Friday, October 23
James 1:1-11: The first verse of this epistle indicates already that James was an authority recognized outside of the Holy Land. The churches addressed here—“the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”—were apparently of a Jewish makeup, and they looked to this first Bishop of Jerusalem, the Lord’s own kinsman, as their spiritual father. In this sense, James is not only our first example of a bishop; he is also our earliest model of a patriarch.
In this connection let us recall that the Apostle Paul, when he wrote of those whom he consulted at Jerusalem, named James first, before Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). It is worth observing, likewise, that this same sequence—James, Peter, John—is identical to the order in which the epistles of these same three men appear in the New Testament.
James, in a series of apparently unsystematic exhortations, begins with patience, prompting the careful reader to recall that St. Paul too, when he commenced his description of Christian love, began with the succinct thesis, “Love is patient”–Charitas patiens est in the Vulgate. James’ word for “patience,” hypomone–verses 3,4) will later appear when James speaks of the example of Job (5:11). He begins and ends this work, then, on the need of patience in the time of trial (verses 2,12,13,14).
The English reader, as he reads “when you fall into various trials,” may not suspect the skillful play of sounds in James’ original Greek: perasmois peripesete poikilois. In fact, James displays such verbal flourishing right from the start, going from “greetings” (verse 1) to “all joy” (verse 2)–chairein pasa charan.
The theme of rejoicing in times of trial is a common one in the New Testament (Matthew 5:10-12; Acts 5:41; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). This active attitude toward the experience of trial, as distinct from a merely passive endurance, brings about a kind of perfection, an ergon teleion (verse 4), perfection being a quality of great interest to James (verse 17,25; 3:2).
Those who attain unto perfection “lack nothing” (en medeni leipomenoi–verse 4). What a man may “lack” (leipetai–verse 5) first of all, says James, is wisdom, a gift that he may obtain through prayer to the generous God. This sudden mention of prayer and wisdom may not seem at first to fit the context of patience, which James has already introduced. The author is inspired here, however, by the Wisdom Scriptures, where wisdom is attained by prayer (1 Kings 3:5-9; Wisdom 9:10-18) and the patient endurance of trials (Wisdom 9:6; Sirach 4:17).
James’ mention of prayer leads to a consideration of faith and constancy (verse 6), because the prayer of faith is contrasted with wavering and hesitation. The expression used for wavering and hesitation here is diakrinomai (verses 6,7), the middle voice of a verb meaning to make judgments. The use of this word suggests that the contrast of prayerful faith is some kind of inner debate, perhaps a bewilderment about the efficacy of prayer itself. The same contrast between the inconstancy and the prayer of faith, using the identical words, is also found in the sayings of Jesus (Matthew 21:21; Mark 11:23).
Such hesitancy and inner debate produces a “man of two souls”–aner dipsyhos (verse 8). This metaphor, which appears to be James’ own invention (the fragment in Philo seems not to be authentic), became common in early Christian literature. James’ adjective is found numerous times in Clement of Rome, Pseudo-Clement, Hermas, Origen, and later Christian writers, along with the corresponding noun dipsychia (“double-soul-ness”) and verb dipsychein (“to be double-soul-ed”). Such a person, animated sometimes by fervor toward God and at other times by friendship with the world, did not love God with his “whole” heart. He was certainly “unstable in all his ways.”
James next introduces the contrast of wealth and poverty (verses 9-11), which will become a notable theme in the entire epistle (1:27; 2:1-7,15-17; 4:10,13-16; 5:1-6). As we shall reflect in the next chapter, this sense of poverty and riches is not theoretical in James; it pertains, rather, to the concrete life of the Church, the one place on earth where the poor can expect to be treated with honor. Indeed, as James suggests here, it is also in the Church that the rich man will receive salutary instruction on the transitory nature of wealth, and in this instruction he too will be honored (verse 10).
Saturday, October 24
James 1:12-20: The blessedness of the man who endures trial is related to that man’s love for God (verse 12). Love, that is to say, is really what is on trial; it is the reason for the endurance of the trial. This love for God, the love that is tried, is a gift of the Holy Spirit: “. . . we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
God puts His faithful ones through trial, but He does not “tempt” them in the sense of enticing them to sin (verse 13). God does not “tempt” in that sense. When man is enticed toward sin, it has to do with his own passions, his disposition to sin (verse 14). The source of this sort of temptation is internal to man; even the world and Satan cannot get at a man except through his own inner disposition. (Thus, Jesus was not “tempted” in this sense. Jesus was certainly put to the trial, and Satan used every effort to entice Him, but Jesus had no inner disposition to sin.)
Those who suffer temptation may be plagued by the thought that God has abandoned them, that He has forgotten them, that He no longer holds them in regard. To address this erroneous thought James insists that God is unchanging toward those that love Him. Unlike the lights in the heavens, the Father of these lights, their Creator (Genesis 1:13-18), does not diminish in His gifts to those who love Him. Indeed, James has already mentioned that God “gives to all liberally and without reproach” (verse 5).
This Father of lights has become our Father by begetting us in the Word (verse 18). Peter says the same, when he describes believers as “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).
Sunday, October 25
James 1:21-27: Having spoken of God’s Word of truth (or “true Word”), by which He engenders us as His children (verse 18), James devotes this next section to the proper hearing and doing of this “implanted” Word (verse 21).
First, there are certain moral and ascetical conditions preparatory to receiving this Word. Although the inseminated ground produces fruit of itself (avtomate [see the root of “automatically”?] he ge karpophorei—Mark 4:28), this ground must be prepared to receive it. This is the burden of the Lord’s most famous parable, the story of the sower who sowed the seed on various sorts of soil, with greatly varying results.
Thus, says James, the man that would properly listen to God’s Word must be, first of all, a listener. He must be slow to speak, especially purging his heart of anger (verses 19-20) and foul thought (verse 21; cf. Sirach 5:11-13; 20:5-8). In chapters 3 and 4 James will return to this theme of tongue-control.
Second, the proper moral climate for attending to God’s Word is “meekness” (praütes—verse 21), the notable quality of Jesus’ own heart (Matthew 11:29).
Third, the Word must be received in active obedience, whereby the listeners become “doers of the Word”—literally “poets of the Word” (poietai Logou—verse 22; cf. Romans 2:13). If this is not the case, they “deceive” themselves (paralogizom
enoi), especially with a deception of the heart (apaton kardian—verse 26).
We appreciate James’ warning that hearing the Word of God may be an occasion of spiritual danger, particularly the peril of self-deception. The major danger faced by the Bible-reader is that of imagining himself to be a religious person (verse 26). Such a one must learn to bridle his tongue, for he may not be who he thinks he is.
It is not unlikely that James has in mind here the newly converted Bible-reader who is too anxious to display his recently discovered wisdom by proclaiming it to others. What such a man must first learn to do is carry out the most basic, simplest, humblest mandates of the Gospel—working charity toward the misfortunate and purging of worldliness from his heart (verse 27).
Fourth, the study of God’s Word is the school of self-knowledge, because it serves as a mirror to the soul itself (verses 23-24). Thus, the man who studies God’s Word assiduously looks into a mirror, in which he learns his own blemishes reflected there. This will be the case, however, only if the hearer of the Word comes to it in the active obedience of faith (verse 25). He must not take leave of the Word too soon but “continue” (parameinas) in it.
Fifth, the “doer of the Word” must also be the “doer of the work” (poietes ergou—verse 25). As we shall see in the next chapter, James rejects any theory of justification that is not emphatic about the necessity of works. These works are what constitutes a man’s religion (threskia—verses 26,27).
Monday, October 26
James 2:1-13: The message of this section is straightforward and unsubtle. James points to a common trait of fallen man, the disposition to cultivate favor with the powerful over the weak, to prefer the approval of the rich to that of the poor. James begins by noting the easiest, most immediate way of distinguishing between the two—their clothing. Because the wealthier man can afford better clothes, he is better able to honor his own body, prompting others to comply with that honor. As modern men sometimes say, “Clothing makes a statement.”
For James, however, who has just mentioned that true religion consists in care for the poor and keeping oneself unspotted from the world (1:27), such deference towards the wealthy is only another form of worldliness. The New King James Version calls this vice “partiality.” The King James’ rendering “respect of persons” comes closer to the sense of the Greek prosopolempsia, literally translated in the Vulgate as personarum acceptatio, “acceptance of persons.” This word means that distinctions are made, according to which some people are treated with greater honor and respect than others.
The thing chiefly to be noted about this prosopolempsia is that God doesn’t have any (Romans 2:11), and neither should the Church. A preference for the wealthy, even with the excuse that the wealthy are in a better position to aid the work of the Church, would seem to be the very antithesis of visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself unsullied by the world. As such it has no legitimate place in the social life of the Church (verses 2-3).
Indeed, in many places in Holy Scripture it appears that God, if He can be said to have a preference, prefers the poor. He is called the protector of the orphan and the defense of the widow, and even the most casual Bible-reader will observe, from time to time, that God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. In fact, God “chooses the poor” (exselexsato tous ptochous—verse 5) and makes them heirs of the Kingdom (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20).
If his readers need any further incentive to be freed from such worldliness, James reminds them that their own oppressors come from the ranks of the rich rather than the poor (verses 6-7; Amos 8:4; Wisdom 2:10). The Christian Church, in short, must side with the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed, not with the wealthy, the powerful, and the oppressors.
What, finally, is called for is the love of one’s neighbor as oneself (verse 8; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), for this is the standard by which we shall be judged (verse 12; Matthew 19:17-19).
Tuesday, October 27
James 2:14-26: This section contains James’ response to an erroneous interpretation of St. Paul. The latter apostle, in fact, seems often to have been misunderstood by some early Christians (1 Peter 3:15-16), a misfortune of which Paul himself complained (Romans 3:8). The problem of misinterpreting Paul continued, moreover, well into the next century (cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.13.1), and some believe it is still with us.
Here in James it appears that Paul was misunderstood with respect to justification through faith. Paul had by this time written Galatians. Against the Judaizers, who taught that Christians must observe all or part of the Mosaic Law, Paul’s letter to the Galatians insisted that the works of the Mosaic Law (circumcision, the dietary rules, and so forth) were not required of those who committed their lives to Christ in faith. Some of Paul’s readers exaggerated this teaching to imply a theology of justification “through faith alone”—ek pisteos monon (verse 24). According to this theory, no works of a man are necessary for his justification. All human works are superfluous for justification. James goes here into some detail to refute and condemn such a notion.
James observes, first, that a hungry man is not fed by my faith; I must actually do something to feed him. A naked person is not covered nor warmed by my faith; I must act in order to clothe him. A faith without such activity accomplishes nothing. It provides no advantage, to the needy man or to myself—“What does it profit?” (Ti to ophelos, verses 14,16), asks James.
We observe here that James does not contrast faith with works. He contrasts, rather, a living, profitable faith with an empty, dead faith. For James, then living faith is giving and not merely receptive, active and not solely passive. A faith that is not “lived” is not real faith; it is, at best, a religious preference, perhaps only a faint religious opinion. Salvific faith is a matter, says James, of faith and works.
The demons, after all, who are fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6), can be said to have faith, inasmuch as they believe in the oneness of God. Such “faith,” however, is of no avail to them (verse 19). A devil that believes in God is no better off than an atheist who doesn’t, and a person who believes but doesn’t act on that belief has no advantage over either. “Faith alone” of this sort is the lot of the damned.
James next turns to Holy Scripture for examples of saints justified by their works. The first is Abraham, whom Paul himself had invoked in the Epistle to the Galatians (chapters 3-4). Although Abraham, living earlier than Moses, had not observed the works of the Mosaic Law (and, consequently, was justified apart from those works), he never imagined himself exempt from the obligation of “works,” in the sense of obedience to God’s will and command.
Abraham’s faith, thus, “worked with (synergei) his works” (verse 22). This text lays the down the principle of the biblical doctrine of “synergism,” according to which both God and man must “work together” with respect to justification. Our works, according to James, are the animating spirit of our faith (verse 26).
Especially striking here is James’ interpretation of Genesis 15:6 (“And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness”) as “fulfilled” (eplerothe) in Genesis 22, where Abraham obeys God’s injunction to offer Isaac in sacrifice. His emphasis here is very different from that of St. Paul (Galatians 2:16; 3:6-12,24; Romans 3:28), thou
gh the latter too agrees that faith “works through love” (Galatians 5:6; 1 Corinthians 13:2).
James’s second example is Rahab, the Canaanite woman that received and protected the two spies sent by Joshua. She too had faith (Joshua 2:11), but she actually did something with it. She acted on it. Her faith was alive, so it was able to save the two spies. By her deeds, therefore, as much as her faith, Rahab and her household were “saved” (Joshua 6:22-25). Consequently, the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:31) lists Rahab among the heroes of the faith, and she became a popular figure among the early Christians (Clement of Rome, Corinthians 12).
Wednesday, October 28
James 3:1-12: James begins by warning of the more severe judgment that awaits teachers, who must answer, not only for their own offenses, but also for the conduct of those badly influenced by their teaching. This more severe judgment, warns James, will make a person cautious about becoming a teacher (verse 1; Matthew 5:19; 23:7-8).
This attention to teaching—since teaching involves speech—prompts James to turn his concern to the moral life of the tongue. He had earlier introduced this theme by the exhortation, “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak” (1:19).
Although each of us fails in many ways, says, James, the description “perfect man” may be ascribed to someone who places adequate moral restraint on his tongue (verse 2). In elaborating this theme, of course, James is heir to the Bible’s Wisdom literature (cf. Proverbs 15:1-4,7,23,26,28; Sirach 5:11—6:1; 28:13-26).
To illustrate his point about the moral control of the tongue, James provides a series of analogies to the tongue—small objects of either great import or capable of potentially massive harm: a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, the small flame that causes a great conflagration (verses 3-6). A seemingly small thing is capable of things vastly greater than itself. So is it with the tongue. By its proper mastery the entire moral life is brought under discipline.
Left unrestrained, however, the tongue is able to create great spiritual harm, inflaming “the course of nature,” becoming thereby “the sum total of evil” (ho kosmos tes adikias). Wild animals, James continues, are easier to tame than the tongue, which is an “uncontrolled evil, full of death-bearing poison” (verses 7-8).
An example of such poison are the curses that the tongue direct to human beings made in God’s likeness, the same tongue that blesses God Himself (verse 9). How can this be? How can good and evil proceed from a common source?
James’ rhetorical style here is subtler than at first it seems. In his explicit pronouncements he appears to despair of a man’s controlling his tongue: “no man can tame the tongue.” This would almost seem to be his thesis. Yet, despair on this point is the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, James’ analogies convey the opposite impression, and it is this impression that he leaves with the reader. After all we do manage to master the horse by means of the bit. We are able to govern ships by means of the rudder, and a flame, while it is yet small, can normally be controlled. Even as his sentences seem to despair of the project, then, James’ metaphors indicate that this moral endeavor is, in fact, quite manageable.
Thursday, October 29
James 3:13—4:6: Perhaps following up his comment about the dangers of teaching (verse 1), James goes on to contrast two kinds of wisdom, one demonic and the other godly. These two kinds of wisdom are distinguishable in three ways.
First, they may be distinguished by their immediate fruits. Like faith, says James, wisdom is manifest in its works. Demonic wisdom is marked by bitter envy (zelon pikron) and contention in the heart (eritheian en te kardia), boasting, and lying against the truth (verse 14). Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is manifest in “good conduct and works in the meekness of wisdom” (verse 13). That is to say, a truly wise man is a humble man, readily distinguished from the arrogant, contentious blusterer who is full of himself. Both the Gospels (Matthew 5:5; 11:29) and the Epistles (2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 5:23) commend the spirit of meekness. Not all meek people are wise, but all wise people are meek.
A second difference between the two kinds of wisdom is found in their differing origins. Evil wisdom is earthly, animal, and diabolical (verse 16). It is the wisdom of death. It comes from below, not from above. Godly wisdom is “from above” (anothen—verses 15,17).
Third, these two types of wisdom are distinguished by where they lead. The wisdom of envy and strife leads to confusion and “every evil work” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:20). Godly wisdom, however, leads to purity, peace, gentleness, deference, mercy, sincerity, and a reluctance to pass judgment (verse 17). We recognize here some of St. Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
James’ teaching on wisdom, then, is of a piece with his teaching on faith. If a person claims to have faith, let him show his works. If someone claims to be wise, let us see his works. The truth is always in the deeds, not the talk.
Having spoken of the great evils that come from an undisciplined tongue (3:2-12) and having listed the contentions characteristic of demonic wisdom (3:13-16), James comes now to those strifes that destroy peace of soul.
This section breaks into two parts. In the first, James analyzes the source of this spiritual problem (verses 1-6), and in the second he prescribes the proper remedy (verses 7-10).
The source of these strifes, says James, is found in the inordinate passions that dominate the worldly heart. The word he uses for “passion” may more correctly be translated as “pleasures” (heonai, from which the English expression “hedonist,” of pleasure-lover). Strife, says James, is the expression of untamed and unsatisfied desires (verse 2).
Nor can these desires, being inordinate, be satisfied through prayer, because such a prayer is as disordered as the desires themselves (verse 3). The problem is deeper. It is friendship with the world, and the world is the enemy of God (verse 4). We recall that Jesus would not pray for the world (John 17:9). Prayer based on friendship with the world, therefore, is of no avail with God.
(We may note that the “scripture” quoted by James in verse 5 is not readily identified. It is possible that he is simply citing some ancient variant of a biblical text that has been lost in the transmission of the manuscripts. It does seem, however, that the “spirit” in this text means man’s natural spirit, not the Holy Spirit.)
The sole resolution to this dilemma, says James, is repentance and the acquisition of humility (verse 6). God is favorable to the humble, whereas He actively resists the proud. This notion from Proverbs 3:34 was apparently a common teaching in early Christian pedagogy. We also find it developed in a passage that closely resembles James here; namely 1 Peter 5:5-7:
“Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘ God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.”
Friday, October 30
James 4:7-17: God never resists the approach of someone who desires to draw nigh unto Him. No sigh of repentance goes unheard. No tear of compunction falls unnoticed. On the contrary, He gives His grace to the humble, and mourning and weeping are the activity of the repentant spirit (verse 9).
This is the repentance proper to the foot of the Cross, described by the poet Sidney Lanier in 1882:
“Tell me, sweet burly-bark’d man-bodied Tree
That mine arms in the dark are embracing, dost know
From what fount are these tears at thy feet which flow?”
In this section James give two practical applications of his teaching about submission to God. This teaching is opposed to two sins by which man attempts to usurp the place of God—first, with respect to other men, and second, with respect to the future. Both other men and the future lie outside our ability to know for certain, and the man who pretends otherwise is attempting to take the place of God.
Man must know his limits, especially his limits about what he can know. Proper epistemology, then, is simply a form of humility. Now there are two things a man cannot know. First, someone else’s heart. Second, the future.
First, true submission to God is incompatible with passing judgment on, or speaking ill of, our brother or neighbor. The one who does so, sins against the Law, the Law here evidently understood as the law of charity. Therefore, the man who maligns his brother brings the Law into disrepute. The person who does this is not a doer of the Law but a judge thereof (verse 1). The one ultimately offended by such behavior is the Lawgiver and Judge, whose place is usurped by the man who passes judgment on his neighbor (verse 2).
This enormous sin of presumption lies totally at variance with James’ counsel to “submit to God” (verse 7). The judging of one’s neighbor is an expression of pride, which God resists (verse 6).
James then goes to a second practical expression of submission to God—namely, reliance on God’s will for the future. Highly presumptuous is the man who imagines himself in control of his future (verses 13-14). His fortunes may change like the air, says James; his life is no more than a vapor.
A proper attitude toward the future prompts a man to treat his plans somewhat hypothetically—namely, with the proviso, “if God wills.” This hypothesis, sometimes called the conditio Jacobaea, places a man’s soul in the correct posture of humility and submission to God (Acts 18:21; Romans 1:10; 1 Corinthians 4:19; 16:7; Philippians 2:19,24; Hebrews 6:3). It means that a man does not make his plans like an atheist (as if God did not exist) or a theist (God neither cares nor interferes). Neither the atheist nor the theist can really “submit to God.”