Hidden Stories 2—Words and Deeds

Last month, in Rich man, poor man, I mentioned that while, in the Gospel parables, teaching is hidden inside a story, in the Letter of St James, there are stories hidden inside the teaching. I thought I’d share another little story with you, this time based on chapters 2 and 3. I hope you won’t mind that it’s a bit longer.

Part 1

It’s the Sabbath after the one when Elder Yakob gave Brother Sophron a rather painful telling-off. Sophron is again on the bema of the synagogue that he helps to run, the one that broke away from the Jerusalem community to follow Yeshua Mashiach. Worship has just ended. That well-dressed stranger with all the rings who came last week didn’t come back. Sophron is disappointed about this, but two other things are very cheering. Firstly, Elder Yakob isn’t there either: perhaps his rheumatism is playing up. And even better, the chap with shabby clothes has come again, despite Sophron’s curtness last time, and has obviously profited by his visit. He joined loudly in the prayers and hymns, and, gratifyingly, paid close attention to Sophron’s word of instruction. It was his first such address, specially devised for people like that.

He still feels bad about the way he made that ill-dressed guy sit on the floor. This would be a good opportunity to make him welcome and get to know him a bit. I wonder what he will have to say about the teaching? With a bit of an inner glow at that thought, Sophron makes his way over to the man, who’s all by himself. The other congregants are chatting to each other all around him. I can be the first to make him feel at home, thinks Sophron.

‘Welcome, in the name of Mashiach Yeshua, my friend. I am Sophron bar Zakkai. May I know your name?’
‘My name is Elazar bar Adam, sir,’ says the man. He does look rather haggard, thinks Sophron. Hope he’s not unwell.
‘Brother Elazar, I noticed how keenly you participated in our worship. And you followed the teaching with great concentration. I hope you found it nourishing to your faith.’
Elazar’s eyes light up and his thin face breaks into a grin. ‘Yes, my brother, I am so hungry for the Word. I have been hungry for much of my life, but now I have found the Bread which really satisfies and does not perish.’
Sophron’s heart melts with pleasure. Here’s the real thing. One of the lost sheep of Israel, returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of souls.

There follows a wonderful conversation about the Faith. They talk about how all of us who are faithful to Mashiach are set free from everything that the Law of Mosheh could not set us free from—loosed from a burden which we were never really able to bear. (And how much more this must have been a burden for a poor man like you, than for a son of the priesthood like me, thinks Sophron.) How Mashiach fills the poor with good things, while the rich are sent away empty. This was very much the theme of Sophron’s word of instruction, but it’s more alive and heartwarming to share it.

‘And now brother,’ says Elazar,  ‘when Sabbath is out I will have much to do, as I am not a wealthy man, so I must leave you. I thank this brotherhood for its welcome and you for your words of edification. Until next Sabbath, peace be with you.’
‘And with you, Brother Elazar,’ says Sophron, ‘go in peace, keep warm, and be filled with all good things.’

It’s Brother Shimon’s turn to tidy the synagogue and lock up, so Sophron is soon striding down the alleyway, humming cheerfully to himself. Rounding a corner of the dark alley, he is suddenly knocked heavily into by another person coming the other way. He staggers, loses his balance, and lands sprawling in the dust—and the more unsavory stuff. The man who cannoned into him is sitting on the ground nearby surrounded by several large well-filled bags. A wineskin has burst, loosing a dark stain into the dirt, and near it several small flat loaves are scattered. The other man is wearing a deep hood so that his face cannot be seen, though the end of a grey beard peeps out.

Sophron’s whole body feels sore and he is slightly shocked and rather angry. ‘What on earth were you thinking of, you reckless idiot? Why can’t you look where you’re going, you stupid fool? My clothes are filthy and I’ve got bruises all over! May Heaven judge between us!’

The other man gets up slowly, evidently with some pain in the joints. He puts back his hood. Sophron’s mouth suddenly goes dry. It’s Elder Yakob.

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Part 2

Elder Yakob limps over and extends a hand to Sophron, pulling him up from the ground with surprising vigour for a man of his age.
‘Blessed be the Lord of Glory, Brother Sophron! May he judge mercifully! I apologize for knocking you over. I was in a great hurry.’
‘Blessed be he for ever, Brother Yakob, and thank you...’ In a state of confusion, Sophron casts around for a safe subject of conversation. ‘You were not at prayers today, brother? I was hoping you would appreciate my short word of instruction.’
‘No,’ says Yakob, gathering his bags one by one. ‘I am on an errand of the Lord Mashiach, to deliver these supplies to someone who needs them. Perhaps you would assist me,’ he continues, handing several large bags to Sophron. As there seems no way out of it, Sophron follows the older man up the alley.

‘It seems you are now a teacher of Israel,’ Yakob says over his shoulder. Oh dear, this is going to be one of his monologues. ‘Not many of us should become teachers, my brother, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways—as we have just been shown quite painfully. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.’
‘Brother Yakob, I’m well aware that I’m not perfect, but teaching—’
‘You know, Brother Sophron, the tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.’
At the word ‘hell’, Yakob stops abruptly and turns round, so that Sophron nearly bumps into him again. Looking straight into his face, Yakob continues:
‘With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father—blessed be he—and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. I rather think I heard you do both just now, did I not?’
‘Well, I—was taken rather by surprise, and—’
‘Brother Sophron, out of the same mouth—yours on this occasion—come praise and cursing. My brother, this should not be!’

They go on down the street. Hoping to change the subject, Sophron asks, as mildly as he can, ‘Brother Yakob, where are we going with these bags?’
‘To visit a certain Elazar bar Adam, who you may remember from last Sabbath prayers. He is a poor man and has a sick wife and three small children. These supplies will keep them going.’
‘That’s excellent, Brother Yakob. Brother Elazar came back again to prayers today and we had a wonderful talk afterwards.’
‘About what, may I ask, brother?’
‘About faith. He has the most perfect grasp of salvation by faith in Mashiach. Really, there was nothing I could teach him about faith!’
‘There you speak truthfully, brother.’
‘I hope I always do,’ says Sophron, a bit resentfully and wondering what he’s implying.
‘Elazar is without clothes and daily food, and your final words to him were something like “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed”, were they not?’
Oh dear, is this the preternatural insight that Elder Yakob has a reputation for?
‘Er, yes, brother—’
‘But you did nothing about his physical needs?’
‘Well, no, the subject didn't come up.’
‘And what good is faith like that?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘What good is it, brother, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead!’
‘Heaven forbid, Brother Yakob… I am sure I have a living faith...’
‘You believe that there is one God. That’s good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.’
‘Brother, you have faith, you say; I say that I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. Now I’m afraid I’m going to call you what you called me just now, but—Heaven judge between us—with justification. You stupid fool! Do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?’
‘By all means, Brother Yakob,’ says Sophron hoarsely, knowing that it will come whether or not he wants it.
‘When was our father Abraham called righteous? When was the scripture fulfilled, the one that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”, when he was called God’s friend?’
‘I suppose, when he offered his son Isaac on the altar, brother.’
‘So you see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And what about Rahab, Brother Sophron?’
‘What, the prostitute?!’
‘Yes—was she not considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?’
‘Well, I suppose you might call that—’
‘So, brother, you see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone, don’t you!’
Before Sophron can reply, Yakob stops in front of a door in the wall. He bangs on it with his fist.
‘Here we are, brother. Thank you for helping with the bags. Just leave them here. Go in peace, and remember,’ he continues with a smile, ‘as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.’

Somehow less keen to meet Brother Elazar just then, Sophron quickly heads home.

Next month, DV, a third story about Sophron, ‘Moth and Rust’.
If you enjoy (or can stomach) my unorthodox orthodox thoughts, you can find other faith-related ones in my blog Ecclos.