In a now famous experiment, two social psychologists at Princeton University in 1973 wanted to examine whether thinking religious thoughts would have any effect on helping people. They considered Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and how strange it is that it’s not the religious guys—the priest and the Levite—who helped the man in trouble. They passed by on the other side. They also wondered what effect hurry would have. Maybe those two guys were late for the Temple, while the Samaritan had no such rush going on.
So they set up an experiment for seminarians in training there and split them up into two groups who would all be sat down and asked to prepare a three to five minute talk. Half of the students were asked to prepare a talk on what kinds of jobs they thought ministers might do practically. The other half were also given the story of the Good Samaritan, and told they had to incorporate it into their talk. This was to get some people specifically thinking into issues related to God and helping people–shouldn’t that make them more likely to help someone if they see that need?
After they worked on their talk for a while, an assistant would come in and give them a map pointing them to a building across campus. Sometimes the assistant would say, “It’ll be a few minutes before they’re ready for you, but you might as well head on over.” In other words, no rush. Or to others the assistant would say, “Please go over now. They were expecting you a few minutes ago.” In other words, hurry up.
Along the way, the researchers had staged an “incident.” An actor was “sitting slumped in a doorway, head down, eyes closed, not moving.” It looked like he needed help. The actor coughed as the students had to walk by him on the way.
Each time one of the participants would pass the “victim,” the actor would rate the participant’s response using a scale from 1-6. The lowest score a person could get meant that he “failed to notice the victim as possibly in need at all.” A little higher on the scale equated to, “stopped and asked if victim needed help.” Six marks was “after stopping, refused to leave the victim and/or insisted on helping.”
Now it’s no surprise to me that hurry affects helpfulness. Ministry students in a rush were much less helpful toward the man in need compared to those in no rush to get to the other building. People concerned about being late either didn’t notice, or failed to help.
But remember they also studied whether it mattered that some of the students were actively thinking about the Bible story and the religious virtue of helping others. How much did that matter?
It didn’t matter at all.
Students on their way to give a talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan were no more likely to give help, than students going to give an unrelated talk.
Even though we might expect this should have made a difference, there’s no evidence of any difference in practical helpfulness between the two. In fact, the researchers noted, “on several occasions, seminary students going to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim!”
Readers of the Book of James will soon notice that he pulls no punches. In Chapter 1 we are told (James 1:22), “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Don’t just say I’m a learner, be a doer.
Scholars agree that James is the most Jewish book in the New Testament, written mostly to a Jewish audience, so perhaps this statement highlights a clash of cultures, the differences between Hebrew and Greek thinking. James is a Jew writing to Jewish Christ followers, now scattering across a world ruled by Romans with a Greek mind-set—like ours.
Here in the 21st century West, our philosophy is shaped by Plato and Aristotle much more than Jesus and the Bible. That’s why we need to have our minds renewed by the Word and the Spirit to think and live biblically.
Why would James say “Don’t just listen, DO”?
Hebrew vs. Greek Understanding
The English word “listen” means “take notice to a sound.” The Hebrew word for listen—Sh’ma—is very important for Jews. Every day they prayed from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one.” Sh’ma is interpreted in the Greek as “listen,” “hear,” or “obey.” It means all that, and much more.
The Hebrew word means what Jesus says so often, “Have ears to hear.” Pay full attention, as if your life depended on it. Then immediately work to incorporate it into your life. Adapt every aspect of your thought life, speech, and conduct to what you have heard. Start to memorise it, teach it to the kids as you walk through life. Live it out in the world around you.
For Greeks, sight is the most important sense.
For Hebrews, it’s hearing.
Greek thought taught for the sake of knowledge, philosophically speaking.
Hebrew thinking values wisdom, practically living.
Western thought wants to break things down into steps to figure it out.
Hebrew thought wants to see it all together, to live it out.
Greek thought divides and dissects everything into categories. Either/or.
Hebrew thought brings it all together, both/and.
The Greek ideal is an individual winning in competition.
The Hebrew is community conquering through cooperation.
Greek and western thought means you’re important because of what belongs to you.
Hebrew thinking says you’re important because you belong, in family.
Greek splits up natural and supernatural, divine and profane.
Hebrew says everything’s supernatural.
For the Greeks, truth is something you uncover by philosophy and science, bottom up.
For Hebrews, God is truth and you discover him by revelation, top down.
Greek thinking says, “I know it when I understand it.”
Hebrew thinking says, “I know it, because I do it.”
(Read James 2:14-17)
God-Talk AND God-Acts
To the Hebrew mind you can’t have God-talk without God-acts. Bible truths coming out of your lips but not in your life? No. The two are one.
When Jesus was asked what’s the greatest commandment, he said, “Love God and your neighbour.” Indivisible. We divide the two up. But God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense.
Next James injects what someone will always say: “Well I do good works, but I’m not a believer, so that’s okay then?” He would respond, “No! It’s never either/or. Stop looking for that! It’s both/and. Works and faith. Faith and works. That’s all that works!”
Next, someone else says, “Well I don’t need to do any ‘works’ because I’m saved by faith. I became a Christian. I prayed the prayer. I believe in God.” James says, “Really?! You have knowledge about a concept in your head, you want to call faith something doesn’t change how you live? What kind of fake faith is that?! Even demons ‘believe’ God is real, they ‘know’ about that. What good does that ‘knowing’ do?!”
Of course we can never earn salvation by doing enough good deeds. Otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have had to come from heaven to save us. That’s not James' point. It’s not either/or.
Martin Luther flipped out about the Book of James famously calling it “an epistle of straw” because he thought James was saying something different to what the apostle Paul wrote about faith, how it’s a free gift we can’t earn by works. Perhaps that was because Luther was a western mindset scholar, so it had to be either/or. But James—and Paul—would say, “No, both faith and works are working together.”
As we continue studying through James that will become extremely clear. He’s not saying, "You’d better do good works if you want to be saved." He’s saying, “If you truly believe, you will show it by what you do.”
He’s not saying, ‘IF you do good deeds THEN you’ll be saved.” He’s going the other way and saying, “IF you’ve been saved, THEN you’ll do good works.” Because faith without works, won’t work! It’s dead faith.
Love is the True Test of Faith
Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 13:5 says, “examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith ....” So what’s the test? James is full of tests. What’s the true test of faith? I believe it is love. Love is the test of faith. James says faith is proved by how you love your brothers and sisters.
And who are they? The church.
James writes about brothers (adelphoi)—all the time. Fifteen times, and each time he’s talking about the church. God’s family. He sees the church now as being his family. Not “like ” his family. It’s deeper and stronger than that. The blood of Jesus unites them. Remember that James’ flesh and blood half-brother is Jesus. Mary’s his Mum, Joseph is James’ dad. He has other brothers and sisters in the family too.
There’s a lot of talk these days about family being redefined, but Jesus did it first.
(Read Matthew 12:46-50)
That’s Jesus blowing up the nuclear family, and starting all over, with church. So now for James and these early Christians, that’s how they saw it. Family. Belonging in family was everything to the Hebrews.
The early church was slandered, accused of incest by outsiders because they heard them talking about loving their brothers and sisters, having love feasts with them. They didn’t understand what communion was. When they heard they drank blood at those celebrations, the persecution went to another level!
Whatever family meant and looked like before, he’s made all things new. God the Father wanted a family and the church is the family of God. James says you show you belong to Jesus, when as part of his family you care for the other members, especially the ones in need. Because only faith that works, works.
What Is Faith?
To illustrate that he says think back to the Father of faith—Abraham. He prayed, hoped, and waited all his life for a son. He’s 100 years of age when Isaac is born. Then a few years on, God tests his faith. Genesis 22 is a faith/love test. It says, “Take your son, your only son who you love - and sacrifice him to me on the mountain.”
Can he just stay where he is with his son and say, “Oh Lord, that’s an interesting question to ponder. You and I both know I love you more than anything.” Can he stay there, and have faith? Can faith stay in a tent at the bottom of the mountain? Can faith say to God, “I need to figure this all out first. This seems terrible to me God. I thought you were my friend. I don’t get it. But I still believe in my head that you exist!” Is that faith? No.
Faith has to put walking boots on, and go up the mountain—with his son. Halfway up Isaac looks at his dad and says, “We’ve got the wood, and I see you have a big knife there. But where’s the sacrifice?” Then Abraham looks at him and says this, “God himself will provide ….”
Faith says, “God will provide.” Faith knows, before you know. That is faith. When I have no idea what God is up to.
Martin Luther said this was “blind faith.” Faith without reason. Soren Kierkegaard called it the “leap of faith.” Like that Indiana Jones movie when he has this chasm to cross and he can’t see a way over. He has to put his hand over his eyes and step out anyway. Then he sees there was a bridge there.
But you know what? This was not blind faith. It was reasonable. Abraham was trusting the God he knew. He’d seen so many times that God is a provider. Isaac himself was a miracle. So he hung onto what he knew. He knew who God is and what he could do. It was not a leap in the dark, but a step into the light. In the light of who he knew his God to be. And all the time Abraham was walking up one side of the mountain, God was sending a ram up the other side, the side of the mountain that he couldn’t see.
(Read Hebrews 11:17-19)
See that? That’s what faith is. It’s reasonable. So it does something that says “I trust you God!” The God who can raise the dead, can do anything! When you know that he did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, you never need to doubt that he loves you. That together with him he’ll give us all things. That’s faith, that works.
James’ final picture of faith comes from an outsider, an immoral person, a sinner, a prostitute called Rahab we read about in the Book of Joshua. She’s not one of God’s chosen people. She’s a Canaanite living in the walled city of Jericho where the enemies of God’s people live. But she’s heard about this God who’s coming with his people. How they came out of Egypt years before by walking across the Red Sea as if it was dry land, and now they’re just on the other side of the River Jordan!
So when they send spies over and into the city Rahab helps them. Hides them. Why? She says, “I heard about your God Yahweh, please - I want to be saved.” They say, ‘When our God comes to destroy this place, if you will do something, tie a scarlet cord in the window as a sign of that faith, you’ll be saved.” And she did, and when the walls came tumbling down, hers didn’t. So now Rahab is also listed in the heroes of faith with Abraham in Hebrews 11.
She came into a new family, the family of God, by faith. She married a Jewish man called Salmon. They had a son called Boaz, who married Ruth, great grandmother of King David.
Then Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Rahab was the great, great, great—well, 30 generations—grandmother of a man called Joseph. Whose son was called Jesus of Nazareth, who was really the only begotten Son of God.
And here now, telling us her story, is another of Joseph’s sons. He looked back in the family album and saw all sorts of very interesting people in the family God. A family he wants all of us to be a part of.
Anthony Delaney is a Leader at Ivy Church in Manchester. He is also the leader for New Thing and the LAUNCH conference. He is an author and hosts the television show “Transforming Life.”