Beginning next Sunday the lectionary has a series of five readings from the letter of James for the Epistle readings. Due to Homecoming falling at the end of that, I am starting early and will be going through the Epistle of James over the next five Sundays.
James has been a much-maligned book in the history of New Testament study. Martin Luther called it a “book of straw,” which had no place in the Christian Bible. Others have agreed with him on this point. The name of Jesus appears only twice in James, and it reads very much like a Jewish book with its emphasis on ethics and good works.
James is certainly not a book you would turn to in order to teach the fullness of the Christian Gospel. But as a part of the story I certainly believe it has a place which should not be taken away. James stands as a corrective to all who would emphasize Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone to its extreme, which casts aside any necessity for good works or right living in Christian theology. That extreme was certainly not Paul’s intention anyway.
The letter of James defies dating or identification of the author or recipients of the letter. Many have held that James the brother of Jesus was the author, who was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. This is not claimed in the letter itself, and while there are some aspects of the letter which would fit well with his authorship there are other aspects which do not. It is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” which is a Jewish reference to the scattered state of Judaism across the known world following the Babylonian exile. This probably should be understood as a very broad term referring to the church as the heirs of the promises of Israel and the fact that Christians were now scattered around the known world as well. This would indicate that the writer addresses the whole church.
Neither is there a unifying theme to the book of James. The writer takes a shotgun sort of approach, moving rapidly from one theme to another, sometimes coming back later to an issue previously addressed, sometimes seeming to leave a topic without finishing. You’ll see this jumping around as I talk about the first half of the first chapter today.
But having said these less than complimentary things about James, let me go on to say that James says some very valuable things and says them well. He speaks with a bluntness and directness which will not allow us to ignore him. He challenges us in some ways which are very threatening and in some ways which Jesus challenged us that are absent from the other letters of the New Testament.
I invite you, then, to listen to James over these five weeks, and to listen to him challenge you with the Gospel – not the whole Gospel, by any means, but a part which needs to be present for the Gospel to be complete.
James launches into his letter on what seems a surprising note for us. He writes, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.” Contemporary Christians are not much interested in thinking that the life of faith will involve trials, but it is certainly an attention getter. And deep down, who is not interested in how to deal with the trials and problems we face in our everyday lives. This would have surely been true for first century Christians, many of whom routinely underwent persecution and hardship because of the fact that they were Christians.
James urges Christians to win a mental and spiritual victory for themselves with a new approach to trials. Rather than allowing trials to make them bitter or angry, or to feel sorry for themselves, James says, “Count it the fullness of joy when you meet various trials.” Why? “Because you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness; and let steadfastness have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
It is through the endurance of trials that our faith over time becomes strengthened, hammered out, “steadfast” as James so beautifully puts it. Steadfast – unshakable – solid. Novelist Pat Conroy has written a very insightful book entitled My Losing Season. In it he talks about how learning to deal with losing in sports taught him much more that was useful for his life than winning ever did, because it taught him how to persevere through the difficult trials of life.
James is sometimes opposed to Paul, but not on the subject of suffering. This passage echoes Paul’s writing in Romans 5, which says, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.
Paul wrote this out of experience, not from an ivory tower. As he told the Corinthians, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” The reason for this outcome is the power of God which exceeds comparison.
I’m sure James wrote out of experience as well, quite possibly as part of the Jerusalem Christian community which was so impoverished that Paul was taking up money to help them out. James was not interested in explaining why good people have to suffer. He was interested in what we do with suffering when it comes to us, and with the benefits of it. His answer is a good one: “Count it all joy when you meet various trials, because the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
The next section insinuates that the key to dealing with trials in this way is to have wisdom, which is given by God. James tells his readers that if they feel they lack wisdom they should pray and ask God for it. James is certain that if a person asks this from God without doubting, God will give generously. If, on the other hand, a person is wishy-washy about faith and asks half heartedly, that person will receive nothing. That seems harsh, but there are many instances in the teaching of Jesus where the single-minded determination of discipleship is demanded, where he clearly states that one cannot serve two masters and must make a choice, about the power of the prayers of people of faith.
Verses 9-11 jump to the subject of rich and poor people, which James revisits a number of times and which is a big obstacle for people. In the big picture of the whole world, all of us fall in the rich category, so his words are very uncomfortable. Here is the opening salvo: “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.”
He will return to this theme later in the letter, but I hear James encouraging the poor to imagine themselves as being lifted up by God and the rich to imagine themselves being humbled by God, in order that they will see each other as equals in God’s sight. He wants to participate in the world of economics from a very different mindset, and he thinks there are eternal consequences to not doing so. Stay tuned for further details.
The final section in today’s reading returns to the theme of trials, this time in the sense of trials being temptations. The Greek word can be translated both ways: trials and temptations. “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
Here is another one of the places where James presents a clear statement that is different from some other passages and theologies and balances them. While trials and temptations should be welcomed because of the spiritual maturity they lead us to, we should never see those trials and temptations as coming from God. He says, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it.” For James it is a cop out to blame either God or the devil for the temptations we face in life. We need to own them as having originated in our desires.
Indeed, he goes on to say, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Frances Taylor Gench writes, “James states unambiguously that God’s constant, unchanging will for us is not trial or temptation, but life – a life of steadfast faith and wholeness, and in the end, life eternal – a life of constancy and integrity, which is modeled on the very constancy and integrity of God.” (Westminster Bible Commentary, Hebrews and James, p. 95)
Next week we will look at the rest of the first chapter of James, in which he reminds us that it is not enough to hear the word, not enough to say the word, we have to follow through and do the word. Today’s summary: Be joyful when you face trials because they lead to endurance and maturity. If you lack wisdom, pray for it. Be careful about dwelling on money too much, either having too much or too little. Don’t blame God for temptations. There is only good in God, and every good and perfect gift comes from him. Thanks be to God! Amen!
David J. Bailey
August 23, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church