The letter of Saint James

The great first bishop of Jerusalem, Saint James the Just, was greatly honoured during his lifetime, by Christian and Jew alike. The tradition of the Church speaks through S. Jerome who quotes an older description of him thus:

“After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels’ knees.

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It certainly seems as if James was a life-long Nazirite, like Saint John the Baptist, and so was greatly respected in Jewish society. From this great figure comes this excellent letter addressed to ‘the twelve tribes scattered throughout the world,’ and to my mind that indicates a general message to Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews alike from someone who may have been a figure of authority for both, although the letter is manifestly Christian. Or perhaps the Church did understand herself as being the spiritual heir of the twelve tribes of old Israel. His understanding of suffering as valuable in itself (enabling spiritual growth and maturation) is both Jewish and Christian. Suffering and martyrdom as providing a crown is an idea we may know from the letters of Saint Paul. 

“Blessed is he who endures under trials. When he has proved his worth, he will win that crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him. Nobody, when he finds himself tempted, should say, I am being tempted by God. God may threaten us with evil, but He does not Himself tempt anyone. No, when a man is tempted, it is always because he is being drawn away by the lure of his own passions. When that has come about, passion conceives and gives birth to sin; and when sin has reached its full growth, it breeds death.”

James, 1: 12-15

God may lead us to the place of temptation (as in the Lord’s prayer), but he doesn’t himself draw us into evil; we are often our own worst enemies, when it comes to temptation and sin. In line with the old Hebrew prophets, James recommends honesty and faithful living, and prudence in speech, and in works of charity.

“Only you must be honest with yourselves; you are to live by the word, not content merely to listen to it. One who listens to the word without living by it is like a man who sees, in a mirror, the face he was born with; he looks at himself, and away he goes, never giving another thought to the man he saw there. Whereas one who gazes into that perfect law, which is the law of freedom, and dwells on the sight of it, does not forget its message; he finds something to do, and does it, and his doing of it wins him a blessing. If anyone deludes himself by thinking he is serving God, when he has not learned to control his tongue, the service he gives is vain. If he is to offer service pure and unblemished in the sight of God, who is our Father, he must take care of orphans and widows in their need, and keep himself untainted by the world.”

James, 1: 22-27

James witnesses the absolute equality of the members of the Church at the time in their synagogue or place of meeting:

Suppose that a man comes into your place of meeting in fine clothes, wearing a gold ring; suppose that a poor man comes in at the same time, ill clad. Will you pay attention to the well-dressed man, and bid him take some place of honour; will you tell the poor man, ‘Stand where thou art,’ or ‘Sit on the ground at my footstool?’ If so, are you not introducing divisions into your company? Have you not shewn partiality in your judgement? Listen to me, my dear brethren; has not God chosen the men who are poor in the world’s eyes to be rich in faith, to be heirs of that kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?

James, 2: 2-5

This is followed by a fine discourse on the integrity of the Law of God, so that even the smallest transgression or sin is still an offence against the Law worthy of judgement and sentence. And our faith is demonstrated not by fine words, but by our actions. This is thoroughly worthy of Christ Himself, who scolded the Pharisees of his time for observing the Law while neglecting charity:

Of what use is it, my brethren, if a man claims to have faith, and has no deeds to shew for it? Can faith save him then? Here is a brother, here is a sister, going naked, left without the means to secure their daily food; if one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, warm yourselves and take your fill,’ without providing for their bodily needs, of what use is it? Thus faith, if it has no deeds to shew for itself, has lost its own principle of life.

James, 2: 14-17

The third chapter of the letter is a colourful description of the damage that can be done by bad speech, the cause of strife, the enemy of peace, the instrument of pride. It think he means to say that self-control and prudence, especially with respect to things spoken, helps establish and maintain peace, within which holiness may grow.

“Among the organs of our nature, the tongue has its place as the proper element in which all that is harmful lives. It infects the whole body, and sets fire to this mortal sphere of ours, catching fire itself from hell. Mankind can tame, and has long since learned to tame, every kind of beast and bird, of creeping things and all else; but no human being has ever found out how to tame the tongue; a pest that is never allayed, all deadly poison… Where there is jealousy, where there is rivalry, there you will find disorder and every kind of defect. Whereas the wisdom which does come from above is marked chiefly indeed by its purity, but also by its peacefulness; it is courteous and ready to be convinced, always taking the better part; it carries mercy with it, and a harvest of all that is good; it is uncensorious, and without affectation. Peace is the seed-ground of holiness, and those who make peace will win its harvest.”

James, 3: 6-8, 16-18

James says that it is desire and concupiscence – wishing to possess what is not one’s to possess – that leads eventually to quarrelling and murder. And the basis of those desires is an unhealthy intention, not of appreciation for the object of desire, but merely the satisfying of those desires. The work of the believer is then to draw nearer to God in humility and to purify the intentions of his or her heart. 

“Be God’s true subjects, then; stand firm against the devil, and he will run away from you, come close to God, and He will come close to you. You that are sinners must wash your hands clean, you that are in two minds must purify the intention of your hearts. Bring yourselves low with mourning and weeping, turn your laughter into sadness, your joy into downcast looks; humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James, 4: 7-10

The last chapter begins with a condemnation of those who set their hearts on riches and abuse the poor, such as by neglecting the wages of their servants and workmen. This is an echo of the voice of the Hebrew prophets, and James’ follow-up is not very different from Isaiah’s, or Hosea’s, or Habacuc’s: wait patiently for the Lord, as farmers wait for the right seasons for returns on their work. And James does refer directly to the patience of the old prophets and of such men as Job. There are some nice bits of advice, such as to prayer, hymning, sacramental confession and that bit that sounds like it came out of a Gospel:

“But above all, my brethren, do not bind yourselves by any oath, by heaven, by earth, or by any oath at all. Let your word be Yes for Yes, and No for No; if not, you will be judged for it.

James, 5: 12

That is the advice we remember from Christ’s sermon on the mount (Gospel of S. Matthew, 5: 37), which is the basis for James’ commitment to prudence in speech, mentioned earlier. And there are those lines that everybody who has attended the service of the Anointing of the Sick will remember well (and there this post could end): 

Is one of you sick? Let him send for the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Lord’s name. Prayer offered in faith will restore the sick man, and the Lord will give him relief; if he is guilty of sins, they will be pardoned.

James 5: 14-15
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