I come to the book of James with some interesting preconceptions – it’s the works side of the faith vs. works debate I’ve had many times in my life, “Faith without works is dead (James 2:17)”, “Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. (James 2:18)” and that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). All of which seems to be in direct tension with Paul, who said “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5;1) and through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God (Galatians 2:19).
For Mormons, James takes on a special importance. Every missionary memorizes the verse in James 1:5, that moved Joseph Smith to seek answers to prayers in the woods in an event that has become foundational to kickstart our religious movement that turned into a worldwide religion. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” (James 1:5).
What I was surprised to learn in just a little research is how much of James is overlooked or disregarded. Martin Luther called James “an epistle of straw” that “has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it”. And it seems James isn’t really used frequently as source material for many protestant faiths. And that with the exception of a few verses quoted above, even my own faith often neglects much of James.
This may partially be because James is so short. And Mormons (and likely most religions) tend to narrow the vast Biblical record down to key verses. But I think there is a lot to be learned from James. Marcus Borg in his introduction to James from his book Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, said:
Finally, we note that James echoes more sayings of Jesus than any document in the New Testament other than the gospels themselves. Its fiery passion reflets the passion of Jesus himself.
A careful reading of James brings this out which I will get to but I think the question of authorship is interesting.
According to Borg, most scholars don’t believe the author of James was actually the brother of Jesus mostly because the language and grammar of the original Greek is “quite sophisticated”, more sophisticated than a brother of Jesus born into a peasant class would have been capable of. Aramaic being the more likely spoken language.
But nobody knows for sure. The letter doesn’t clarify, James was a common name at the time. But the author must have been intimately familiar with the teachings of Jesus. And James the brother of Jesus and earliest Christian leader would credibly have had the ideas found in James.
James mirrors much of Jesus’ provocations. For me, based on this alone, it feels correct that its author was an intimate, first-hand witness of Jesus’ life and teachings.
His Statements on Wealth
The beginning of James chapter two is worth contemplation. In verses 2-4, he lays out a hypothetical, one I’m positive we’ve all experienced in one way or another. Imagine being at church, and a rich, well put together, educated family enters first, followed by a more ragged, more obviously poor family. Which one gets preferential treatment?
Ward leaders almost invariably think the rich family would be an asset in the ward, generous givers of time and money, competent, capable, willing to serve in responsible positions. Their hearts sink a little when the poor family enters – another burden on the ward likely already burdened.
Consider what James says however in chapter two:
5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?
6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?
Christianity, when really considered, is radical. Our God was born in poverty and died ignominiously. His ministry was short. He spent his time with the poor, the sinners, the sick and when he did speak harsh words, he always punched up – reserving the greatest condemnation for the elite in power. When he spoke, he often spoke in paradox, turning the world upside down – to find your life, you need to lose it, the first shall be last. His ministry was to raise up the weak and bring down the strong. Not the best message perhaps to grow an institution.
James hits on similar themes, in chapter five:
2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.
4 Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.
5 Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.
What is James saying here? I think the answer can found in the first chapter:
9 Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted:
10 But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.
11 For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.
James reminds us how short, fragile and ephemeral our lives really are. We are just like the flower that is beautiful and vibrant for a moment but then fades away in the sun. We can’t live life like this is all we have. If we find prosperity, we need to use these resources to make room for those with less. Our hearts need to be wider and deeper then our own self-interest and much more focused on eternal concerns.
What Does James Mean by Works
Paul’s primary focus over and over again was that the law by itself brings death, but faith and grace brings life. What kind of life does it bring? And what exactly did Paul mean by the law? His focus was on Jewish law, circumcision often, but the entire law of Moses – a religious life purely focused on a certain kind of living, where righteous works became an end in itself.
This is not the type of work James describes. Let’s dig into it.
James 1: 22-25:
22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
What does this mean? I think it means hearing the word and then allowing it to sink deep within one’s heart, so that we are forever changed, becoming its living embodiment. It’s works filled with love, so that as we walk away from the mirror, we don’t forget, the word remains.
More directly James 2:15-16
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
and James 1:27:
What concerns James was not circumcision or particular dietary requirements. Ratherm, he was concerned with love and care – that our faith, grace and mercy moves us toward kindness, compassion, generosity, that it moves us away from ourselves toward each other.
James has some beautiful and important passages on good speech, warnings against envying and strife. It’s as if he foresaw social media and the kind of platform that would pin us against each other.
James 3:17 is beautiful in this regard:
Without partiality – non-partisan, non-ideological. Full of mercy, easy to be entreated, gentle. I think it also means, we should listen more and speak less – I think this is great advice given there are so many people to learn from and listen to. We should listen and learn from everyone we come in contact with, which will by design, limit how much we’re able to speak.
We should read ten times as much as we write. This used to be easy, but in the world of social media, many of us are writing ten times more than we read. There is wisdom out there, absorb that wisdom, synthesize it, make it our own, then respond to it. We need to respond and interact not talk over, interrupt and insult.
I think there is some real wisdom in this very short letter. Wisdom in its provocations. James is difficult, but important.