James 1 (day 1147) 20 February 2013
1: The very first verse of James presents problems for the Biblical scholar. Ancient tradition ascribes the letter (sermon?) to James the brother of Jesus, although there are arguments that “brother” may mean “half brother” or “cousin” or even simply “a member of the church.” Another theory is that it was a Jewish text (“James” is the English form of the Greek “Iakobos;” “Jacob” in the Old Testament) which made its way into the New Testament. There is little in James which could not be embraced by Jews. There is no mention of the resurrection, and the few specifically Christian references in it could easily have been added later. A telling clue, according to those who hold to this theory, is the reference to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” This is a standard way of referring to the Jews who were scattered during the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel. So, take your pick.
2-4: Right away we have a reference to persecution of some sort. The community’s faith is being tested. James tells them to endure, that being tested is the way faith matures.
5-8: The other side of the faith coin is doubt, which causes instability, in the community as well as for the individual.
9-11: One of the hallmarks of James is its solidarity with the poor and its antagonism toward the rich. If it is indeed a Christian work, it falls into line with early Christianity’s countercultural affinity with the poor and the powerless.
12-16: Here is an interesting take on temptation: it is neither instigated by evil or by God, but by the individual’s desires. Resisting temptation strengthens the soul; giving in to temptation destroys it.
17-18: Generosity, on the other hand, is instigated by God, and thus is a sign that the giver is attuned to God’s will.
19-21: The attitude necessary for receiving holy instruction is one of meekness.
22-25: Put what you receive (in the way of holy instruction) to work; otherwise it is worthless.
26-27: In the same vein, refrain from talking too much. The result of faith should be seen in your treatment of those on the lowest rung of society; widows and orphans.
James 2 (day 1148) 21 February 2013
1-7: A curious but undeniable logic is at work here. The tendency for most people is to treat the rich with special favor because they are powerful, and to ignore the poor because they are weak. But it is precisely the weakness of the poor that prevents them from ever being the oppressor, and the wealth and power of the rich that encourages them to oppress others. Therefore it is foolish to treat the rich as if they are more important than the poor.
8-13: It follows that you should love your neighbor as yourself; not higher than or lower than yourself but as yourself. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” is another way of saying “don’t stand in judgment of your neighbors; just love them.”
14-17: Faith without works is dead, says James. Martin Luther had problems with this saying, for we are justified by faith, not works. But James’ point is still valid. If we have faith in Christ we ought to behave like Christ and do good works.
18-26: It is interesting to compare James’ understanding of Abraham’s faith with Paul’s. Paul makes a big deal of Abraham’s faith apart from works (Romans 4:2-5). James points out that Abraham did actually put Isaac on the altar and raise the knife, and thus “faith was brought to completion by the works.” He put his money where his mouth was, we might say. To add to his argument James points to the harlot Rahab who saved Joshua’s spies at the risk of her own life: her faith was demonstrated by her actions, in other words (see Joshua 2:1-3 and 6:17).
James 3 (day 1149) 22 February 2013
1-5: Speech is controlled by the tongue, which makes the tongue a powerful instrument. It is likened to the bridle which guides the horse and the rudder which guides the ship. Indeed, in Proverbs the tongue is accorded the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21). Therefore, those who spend their lives teaching others are undertaking an extreme risk, for the tongue – that it, the words that it forms – can set people afire. Rare is the individual that can handle such responsibility.
6-12: The tongue can no more be controlled than can a spring gush both fresh and brackish water, or a fig tree bear olives, or a grape vine figs, or salt water turn fresh. It is a dangerous tool; another reason why only a few should undertake to use it for instruction of others.
13-18: Envy and selfish ambition are named as the causes of wickedness and disorder, and a bit of reflection certainly confirms this. Wisdom “from above” is the antidote. The qualities listed in verse 17 are certainly the things that make for peace and should be sought at all costs.
James 4 (day 1150) 23 February 2013
1-10: He returns to a previous thought; that our ill behavior – even murder, theft, conflict and adultery – is caused by our own internal desires and cravings. These must be submitted to God’s control with repentance and humility; necessary conditions for God’s favor.
11-12: These verses perhaps shed some light on a similar saying of Jesus (see Matthew 7:1) about judging others. It is the function of the law to judge, not the individual. We may accuse, we may testify, but judgment belongs to God, via God’s law.
13-16: These verses gave rise to a famous quote from Thomas a’ Kempis in “Of the Imitation of Christ,” a still widely read devotional classic. A’ Kempis wrote, “For man proposes, but God disposes.”
17: This verse seems unrelated to the previous section or to what follows in chapter 5.
James 5 (day 1151) 24 February 2013
1-6: The final chapter begins with a withering diatribe against the wealthy who have contributed to the suffering of the poor.
7-11: Now he moves on to encourage his fellow believers. The clear implication is that the community (communities) to which he is writing is made up mostly of the very poor (which, by the way, argues for an early date for the writing of James, before Christianity had become more organized and moved into the cities where wealthy believers were drawn in). He encourages them to be at peace with one another and to endure with patience, like Job.
12: Compare Matthew 5:34-37.
13-18: Finally, he says, pray. Pray if you’re suffering. Praise if you’re cheerful. If you’re sick, call on the spiritual leaders in the church to pray for you and anoint you with oil. He does not claim that such a ritual will heal the sick, but that it will save them. The anointing with oil may well be intended as a sort of last rites: the story of Mary the sister of Lazarus anointing Jesus’ feet comes to mind (John 12:1-7).
19-20: In the same way, rescuing one who has “wandered from the truth” is an act of salvation. Whoever does that “covers a multitude of sins.” But is that a reference to the one who wandered or to the one who rescued? On that ambiguous statement the sermon (letter?) comes to an abrupt end.