Letter of St. James

  Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit

That my thoughts may all be holy.

Act in me, O Holy Spirit

That my work, too, may be holy.

Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit,

That I love but what is holy.

Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit,

To defend all that is holy.

Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit,

That I always may be holy.

                                                               –St Augustine

After reading the letters of St. Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews, were you surprised by how different this letter of James was? I was surprised by the language – how plain and straightforward it is, and I missed the opening prayer which we always read in St. Paul. I wasn’t sure that I liked this letter. But once I had prayerfully read it again, I found a treasure within it. And I recognized that great treasures are not often placed in a jewel encrusted chest just lying in the open for anyone to find. To find a treasure, we have to search for it.

These last letters we are reading – James, Jude, and Peter, along with those of John which we read two years ago, are entitled the “Catholic letters”, because they are not written to a particular church or individual. The Letter of James is written to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion”, that is, to the Christians of Jewish origin scattered throughout the Roman world. The word “dispersion” can also include us, for we all live in exile from our true home which is heaven.

Who was this James who wrote the letter we have been studying? We know that there was an Apostle of the Lord, who was named James, son of Zebedee. He was John the Apostle’s brother. There is another James, son of Alpheus, who was an Apostle. Our James is the son of Cleophas and Mary, who was the Blessed Virgin’s cousin. He is sometimes called the “lesser” or “brother of the Lord”, although he was not the true brother of Jesus, as we understand the term. 

Our writer James was the bishop of Jerusalem. We first meet him in the Acts of the Apostles, in Chapter 15, where James gives a reasoned argument during that first Council of Jerusalem. He insists that requiring Gentiles, who have turned to God, to follow the Jewish dietary laws was unnecessary. In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul describes our James as one of the pillars of the Church and gives him a prominent place among those to whom our Lord appeared after His Resurrection. According to the Roman historian Josephus, James was stoned to death by the Jews under the high priest Ananaus II in AD 62. This letter was written two years before his death in the year 60 AD. 

James begins his letter by calling himself “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Some Bibles translations use the word “servant” instead of “slave”. To James, to be a slave or a servant to God and Jesus meant that he willingly, and with great love and devotion, gave all that he was, all that he possessed, and all that he would do to God. James knew that Jesus had given His life, so that all of us might live forever with Him. James’ gratitude to Jesus knew no bounds. So it is easy for me to imagine that at the end of his life, James lovingly surrendered his last breath to his Lord.

Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” From the very beginning of our Christian faith, believers have experienced persecution, and still do today. James encourages his readers to bear persecution bravely and to practice the Christian virtues, especially patience in the face of trials. He reminds us that we should ask God for wisdom, which will sustain us in those times of trials. Wisdom gives us an understanding of the real importance of the events going on around us. James cautions that we should not doubt God, for “one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind.” 

James warns us that we are not to be “double-minded”, trying to live by two standards at once, to live both by the standard of God and by that of the world. To be a faithful Christian we have to make a choice.  James tells us that the measure of the world is “envy”, and that the values of the world are self-deceptive. We have seen that the secular world turns away from God, believing that all humans are in competition with one another. To succeed one person must fail, while the other wins.

In the Christian view of the world, our lives and all creation are a “gift” which comes from “the Father of Lights”. Because God created us and implanted His word within us, we are able to live as God wants us to live, giving “generously and without favoritism” as God does. Christians are to be pilgrims,  in this world, not hostile to it, but neither are we to be defined by the world. We are meant to live by God’s measure –  which is love – and not by the standard the world demands.

James insists that Christians must do good and not be content with a faith that produces nothing. “Be quick to listen, but slow to speak, and slow to rouse your temper; God’s righteousness is never served by man’s anger…” Those words cut me to the heart when I read them, for I have often been guilty of letting my anger rule my words.  

 “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”  We delude ourselves, if we think that just hearing the Word of God is enough, for James says: “if we are hearers only, we are like a man who looks at himself in a mirror and then goes off and forgets what he looked like”. I had to laugh to myself when I read that line. I don’t forget what I look like, it is just that the image that looks back at me in the mirror looks much older than my mental picture of myself! 

The tongue is a small member, and yet has great pretensions; it is a world of malice…setting the entire course of our lives on firethe tongue is a whole wicked world in itself”. How many times have I spoken words and later regretted the pain my words had caused? Even though I apologized for my remarks, I can never take away that hurt. 

Remember the little rhyme we would repeat as children -”sticks and stones will break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” We usually stuck out our tongue afterwards!!  As children we tried to persuade ourselves that ugly names and remarks were meaningless, but we knew better. Yet those ugly words left permanent scars on our hearts. Sister tells us when we use angry and ugly words and direct them against others, our own soul is also damaged.

James places great importance on caring for the poor and advises us not to give preference to people who are well-to-do or have a high social position. Jesus showed respect for all peoples and chose his followers from among the poorest in society. Our natural inclination, however, is to form opinions based on appearances.

Those who are rich or famous seem to be very fortunate and privileged to us, but in God’s eyes, and often in their own consciences, they are frequently the ones to be pitied. Some years ago I was puzzled at how the poorest members in my Church community seemed to be the most devoted to God and His Church. They were the ones who were so reverent after Communion, kneeling in their pews long after Mass was over. Watching these folks, I recognized my own lack of faith and devotion, as though having enough food to eat and a comfortable place to sleep stood between me and a deep relationship with God. 

The central message of this James’ letter is that faith without good works is dead, for a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone. “You say you have faith, and I have good deeds; I will prove to you that I have faith by showing you my good deeds – now you prove to me that you have faith without any good deeds to show”. In the Gospels Jesus tell us that at the Last Judgment He would separate people as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats. Those who saw Jesus in the “least of His brothers” and helped them would earn eternal life and happiness with God. Those who refused to help “the least of His brothers” would spend eternity without God. 

Martin Luther tried to discredit this letter of James, because it didn’t fit in with Luther’s doctrine of “faith without works”. Many people since then have tried to claim that this letter is at odds with St. Paul’s teaching “that a man is not justified by works of the law, but through faith.”(Gal 2:16, Rom 3:20). From the context of St. James’ letter, it is clear that James is talking about the “good works” which Jesus recommended in the Sermon on the Mount, while St. Paul is referring to the “works of the Law” of the Old Covenant. Paul was trying to persuade believers that it was not necessary for Christians to observe all the dictates of the Mosaic law  to attain salvation. St. Paul and St. James, then, are of one and the same mind.

St. James concludes his letter with a passage about Anointing of the Sick. He states: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins; he will be forgiven.” 

Our Church traditions recognize this rite as one of the seven sacraments. It is meant to be a communal  celebration, whether it takes place in the family home, a hospital or a church. Only our priests are ministers of this sacrament. The Catechism tells us that it is “fitting to celebrate the Anointing of the sick with the Eucharist and often the sacrament of Penance.” The Eucharist should always be the last sacrament we receive in this life. It is the food which will sustain our souls on the final part of our pilgrim journey, as we pass from death to Life — from this world to our eternal Father.

Finally, according to my Bible notes, Jude was a brother of James, though we don’t know if they were blood brothers. Sister talks about Jude’s letter in the commentary you will receive this week. Let’s end with a prayer of praise to God from Jude:

“Glory be to Him who can keep you from falling

 and bring you safe to his glorious presence, 

innocent and happy. 

To God, the only God, 

who saves us through Jesus Christ our Lord, 

be the glory, majesty, authority and power, 

which he had before time began, 

now and forever. 


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