way be our own.
Our attentiveness and care for each other and especially for the poor is not a tactic to win us paradise. It is rather our grateful response to God’s promised love for us in our own poverty and disability.
Perhaps this is why it may well be the old bag lady in the back, so marginal to the world, or the quiet penitent near the door, reluctant to approach the altar, who brings a greater gift of prayer than any of us laden with talent or largess.