The Letter of James begins with a greeting that is similar to many greetings in letters (or epistles) in the New Testament. But other than that, James lacks other formal characteristics of a letter. This letter reads more like an elegant treatise than a letter to particular group. That’s not intended to diminish this letter in any way, but to describe the tone and the context.
There are a couple of potent quotables (to borrow a “Jeopardy” category) in James — 1:22 says, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” and 2:17 says, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” These quotes and several others lead us to believe that the Letter of James pushes us to consider an ethic that is deeply Christian, a way of living and thinking that is fundamental to be a Christian, or in “Christian-ese,” piety. This ethic, or piety, presented in James is centered around conflicts or tensions between rich and poor.
Biblical scholar, A.K.M. Adam says that throughout the letter, James drives toward the point that our theological integrity — our whole-hearted, consistent, comprehensive devotion to God — requires of us a particular kind of life and character. As God brought us into being in an act of perfectly free giving, so we — “a kind of first fruits of his creatures” — display God’s own changeless goodness and generosity by truthfulness, humility, gratitude, patience, steadfastness, and generous provision for those who depend on us. In 1:8, James criticized those who respond to God with only partial commitment as “double-minded and unstable in every way”, echoing Jesus’ warning against setting one’s heart on earthly treasures, or against putting one’s hand to the plough and looking back. James understands the inclination to mix allegiance to God with practical concerns for oneself, but cautions his readers that such divided loyalties will not withstand the trial of hard times.
James 2:14-26 has echoes in material we have recently read — Galatians 2:1-14 — in that age-old discussion about the relationship between faith and works. James and Paul (the writer of Galatians) agree that a Christian life should be expressed by deeds of charity, but not bound by rituals and rules of religion that create barriers to expressing one’s love for neighbor. Yet, to merely have faith and not act in love toward others, James says, does not fulfill the purpose of having faith. James advocates for people with faith to naturally act that faith, allow faith to change their lives and, in turn, change the lives of those they encounter. What a powerful witness it would be to the power of Christian belief if there would be a collection of individuals who possessed such faith and sought to act their faith!
I am struck by how pertinent the wisdom of chapter 3 remains (particularly 3:1-10). Our tongues have power to bless and curse. These days, it’s easier to curse, criticize, say what’s wrong and/or tell everyone how we would have done it differently and/or better. It’s easier to say something quick and witty that drips with sarcasm or cutting another down. It’s easier to sit on the sidelines and play armchair quarterback or backward looking analyst. It’s easier to do because that is what will get you noticed or encourage others to respond. Negativity, criticism, and picking things apart is what gets the clicks on social media. I wonder, sometimes, if Christians, the Church, has lost it’s voice because we have been more concerned with telling others how to live their lives, getting noticed by saying outlandish things in a brash way. I wonder if we have lost our voice because we have forgotten to use the power of the tongue to bless. I wonder if we have lost our voice because what we thought we were doing was blessing, but came across to others as cursing. I wonder if we have lost our voice because we had a stronger need to “be right” than to “do the right thing.”
In moving into chapter 5, James knows that the people to whom he was writing (past, present, and future) were still fallible creatures and would fall short. In this season of Advent, in preparation for Christmas, may we come to understand James’ perspective on how to live with our socioeconomic differences — which create differences in perspectives on how the world works and relationships sometimes function — in Charles Dickens’ character, Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol. Sometimes we need to see the world with new eyes to understand how wealth and privilege — or the lack of it — shapes how we see others and others see us.
In 5:7 James encourages us all to be patient for the day when Christ will come again and all of the work through the ages will come to fruition. The seeds have been planted and the farmer is hard at work for the harvest. In the meantime, “beloved, do not grumble against one another.” (5:9)