Gleanings From the Text
Talk to two different people about the letter of James, and you’ll likely hear at least three different opinions. This brief book tucked towards the back of our bibles has a reputation for being rather neglected -- or for stirring up strong emotion and memorable rhetoric. Comparing it to several other New Testament books, Martin Luther famously referred to it as “an epistle of straw,” with “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”
Admittedly short on that which is Christological, this (probably) pseudonymous letter is long on that which is practical and tangible. It is important to realize, however, that James wrote to a community of believers, people entirely aware of Jesus and his story. The letter was written not to bring its readers to faith, then, but to advise its readers on how to live out the faith they already had.
These eleven verses contain a helpful progression. Verses 17-18 offer an important grounding of all that follows, stating unambiguously that all that is good comes from God, “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Here, James poetically acknowledges God’s creative works and God’s consistent faithfulness, and then reminds us of our call to be the “first fruits.”
The verses that follow offer concrete advice on how we are to be those first fruits. Verses 19-21 provide instruction for receiving and internalizing the “implanted word that has the power to save your souls” as a first step, before the letter unleashes its forceful call to action in verses 22-27. This call to be “doers” of that word, rather than only “hearers” of it, leaves little room for compromise. Specific mention of “orphans and widows” is not to lift up these two populations above all others; this phrase is often used to represent all oppressed peoples as those about whom God is particularly concerned (see also Isaiah 1:16-17) -- and therefore as those for whom we are challenged to show particular concern, as well.
Food For Thought
James’ emphasis on being “doers” in this text, particularly regarding oppressed peoples, is part of what creates a big message within a short book. It’s a message that can make some of us a bit uncomfortable, precisely because it has the ability to reignite (or feed the continued flames of) a Christian commitment to social justice.
As Peter Rhea Jones has noted, this letter “could actually bring off a renewing of the Christian life. There will be a recurring temptation to tame the powerful social message of this flaming letter, to domesticate it and calm its biting, all too relevant message into palatable terms. If this message of James is allowed to go out unmuffled, it will rattle the stained glass windows.”
Rattling windows can have both positive and negative connotations. What about that idea makes you nervous? What about it do you find exciting or promising? A life of discipleship is not always comfortable. What can we learn here, about ourselves, the world, and God’s work in the world?
Sink Your Teeth Into This
One of the sermons I remember best is a sermon I didn’t actually hear. During the expected sermon time, the preacher offered only a few introductory comments - and then sent the congregation out of the sanctuary and into the community, to be “doers” of all that we proclaim in church each Sunday. One church member said afterwards, “Every week, we hear the sermon. This week, we lived it.”
Though many members of my church are involved in similar activities - preparing food at homeless shelters, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, and more - there was something poignant about those activities occurring during the time generally reserved for sitting in church, worshipping, listening, and discussing. One Sunday in Williamsburg, we were reminded that hearing the word and doing the word are one and the same.
Cain Hope Felder. Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989.
Frances Taylor Gench. Hebrews and James. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
Patrick J. Hartin. A Spirituality of Perfection: Faith in Action in the Letter of James. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999.
Peter Rhea Jones. “Approaches to the Study of James.” Review and Expositor 66 (1969).
Elsa Tamez. The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead. New York: Crossroad, 1990.
Jenny McDevitt (MDiv, Union-PSCE, 2009) can't get enough of Richmond! She has deferred admission to a doctoral program in biblical studies and will spend the next year completing advanced coursework in Union-PSCE's Th.M. program and working as the seminary's Union Fellow in Institutional Advancement. She is excited to work with Join the Feast as co-editor and invites you to pull a chair up to the table as a contributing writer.
You can contact Jenny at firstname.lastname@example.org.