The Epistle of St. James: A Vital Call to a Holy Life
The epistle we have before us has found for itself a special place in many hearts, equally because of its simplicity, homespun practicality, and terse, plain morality. When the reader once leaves the dizzying heights of St. Paul's theology in Romans, or the perplexing riddles in St. John's Revelation, or the intricate historical details of St. Luke's Acts, to come finally to the clear and direct admonitions of the epistle of St. James feels like an oasis of rest in the middle of a rigorous journey. The spirituality of this epistle is in no way easy; its standards of holiness are as stringent as any other apostolic epistle. But St. James employs the proverbial style of Jewish "wisdom," which was specifically designed to reach the heart and mind of the simplest believers of the first century.
This unique writing is also a rare and precious relic of early Christian literature, because it serves as the clearest specimen we have of the Jewish Christianity of the apostolic age. Christianity in the first century could be divided into two major "branches": the Jewish Church and the Gentile Church. These two segments were united in heart and faith but widely divergent in the outward forms and rites which their worship adopted. The Jewish presbyter, for instance, continued to elongate his beard and wear robes in the tradition of the Jewish priesthood; the Gentile presbyter cut his bear and wore white linens in accordance with Greek custom. The Jewish believer continued to visit the temple for the major Jewish feasts and abhorred pork; the Gentile believer was ignorant of such feasts and ate everything the Greek diet included. The Jew expressed his faith in the language and customs of his ancestors; the Greek did the same. Even to this day, those Jews who believe in Jesus as the Messiah proudly wear their shawls and phylacteries in public and abide by a kosher diet with the most religious scrupulosity.
The author is James the Lord's brother, who was also first bishop of Jerusalem.1 There are three or four different James's in the Gospels,2 and all attempts to precisely identify our saint with one of them have remained inconclusive. We know, at least, that he was a relative of our Lord, and was held in high esteem in the apostolic church.3 Such a man, accustomed from childhood to observe the laws of Jewish piety, who history tells us took the vow of a Nazirite, whom was made bishop of the headquarters of the Jewish nation, and whom was even given the title of "the Just" by the Jews themselves because of the stern sanctity of his character—such a man would naturally adopt a way of life that was Christian in substance yet Jewish and Old Testament-like in its form.
For him, Christianity meant the unfolding and revelation of Judaism in its true and final glory. To be a Christian essentially meant to be a completed Jew. God was still the great Lawgiver.4 The Law was still glorious.5 God's people were still the "twelve tribes" of Israel.6 The temple was still the center of God's worship. Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, whose coming would establish the Kingdom of God as promised in the Psalms,7 to which all the nations would come and submit. Consequently, the epistle can be considered a sort of connecting link between Judaism and Christianity, as the ministry of John the Baptist was between the Old Covenant and the New. Although the epistle touches on little that is specifically Christian in its teachings,8 the mind and spirit of Christ breathe freely in it, giving renewed life to old and worn Jewish thoughts.
St. James would have found it extremely difficult, then, to say with St. Paul, that he counted his Hebrew ancestry as "loss" for Christ.9 He would have been hard-pressed to say with St. Paul that he considered all his previous training in Judaism and Levitical ritualism to be "rubbish" when compared to the excellence of gaining Christ.10 The Apostle to the Gentiles had a peculiar mission appointed to him and needed a clear break with his Jewish sentiments to accomplish it; he could say, therefore, when writing to the Galatians, that the Law's only purpose was to reveal our sinfulness,11 and that circumcision is no longer a glory, but a "debt."12 Such language had its place in God's plan of redemption for the world. But it was not St. James' place to utter it; he was given instead the difficult task of shepherding Hebrew believers among a hostile Jewish nation, and to be the mediator and spokesman of the Faith to the unconverted Jews. To have employed the bold and liberal language of St. Paul would have disqualified him from his special commission.
It has been estimated that the epistle alludes to the book of Proverbs at least ten times, to Job six times, and to the deuterocanonical books of the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus a total of twenty times. These numbers make it is clear that St. James loved to clothe his teaching in the fabric of proverbs, and his congregation in Jerusalem were likely most edified by this plain and unembellished style. We can also see from the epistle those characters and passages of the Old Testament that had the most charm for him: he alludes to Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah; he refers to the Pentateuch, to the Psalms, to Isaiah, and to Amos. These examples were all meant to spur the reader to action. St. James does not spend any time dwelling on deep theological problems, and he never suggests the reader to lose himself in dreamy, meditative states. His call is ever to swift, tangible action.
In this sense we can come to a better understanding of his remarks on the interaction between "faith" and "works." No epistle has been so misapprehended and criticized as James for its few comments on this topic. Martin Luther branded it an "epistle of straw" because of its apparent contradiction with St. Paul; but his rash and imprudent judgment has been fairly denounced by his own church. St. Paul writes, "A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ,"13 while St James says, "A man is justified by works and not by faith only."14
When both writers' goals and intentions are rightly understood, the superficial contradiction of these verses vanishes to reveal a strong agreement. When St. Paul discredits works of the law, he is speaking of those mechanical observances of the Jewish law—Sabbaths, cleansings, new moons, drinks, prohibitions, etc—which his opponents made the essence of their false Christianity and the ground of their justification. When he refers to faith, he always means a sincere, trusting dependence upon God which would naturally sprout good works.
Conversely, St. James never intends to discredit faith but the mere profession of faith: "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith,,,"15 That type of "faith"—which by its lack of good works proves itself to be spurious—cannot be counted on to produce salvation. Again, he is warning his flock against saying one thing and living another thing. By works, St. James does imply empty rites as in St. Paul, but rather compassionate acts of mercy performed for the good of others. St. Paul would never have hesitated to agree with St. James that true faith must result in good deeds;16 and St. James would have confirmed St. Paul's rule that it is a fruitful faith that wins salvation and not mere Levitical ceremonies.
Taking a more general perspective of the epistle, St. James writes to correct certain spiritual errors that were native to the Jewish mind but which were not transformed by their faith in Jesus the Messiah; there were many Jews, that is, who gave little evidence of the new creation which is a result of faith. It was a cardinal defect of the false Jewish spirit, for example, to place the most emphasis on the outward life, on external observances and practices, while neglecting the inward life. He therefore reminds them that "true religion" involves obeying the "perfect law of liberty," more even than the Mosaic law, and which does not end in the hearing but in the doing.17
The aristocracy of wealth, likewise, hampered the true spirit of Christian love, which should triumph over social distinctions. But the Jewish Christians continued to dishonor the poor man, and so the epistle chastises them for transgressing the law.18 They also exhibited the common Eastern flaw of having loose and wily tongues, that were used not for Christian edification but rather for insult and deprecation; and in a striking series of examples from real life, he illustrates the vast harm done by a destructive tongue.19 He then proceeds—in a style reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount—to issue a series of diverse admonitions and warnings, all of which urge the readers to purify the inward life and to sanctify their actions toward others, remembering always that the Lord "is at hand."20
1 Matt 13:55, Gal. 1:19
2 Matt 4:21; Matt 10:3; Matt 13:55; Jude 1; etc.
3 1 Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19; Acts 15:13
4 James 4:12
5 James 2:8
6 James 1:1
7 Psalm 145:10—13
8 Our Lord is mentioned only twice: 1:1, 2:1
9 Phil 3:7
10 Phil 3:8
11 Gal 3:19
12 Gal 5:3
13 Gal 2:16
14 James 2:24
15 James 2:14
16 Phil 2:13; Eph 5:9
19 Chapter 3
20 Chapters 4 and 5