All week we read from the letter of James. The letter (or sermon) has only two references to Jesus by name (1:1 & 2:1) and reflects the faith of the typical Jewish synagogue at this time. However, the material echoes the Gospels, especially Matthew. Scholarly questions about authorship are generated by the excellent Greek. The name James is associated with the brother of Jesus, but there were also disciples with that name. It is possible that the "writer" (a Scribe) has translated the "author" (James) which accounts for the language and content.
[addendum; As I reflected on James I remembered that the primary question for him is "how shall we live this life of faith in God?" Perhaps more pointedly, how do we live as citizens of God's Kingdom, people whom He loves and cares for?" In many (modern and contemporary) Christian minds the question is "How can I get into heaven?" I think that makes the issues James writes about more difficult to understand. We worry about how possible it is to live up to the demands--or we retreat into the faith works debates. Instead, imagine James believes that God is gracious and saves His people. Imagine James believes that God calls His people into covenant and makes them His own (by grace) and now God is creating His rule in our mind, heart, and body. Imagine James (based on the Bible) is explaining how we are going to live now in preparation for how we are going to live together forever. Imagine life now is at the entry into that Kingdom after death and these things do not earn salvation but transform us into the saved people we already are.]
The letter begins with rapid fire exhortations and wisdom like sayings. For us it provides some key points to build a life around:
1. Struggles are good because they help us grow into maturity (not popular idea today)
2. Pray for wisdom (like Solomon) and God loves to give it--but believing He will is part of the process! Unbelief is a block to God's work.
3. The fleeting nature of wealth--and the certainty of death (vs consumerism)
4. Enduring temptation (variation of opening) is a Beatitude! But he says God does not tempt us, it comes from within (much like Jesus says uncleanness comes from the heart).
5. Again the focus is God's generosity (2) and consistency. NT themes include "birth" by the word and and that believers are "first fruits". Concluding with an exhortation to self control. Listen, do not speak or be angry... Our anger is not godly. The word saves us. Herein lies an important contribution to the Christian way. Listening to the word demands response. (Listen can mean obey in English as well) "Be doers of the word" who encounter truth (about self as well as God) and act accordingly. A second exhortation to watch the mouth and a simple explanation of true religion: be unstained and care for the needy.
6. James returns to theme of rich and poor (3) with a reminder that churches should treat all people with the same respect. Wealth is a temptation to sin, James makes clear, something especially terrifying in middle class churches!
7. In verse 7 there is a shift to the law, with the summary of "Love" (called the basilikos literally the royal law). To love the neighbor is not to be affectionate, it is to be treat them for their good. However, the focus on Torah here is very positive. Not unlike Paul, he points out that breaking one law is to break all the law, and echoing Jesus, he says that the one without mercy will not experience mercy. Then, in a section perhaps intended to counter Paul (or a particular reading of Paul) about faith and works. A full treatment is impossible here, but as I made clear numerous times, I think the Reformation reading on Paul is in error because it comes with different assumptions. Without the theological debate on faith, what we have here is a simple, straightforward, and rather reasonable approach to the Christian life. Words are empty without a life practice to back them. As empty as wishing a needy person 'good luck' while failing to lift a finger to help them. Word and action co-exist in authentic lives. Faith is demonstrated in works. And James goes on to illustrate that "faith" (noun and verb forms of pistis/pisteu) must have real life content. Believing has many facets and connotations: to believe something is true can be a mere intellectual exercise with facts, or it can be believing another person is honest, but one senses the "devil believes in God" example is intended to call one to faith which is self gift as well. It is an "actionable faith", hence, the twist on the Abraham illustration (which Paul uses to demonstrate his point). Yes, James says, Abraham believed, but it was demonstrated with his willingness to offer Isaac. [Personally, I think if James is arguing with Paul, he has the better of the argument at this point.] The example of Rahab works as well. Humans are holistic, body and soul, and that illustrates the relationship of faith and works; the outer reality and the inner reality are intimately intertwined. At any rate, the idea that "believing in Jesus" has added dimensions in this remarkable little description.
8. A sudden shift and dire warning. This writer quakes at the reminder--don't be a teacher, teachers are held to a higher standard. The idea of a sliding scale in the Divine economy of salvation is probably present in other places as well, Jesus talks about the different judgment for the Jewish and pagan cities, for example. It is said thoughts produce words, words produce actions, acts produce habits, and habits create character. James reminds us of the importance and difficulty in controlling the mouth. So used to diatribes about lust or greed, this is one of those challenges that the "every day gossip" finds aimed at them. The power of the mouth for good or ill is vibrantly illustrated in the image of rudder or fire. Small things produce large outcomes. The harvest of righteousness and peace is the Shalom of the Kingdom!
9. Again a reflection on covenant kingdom people. Disputes are from our cravings (we tend to blame others!). Anger and covetousness produce disputes, conflicts even murder. The law of love is broken by such things and the Kingdom of Light is impacted by darkness when this happens. Adultery is an image of fornicating with the world and breaking the bond with God. It is a prophetic image in the Jew's (and first Christian) Bible. We are confronted with an option: the world or God. It is the same in every age--which kingdom? James says Scripture says "God yearns for us God..." not a direct quote but a summary of many verses. Quoting the Septuagint Proverbs 3:34 and Psalm 24:4-5 James exhorts us to be humbled and cleansed, The latter image is very much in line with Second Temple Judaism. In the early church many practicing Jews who believed in Jesus did so with an imagination fueled by their Jewish faith. Conversion and purity, true sorrow for our sins and humility are all part of the life in Christ, Who Himself embraced the ethical dimension of the First Covenant in Moses. The law is directly addressed in the conclusion of this section. Don't speak ill or judge another. The Lord Jesus says the same thing--we are accountable for every word we utter, do not judge and you will not he judged. James and Matthew's Gospel are in sync here...
10. The last three verses are a condemnation of human arrogance and presumption. We make outr plans, James says, as if we are entitled for all things to go as we want and expect. However, he reminds (the image of mist is stark and startling) that time is out of our control and we are not self sustaining. Mortality is the great truth of our human lives; there is no immortality of the soul reflected in these words, there is a real time limitation (which God addresses through resurrection). We are not "substantial" says James, so rest and trust in God. Know your place, James is telling us. Then, out of nowhere he drops the bomb: if you know the right thing to do and fail to do it- it is sin! Sin is not simply doing bad, it is also the failure to do good....