Good morning! Today we read the book of James, which Martin Luther famously called “an epistle of straw”. He disliked this book’s robust emphasis on the importance of righteous human behavior as opposed to faith alone. I find it curious that James self-identifies as a teacher, since we mostly think of teachers narrowly as those who convey information. The descriptor works for James though if we realize that his teaching has more to do with mobilizing people for action rather than conveying book knowledge. Contrary to Luther, I believe James may be an essential book for stereotypically action-oriented millennials, and any in the 21st century who feel compelled to “do something” with Christian faith rather than simply profess it.
James makes a powerful, convicting argument that faith makes no difference in the world unless it motivates righteous, merciful deeds. Those who suffer will not be comforted by prayers or blessings alone, but need those intentions to spill over into acts of assistance. James emphasizes doing what’s right; not merely assenting to it. This understanding of religion cares more about “orthopraxy” (right practice) than “orthodoxy” (right doctrine). This book stands in dialogue with the “faith of Abraham” praised to the rafters yesterday in Hebrews. James agrees with Abraham being an example of faith *because* he put his faith into action. When Abraham moved to sacrifice Isaac, “faith was brought to completion by the works”, and the faith would have been invisible without all the works which demonstrated them. I appreciate that Rahab the prostitute gets almost equal billing with Abraham in chapter 2. James emphasizes with her story that even though Rahab didn’t have orthodox belief, and didn’t worship with the Jews, her behavior protecting the spies in Canaan (Joshua 2) is what preserved her life. Such an impulse gives biblical warrant for Christians to regard as “equally saved” those people whose differing faiths (Islam, Buddhism, atheism, etc.) still lead them to similar acts of mercy and justice in the world.
Around this core theological orientation, James denounces some behaviors and recommends others. Like earlier biblical prophets, he condemns showing preference to the wealthy, and instead warns against wealth. Riches cannot sustain a person, and they threaten to corrupt and corrode one’s faith. His chief complaint against the rich is his suspicion that their wealth has come at the expense and exploitation of others. James’ commonsense theological admonitions for daily life include asking for wisdom in prayer, demonstrating faith instead of doubt, finding contentment even in hardships, and biting one’s tongue. How often I have wanted to say to others—or needed to hear myself—that “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (1:20)! Most notably, James shows concern for careful, godly speech, because the wrong sort of speech can cause an outsize amount of trouble. As we can see from cyberbullying, hate speech, fake news and other such contemporary issues, James’ wisdom is for the twenty-first as well as the first century.
On my optimistic days, I resonate with James’ high opinion of humanity’s ability to resist evil and do the right thing. On other days, I can recognize that he edges into the territory of “works-righteousness”, suggesting that one’s worth is measured by one’s behavior alone. This lends itself to a divisive us/them mentality, pitting “the righteous” against “the world” in ways that ignore the persistence of evil in even well-meaning people. On balance, I’m grateful for the place of James in the biblical canon, and grateful also for those other parts of the Bible which emphasize divine mercy no matter how imperfect are one’s deeds. Happy reading!
Read the book of James. (Note that the link here is only to James 1-2. For copyright reasons, you will need to click the button at the bottom of the linked page to read further chapters.)
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Peter. Thanks for reading!