THE LETTER OF JAMES – PART 4
JUDGING AND ACTING BY GOD'S LAW
A. Fr. Harrington in the Sacra Pagina commentary argues that both of the arguments proceed along a common first century style of rhetoric. Many considered it most effective for persuasive (or deliberative) texts to proceed along the following lines:
1. The theme
2. The ratio or reasoning
3. A further proof of the reason
4. An embellishment
B. Although Fr. Harrington
does not note it, the texts seem to put the embellishment, or example,
second after the theme.
C. Thus the first argument proceeds along the lines of
1. St. James refers
to a "synagogue," rather than a church (ecclesia, which means assembly
and was generally used to mean the church by early Christians.)
This reference indicates that the audience was still in the first era
of Christian worship. There is perhaps also a subtle reminder
that the ancient law of the Jews (which was studied in the synagogue)
has not been abolished but fulfilled. See Matt. 5:17-20.
For the ancient law likewise condemned partiality in judgments.
See Ex. 23:1-6; Lev. 19:15; Duet. 1:17; Prov. 24:23; see also Duet.
2. Jesus had condemned
the scribes and Pharisees for loving the places of honor at banquet,
for that involved seeking worldly glory. See Matt. 23:6; Mark
12:39; Luke 11:43, 20:46; see also 1 Cor. 11:17-22. This example
looks at the other side of the coin, telling the readers not to feed
3. The gold rings
would be an external sign of great and perhaps ostentatious wealth.
There is perhaps a contrast between the rings of worldly wealth, and
the ring of favor that the loving father gives his repentant .
See Luke 15:22. The finery may also reflect the parable of the
rich man and Lazarus. See Luke 16:19-31.
4. The letter
says that favoring the rich man would make the whole assembly unjust
judges. The implication is that the all Christians are being exalted
to the level of judges and beyond. See Wis. 3:8; 1 Cor. 6:3.
However, by failing to see justly people are acting rather as the unjust
judges condemned in the Old Testament. See Ps. 82:2; Dan. 13:5;
1. The letter
points out that God reverses the usual standards, choosing the poor
to be rich and faith and inherit the kingdom. See, e.g., Matt.
5:3, 11:5; Luke 1:52-53, 6:20; 1 Cor. 1:26-29. The Old Testament
had already presented the poor as especially being protected by God.
See Duet. 17:10; Ps. 35:10; Is. 61:1. Jesus raised this teaching
higher by saying that poverty of spirit can be a source of blessings.
2. The letter then points out that, as a practical matter, the rich, and especially those who show off wealth, are generally the least religious and in fact persecute believers. It is thus the height of folly, even from the standpoint of common sense, to give them special honor.
3. The letter
says that these offenses are against the "exalted name" that is
invoked over Christians. God's name is described as powerful
and holy in the Old Testament. See, e.g. Ex. 3:6, 14-16; Duet.
28:10; Ps. 9:11, 33:21, 124:8; Joel 3:5; Mal. 2;2, 5. And likewise,
the name of Jesus confers God's glory and power in the New Testament.
See, e.g., Mark 16:17; Luke 9:49, 10:17; Acts 2:21, 3:6, 4:7-10 8:16.
The wealthy persecutors, in oppressing those saved in His name (a likely
reference to baptism) are rejecting the glory and power of the kingdom
of God. See Acts 4:18, 5:28.
1. The letter refers, as Jesus did, to the command to love one's neighbor as oneself, as central to the Law. See Matt. 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-37; see also Rom. 13:8-10. That commandment was also in the Torah, but it seems to refer to countrymen as neighbors, rather than all in need. See Lev. 19:18.
2. The letter then
warns that this partiality violates this basic law, and thus makes people
"convicted by the law as transgressors." There is a trial
like atmosphere here, reflecting the inescapability of such conviction.
3. The letter then goes on further to say that fulfilling most or even almost all of the law will not do. The implication is that one must be totally dedicated to the law, or else one has put some other standard above it.
had already indicated that, without that active love of neighbor, one's
faith is in vain. See, e.g., Matt. 25:31-45; Luke 19:11-27.
However, at the time of this letter, the Gospels had probably not been
published and the teachings of Jesus may not have been as well known.
assumption of the questions is that some faith is necessary for salvation.
St. James thus is in perfect agreement with St. Paul that faith is needed
for salvation. His point is that that faith must be an active
phrasing of the rhetorical question may reflect Jesus' question "What
does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?"
See Matt. 16:26.
B. The letter then proceeds onto an example that demonstrates the worthlessness of faith without works, connecting this point to the previous theme of seeing goodness in the poor.
example may be drawn from Jesus' discourse on the Judgment of Nations,
see Matt. 25:31-45, or from discourses from Tobit and Isaiah along similar
lines, see Tobit 4:16; Is. 58:7; see also 1 John 3:17.
letter does not say that there can be no faith of any sort without works,
but rather that the faith is dead, like a corpse.
C. The letter argues that faith and good works are inexorably intertwined and gives a particularly dramatic example, saying that if faith can be reduced to mere strong belief, even the demons have that faith.
1. The argument is addressed to a hypothetical person who says that one person may be saved with faith and another with works, as though there are different means to salvation.
The argument is that faith and works are connected, and that the one
is shown through the other. It is a similar point as Jesus was
making with the examples of good and bad fruit. See Luke 6:43-44;
see also Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 5:9.
further demonstrates this fact by pointing out that demons can believe
in God and in His power, and that does them no good, but is in fact
a source of fear. In fact, the demons seemed to recognize Jesus
before anyone else, but that was a source of terror. See, e.g.,
Mark 1:24, 5:7; Luke 4:34.
D. The letter then proceeds onto two rather contrasting examples from Scripture.
examples are introduced to "you empty man." The implication
is not necessarily that the reader is that empty man, but rather than
one who makes an argument that faith without works can save is empty,
for his faith is not filled.
2. The first, and more expected example, is from Abraham and in particular, his extraordinary willingness to obey when God called for the sacrifice of his son Isaac. As the Letter to the Hebrews explains, Abraham thought that God would raise Isaac from the dead, and put his full confidence in God. See Heb. 11:19. Because of his passing this test, God tells Abraham countless descendants and, through them, the source of blessing for all nations. See Gen. 22:15-18. The Jews would see this test as paradigmatic of perfect faith. See Sir. 44:20; 1 Macc. 2:52.
- St. James quotes an earlier passage from Genesis, interpreting it to mean that by his willingness to act in a manner that showed his trust in God, Abraham was made righteous. See Gen. 15:6. He also quotes passages from Second Chronicles and Isaiah saying that Abraham was nothing less than a friend of God. See 2 Chron. 10:7; Is. 41:8.
St. Paul quotes the same passage from Genesis, but arguing that it indicates
that justification through faith comes before the law, for the law was
given later through Moses. See Rom. 4:1-12; Gal. 3:1-14.
The two views are complementary. St. James is arguing that, once
there is faith, it must be lived out in action. St. Paul is arguing
that one becomes righteous through faith prior to any action.
The letter then addresses the community at large (you in the plural)
to argue that faith acts through and is completed by works based upon
it, and that both are needed for justification.
3. The letter then proceeds onto the perhaps surprising example of Rahab, the harlot who protected two Hebrew spies whom Joshua sent to get information on Jericho, the first city of the Promised Land that the Chosen People were to conquer. See Joshua 2:1-21. The Letter to the Hebrews also pointed to Rahab as an example of one who was saved by faith in action. See Heb. 11:31.
The idea behind combining these two examples, the exalted leader, on
the saved harlot, may be to emphasize both the glory of Christians as
friends of God by faith, but also to remind us that we are repentant
sinners as well.
E. The section then concludes with the analogy that faith without works is like a dead body.
- The letter may be borrowing the dry mage of Ezekiel who saw scattered bones, representing Israel. He prophesied to the bones and they came together and form bodies, but without life. Then he prophesied to the spirit and they received life. See Ez. 37:1-14. St. James may be using a similar image, but in reverse direction. Christians have received the grace to live in the spirit. But if they do not, they revert back to being lifeless bodies.