What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
Happy the man who fears the Lord,
who takes delight in his commands.
His sons will be powerful on earth;
the children of the upright are blessed. (R./)
Riches and wealth are in his house;
his justice stands firm for ever.
He is a light in the darkness for the upright:
he is generous, merciful and just. (R./)
The good man takes pity and lends,
he conducts his affairs with honour.
The just man will never waver:
he will be remembered for ever. (R./)
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."
The gospel contrasts two forms of motivation that often struggle for the upper hand: taking up one's cross or acting for personal aggrandizement. The action which threatens to destroy us is the one which gives permanence of our life; the action which seems to affirm and build us up turns on us and destroys us. "Whoever would save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."
In talking about the value of good works for salvation, James cites two examples from the many available in the Hebrew Scriptures. First, he pictures Abraham, who was willing to kill his darling son Isaac, under the illusion that he was obliged to worship in the Canaanite fashion. Second (in the few verses omitted today), he lists the harlot Rahab, who though misguided in her lifestyle, welcomes the invading Israelites as the wave of the future.
God sees a brighter future and a truer holiness in people whose hearts are sincere and honest than in others who put on a splendid display, while failing to really do what is needed. The rich man (or politician?) can always express sympathy for his needy neighbours, while doing nothing to meet their actual needs. "What good is that?" James trenchantly asks.
If we set aside all pious camouflage, and reach out with help to the neighbour in need, we have taken up our cross. To stand by someone in need is to follow the way of Jesus the friend of sinners and outsiders. It's what he means by losing one's life; and in so doing we will get a glimpse of the true "kingdom of God."