Thoughts on “James”

~By Roger Martin

The epistle of James is straightforward in its ethical guidance. Here are a few of its precepts.

James: Be considerate, humble, merciful. Be slow to anger. Watch your tongue. Listen. Love peace. Help orphans and widows. ACT on your faith; faith without deeds is dead. Don’t judge others. Leave judgment to God.

These instructions may seem tame, yet the epistle was problematic enough that its entry into the church canon was slow. No one knows its author. Was it the work of Jesus’ brother? Of someone concealing his identity by writing under the name of Jesus’ brother? Or of a teacher named James about whose life we know nothing? Those are three of five possible Jameses, according to William Barclay, a Scottish scholar of the New Testament.

More crucial is the question of how uniquely Christian the book of James is. Barclay points out that a Jew would have found precious little in it to object to. A Penn State University humanities professor says that Buddhists would find the epistle to their liking. In an article in Christian Century, an Asian scholar tells the professor that James is a comfortable way for southeast Asians in general to learn about Christianity. The Dalai Lama, in fact, proclaims James’ statement that “human beings are a mist, a vapor that rises and vanishes away” a wonderful image for the transience of human life.

Another odd fact: James remained in the Christian Bible despite Martin Luther’s resistance to it. Among Luther’s objections was the relative absence of direct references to Christ in the epistle.

Martin Luther: In all this long teaching [James] does not once mention the Passion, the resurrection or the Spirit of Christ. He names Christ several times; however, he teaches nothing about him.

Other orthodox Christians, Protestants in particular, also raise objections to James. The contrast between the notions of Paul and James about the relative importance of faith and works is the heart of the conflict. Here’s Paul speaking in Ephesians 2: 8-9

Paul: For it is by grace you have been saved . . . the gift of God . . . not by works, so that no one can boast.

And here’s James in Chapter 2, Verse 14 of his epistle:

James: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

Luther, of course, sides with Paul.

Luther: In the first place [the epistle of James] is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works.

Luther accuses James of being ruled by a legalistic spirit, of emphasizing what people should and shouldn’t do, rather than God’s grace, as the path to redemption.

Luther: [He] wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task. He tries to accomplish, by harping on the law, what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love.

Though conceding that there are many wise sayings in the book of James, Luther calls it “an epistle full of straw.” If he’d had his way, he would have removed it from the New Testament, along with Revelation, Jude and Hebrews. He deemed them all secondary.

It seems that Luther failed to heed some of James’ simple wisdom, nuggets of truth that I find appealing.

James: Be considerate, humble, merciful. Leave judgment of others to God.

It’s easy to predict the position that Menno Simons would take about Luther’s theology: He’s as hard on Luther as Luther is on James. Listen and you can hear a quiet sneer in Menno’s voice.

Menno Simons: The Lutherans teach and believe, that we are saved by faith alone, without any regard to works. They maintain this doctrine as firmly as though works were not at all necessary; yea, that faith is of such a nature that no work can be suffered or allowed beside it. . . .

Menno also attacks the bias of Lutherans toward believing as opposed to doing, contending that this bias has the effect of freeing Lutherans to behave badly.

Menno: With this same doctrine they have led the reckless and ignorant, great and small, citizens and the common people; into such a fruitless, wild life, and have so much unbridled them, that we would scarcely find such an ungodly and abominable life among the Turks and Tartars, as we see among them.

In his insult of Lutherans, Turks and Tartars, Simons lends support to this nugget of Jamesian wisdom:

James: No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Simons also failed, as Luther had, to ask himself a question posed by James.

James: But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?

Now here’s something REALLY interesting. James also makes a sweeping judgment, attacking the rich for hoarding their wealth and failing to pay their field hands a decent wage. Then he mocks them.

Menno: The rich should take pride in their humiliation since they will pass away like a wildflower. And so James joins Luther and Simons in judging others rather than leaving that task to God.

Suspending judgment is a tricky business. I ask myself, “Am I judging Martin Luther and Menno Simons and James?” It’s confusing.

When I mention this to Barbara, she points out that as Christians we are obligated at times to make judgments. Yet somehow, I feel that judgment – even the kind that fuels nothing more than gossip – is forbidden for those who want to live a God-centered life.

Barbara counters by saying that the kind of “judgment” we are to avoid is harsh, or cruel. Her father counseled her as a young woman that to be “discriminating” was OK. Not to discriminate against people, but to be one who draws distinctions; one who chooses the best behaviors or makes the best choices.

Mennonites, I’ve noticed, tend to back away from the word “judgment.” For example, in struggling with the gay marriage issue, church leaders often tend to use a softer word to describe the way they reach whatever position they take. They do not “judge.” They “discern.”

Still, I’m nagged by doubt. Judging isn’t as serious as murder or theft or coveting another man’s wife, but it’s more widespread. One form that judging takes – gossip – can diminish both the gossiper and his target and create unholy alliances.

Earlier, I described James’ warning about the tongue and its potential for wreaking havoc. Besides saying that it’s full of poison, he calls it a “world of evil among the parts of the body” and compares it to a fire whose source is hell. He tells his readers that they must avoid slander . . . call each other to account when they wander from the truth . . . and learn to listen to what they may not want to hear.

Ultimately, judging threatens community, while James seeks to build it. He advises Christians to “look after orphans and widows” and to love their neighbors indiscriminately, without regard to their appearance or status, as they love themselves. If a person passes someone starving on the street and says, Keep warm and well-fed, but then does nothing, that person evidences the deadness of faith without deeds.

The other day, Barbara and I were walking out of Panera’s when we saw a pianist named John. You may know him. His bald pate is bordered by curly white hair. He’s got a big nose and wide blue eyes and he talks with a ferocious intensity that probably drives some people off.

Barb told me later she was thinking about ducking him. I was already pretending not to see him, but, when I saw her approach him, I did too. John recognized us and was delighted we’d stopped to talk. We passed a few minutes together, and toward the end, he thanked us for our brief conversation. He said that people he’s met sometimes pass him by without acknowledging him.

Barbara later said that she was glad she had changed her mind and stopped. It reminded her of James’ observation that to pass a person starving on the street and do nothing exemplifies the deadness of faith without deeds.

Sometimes, those we pass by are starved not for food but for attention.

They, too, need to be fed.