Weighty Word From A Little Book:
The Epistle of James
sounds severe, doesn't he. “The
tongue is a fire, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of
nature, set on fire by hell...a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
“You desire and do not have, so you kill.
You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and wage war....
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are
coming upon you.... Your gold and silver are going to eat up your flesh
But in fact James isn’t mean-spirited or abusive or sour.
He is serious, unquestionably, but he's also warm-hearted.
After all, he uses the expression, “my brethren” or “my
beloved brethren” or simply “brethren” fourteen times in his brief
Like all New Testament writers, James didn't sit down and pen a
letter because he happened to feel “creative” one afternoon.
Rather, he wrote a tract in order to address a specific problem
in the church.
The problem? The
church has been alive for thirty years and now false teachers are
creeping in who distort the gospel and mislead people.
Persecution has intensified as well.
When James writes his letter, Paul, widely known in Christian
congregations, is a prisoner in
awaiting trial (and execution.) Within
eighteen months James himself will be murdered.
In a word, the world has proven to be more hostile than expected.
In the face of the world's resistance to the gospel and the
world's nastiness towards Christians, James is afraid that Christians
will simply retreat into themselves and lick their wounds; he's afraid
that Christian existence will become nothing more than a private
psycho-religious “trip” inward, while outwardly a non-Christian
ethic, pagan behaviour in fact, surfaces in the church.
James is worried that Christians might take refuge in a
psycho-religious inner “trip” as they pretend they believe the
gospel with their heads -- and yet no longer do the truth of the gospel
with their lives. He insists
that truth must be done; faith must be lived.
If Jesus Christ is appropriated inwardly in faith then the same
Lord must be exemplified outwardly in life.
Christians must continue to march to the beat of a different
drummer regardless of how difficult the marching is -- or else the
church is finally no different from the world.
Who was James? Certainly
neither of the two disciples named James, “James the son of Alphaeus”
and “James the Lesser.” Some
scholars argue therefore that we simply don't know.
Others maintain that a cogent case can be made for identifying
the author of this letter with the James who was the brother of Jesus.
I am persuaded by the arguments which assert the James who was
brother of our Lord to be the author of the epistle.
From the gospel of Mark we know that our Lord's family thought
him deranged at one point of his earthly ministry.
In other words, Jesus was a public embarrassment to his family.
After the resurrection, Paul tells us, under the impact of the
same kind of resurrection-appearance that turned Paul himself around,
James came to believe that his brother Jesus, a Jew of course like James
himself, was indeed the Saviour of the world and the Lord of the whole
James became the leader of the church in
. The church there was a
congregation of Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel.
Not surprisingly, then, the epistle of James is a Jewish document
saturated with allusions to the Hebrew Bible.
And in view of the fact that James and Jesus were brothers, it
isn't surprising that parallels abound between the epistle of James and
the teachings of Jesus. Parallels
are found on such matters as showing mercy, making peace, transparent
speech, joy in the midst of trials.
James himself was martyred in the year 62 of the Common Era,
approximately thirty years after the crucifixion of his brother Jesus.
In the time that remains to us this morning I should like to
amplify four major features of the letter.
The first concerns snobbery in the Christian fellowship.
Listen to three different translations of the key verse.
“My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our
Lord.” “As believers in
our Lord Jesus Christ, you must never treat people in different ways,
according to their outward appearance.”
“Believing as you do in our Lord Jesus Christ, you must never
Partiality, or snobbery, is according the rich one treatment and
the poor another, esteeming the learned while disdaining the unlearned,
favouring the socially prominent while ignoring ordinary people,
“kow-towing” to the influential but manipulating the powerless.
James condemns this.
Jesus had condemned it before him.
When our Lord's detractors were searching high and low in order
to find something about him for which they could criticize him and carp
at him and eventually skewer him, they finally had to admit that Jesus
showed no partiality. (Luke 20: 21)
As a faithful son of Israel Jesus certainly knew Torah.
And the word of Torah, the way appointed
to walk, was plain: “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to
the great.” (Leviticus 19:15)
This passage from the Hebrew bible, which James obviously has in
mind, forbids us to show partiality to rich or poor.
For just as there is a snobbery born of a groundless adulation of
the rich, so there is a snobbery born of a groundless exaltation of the
Solzhenitsyn, no friend of the Russian upper class, nevertheless
maintained that if you had ever lived among the proletarian class you
would never be tempted to think its people inherently virtuous,
inherently humanly superior -- as Marxist ideology continues to do.
The gospel forbids us to flatter the rich just because they are
rich or to fawn over (romanticize) the poor just because they are poor.
We are to show no partiality in the Christian fellowship.
Why not? Simply
because all of us are alike creatures of God, sinners before God, rebels
redeemed by God. Since this
is the case, the categories and classes and distinctions by which we
rate people are arbitrary; more than arbitrary, they are unfair, even
I was startled the day I saw an application-form for
's school of medicine. On
the application-form was the question, “In what year did either of
your parents graduate from McGill in medicine or dentistry?”
I was startled in that I thought that admission to medical school
was governed by academic achievement, or by academic achievement plus
aptitude for practising medicine.
I mentioned all of this to my “GP”, herself a graduate of
McGill's medical school; whereupon she took her stethoscope out of her
ears and lectured me as to why an exclusive social elite had the right
to preserve itself as an exclusive social elite.
I waited until the lecture was over and then I informed her that
for every student admitted to medical school on the grounds of social
privilege there was another student, a more able student, who was denied
admission just because he lacked the proper social pedigree.
Let us be fair in all this. Everything
I have just said pertains with equal force to a trade union, a political
party, a business, and even, as I have learned, the clergy-ranks of any
James insists that in the Christian fellowship we do not evaluate
people's pedigree and then decide whether we are going to flatter them
or forget them. The ground
at the foot of the cross is level; there are no grounds for partiality.
What's more, partiality or snobbery denies that everyone in the
Christian fellowship has an equally important ministry.
Everyone, regardless of appearance, has a service to render the
fellowship itself and the wider world as well.
Everyone. And the
service we each render has precisely the same significance to God.
To be sure, one ministry or service may be more glamorous than
another, more dramatic, more noticed, more congratulated. BUT NEVER MORE
IMPORTANT. Before James ever
wrote a word, Jesus spoke of the cup of water and the widow's “loonie”.
Didn't Paul speak of an unnamed woman in
who was a “mother” to him? Not
to be overlooked is the fact that how we appear has nothing whatever to
do with our wisdom, our intimacy with God, or our spiritual maturity.
If we show partiality or snobbery we do not confess the truth,
however much we may profess it.
The second major teaching of James concerns the tongue.
He says so much about it because he knows that our speech
characterizes us. Our tongue
determines how we situate ourselves with respect to other people; our
tongue determines the “space” we occupy in life and the direction in
which we point. The tongue
is like a ship's rudder, says the apostle; the smallest appendage to the
ship determines where the entire ship goes, how it positions itself,
what particular space on the vast ocean it occupies.
If my tongue is cruel, I am cruel.
My tongue characterizes me. I
can't say, “My speech may be cruel but I am kind.”
If my speech is contemptuous, do I expect people to conclude that
I am gracious?
“The tongue is a small fire”, says James, as small a fire as
a match -- and this match sets on fire “the cycle of nature.”
That is, the totality of life, everyone's entire existence --
both public and private, individual and communal -- is scorched and
seared and burn-scarred by this little appendage.
Not only is the tongue poisonous and powerful, continues James,
it is forked, split, and it reflects a split personality; for only a
split personality can praise God and curse people made in the image of
God AT THE SAME TIME. But
praise God and curse people made in the image of God is exactly what our
“My brethren”, James adds with gentle understatement, “my
brethren, this ought not to be so.”
Thirty years earlier Jesus had said that we are never corrupted
by what goes into our mouth; we are corrupted invariably by what comes
What is the cure? Once
more for explicit details we must go to Paul whose letters were known
throughout the early church. Paul
says that the cure begins to take hold in us as our tongue confesses
that Jesus Christ is Lord. Since
our tongue characterizes us, it is as our tongue confesses Jesus Christ
to be Lord that we ourselves are “lorded” by Jesus; that is,
mastered by the master himself. And
then, says Paul, our speech will begin to be “edifying”, “fitting
the occasion”, “imparting grace to those who hear”.
The tongue that sincerely confesses Jesus Christ as Lord is to
issue in speech which at least aims at edifying, wants to be edifying,
to be fitting, and even to be a vehicle of God's grace.
The third aspect of our lives which James addresses forcibly is
reflected in his statement which all of us have heard a hundred times
over: “Faith without works is dead”.
Here James is often played off against Paul.
Paul had said that faith in Jesus Christ – faith alone
– is sufficient to make right our relationship with God.
Yet James speaks of faith plus works.
But in fact there is no contradiction, for the two men had two
quite different meanings for the word “faith”.
By “faith” James meant mere belief, religious ideas held by
armchair-sitters who never get out of their armchair to do something.
so-called, is mere “beliefism”, merely a religious daydream, nothing
more than lip-service to the gospel, simply an idea rattling around in
On the other hand, by “faith” Paul meant our whole-hearted
embracing of the person of Jesus Christ himself.
As we embrace him he constrains us to follow him in his
service of human need. In
other words, when Paul speaks of faith he means so living in the company
of Jesus Christ that we can’t pretend we don't see the human
distresses which Jesus always sees.
James was writing to a church which had grown weary and
disheartened; weary because of the resistance it met everywhere,
disheartened because of the persecution its faithfulness brought upon
itself. Surely the easy way
out was to reduce Christian existence to a private religious head-trip,
ignore everything else, and thus spare oneself frustration, fatigue and
pain. It's a temptation for
all of us. If we succumb; if
we reduce faith to a private religious fantasy which embraces neither
the risen one himself nor the people for whom he still suffers, then
James has a one-word description which he pronounces twice in ten lines:
“dead”, our faith, so-called, is dead.
We are dead.
James wants one thing for the readers of his letter regardless of
the century in which we read it. He
wants a heart and mind so sensitized to God as never to be desensitized
to human suffering.
Lastly, James is adamant concerning the futility and foolishness of
trusting in material prosperity. “Come
now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon
you.” In ancient
there were three main expressions of wealth: agricultural produce,
clothing, gold and silver. Agricultural
produce rots, James insists, clothing gets moth-eaten, gold and silver
corrode. (Today we'd say
In his emphatic way James concludes pithily, “You have laid up
treasure for the last days. You
have invested in securities in anticipation of the day of God's
judgement. And what
‘securities’. They rot
or they rust or they get eaten up by bugs.”
Actually James says a little more.
Those who have amassed great wealth, colossal wealth, have piled
it up by exploiting defenseless employees.
They are condemned twice over: viciously they have exploited
voiceless workers, and blindly they have trusted their wealth to get
them past death and around that judgement which no one can escape.
James maintains that their “security” is like buying a fire
extinguisher with holes in it; it's like putting your weight on a rubber
crutch; it's like trying to quench thirst with salt water.
Futile to do, foolish to trust.
I mentioned earlier that the letter of James has many parallels
with the teaching of Jesus. Obviously
James has in mind here a weighty pronouncement of Jesus from the Sermon
on the Mount. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where
moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up
for yourselves treasures in heaven, etc... (and here is the clincher)
FOR WHERE YOUR TREASURE IS, THERE WILL YOUR HEART BE.”
Our treasure is what we really cherish, what we secretly value,
what we pursue and exalt and give ourselves to.
(Not what we say we cherish; but what in our innermost heart we
want above all else.) According
to Hebrew understanding our “heart” is the centre of our thinking,
our willing, our feeling, and our moral discernment.
Jesus insists that how we think and what we will, how we feel and
what we discern in the midst of the spiritual jumble and the moral
jungle around us -- all of this (our entire being, in other words) is
controlled by one thing: what, in our heart of hearts, we cherish.
Then what do we cherish? What
are we about? Jesus says
there can only be one answer; the king and his rule; the lord of life
and his truth, his way, his people; the saviour of humankind and that
deliverance at his hand to be found nowhere else.
To cherish all of this, all of him, is precisely to have
treasure which doesn't rot or rust or get eaten up.
It is to be rich towards God in the midst of a world which is
passing away, rich towards God in a future whose only richness is God.
epistle of James is one of the smallest books of the Bible.
I love it even as it unsettles me.
For as long as I am unsettled by it, I know that I am still
alive, still oriented to James’s greater brother, our Lord Jesus