Letter from James

Football teams, empires and prime ministers rise and fall but, it is said, God’s word abides forever. True, but the books of scripture themselves also rise and fall in popularity.

Take, for example, the Epistle of James. For much of its biblical life it has been a backbencher. Although it was little quoted in the early church, it was received into the Canon, only to spend many centuries in decent obscurity. Its glory days came with the Reformation. Against Luther’s attacks on a theology of good works, Catholics rallied to its insistence that ‘faith without works is dead’, a phrase that will be familiar to older Catholics from the Catechism.

A provoked Luther called the letter an Epistle of Straw.

The Epistle then resumed its minor status. But among young Christians, it has more recently come into favour because of its outspoken moral comment. Indeed, at first sight it is an urger’s manifesto, arguing pungently against a faith that is preoccupied with beliefs or feelings. James wants generous living, and is particularly unimpressed by status—by the inclination to make more of people who own helicopter pads than of those who sweep them:

If a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing, and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while you say to the poor man, ‘Stand there’, or ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?’

James also challenges popular Catholic attitudes to sin. For him, the part of the body you need to watch most closely is the tongue, because it feeds arrogant and divisive behaviour.

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.

When thinking of sinful bodily members, later Catholic moralists set their sights somewhat lower.

For all James’ virtues, however, you would not want to make him the staple of your diet. James is a moralist. The risk of listening too intently to moralists is that you become earnest, judgmental and legalistic. You are surprised to find the Christian message described as Good News. You then face the challenge to live faith seriously without losing the sense of grace, of unexpected gift, that is the Christian version of the lightness of being.

St Paul sorted out that challenge by opposing grace to law. James took another tack. He was happy enough to describe as law the claims of living generously. But he described it as the law of freedom. The phrase is paradoxical, for we instinctively contrast law and freedom. Many Christian interpreters have knackered the paradox by making James say that obedience to law will make you free. It doesn’t, of course.

What James meant, perhaps, is that there is a lightness, almost an anarchic spirit, in Christian faith that naturally expresses itself in generous and counter-cultural living. Maybe that is why the Letter of James has an important place in Scriptures. Maybe, too, that is why he is usually unfashionable. 

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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