Monday, May 30, 2011

The Wondrous Book of James

Being forced to select one book of the Bible as one’s favorite would be a sad task, but if I had to do it, I would almost certainly pick the Epistle of James. This brief essay – just five chapters, presented as a letter to Christianized Jews – encapsulates for me the moral lessons of the Bible in a way that no other does.

James is at once one of the simplest and one of the most challenging books of the Bible. It is challenging because of its simplicity, its directness. He tells us to have unwavering faith, to express that faith through good works, to love without judgment all of humanity, to hold our tongues, to care for the poor and the oppressed.

James is the gentlest of preachers, a soothing voice whose tone matches his lesson of peace. There’s a brief passage near the end where he exhorts against the rich leading lives of luxury and self-indulgence while cheating the poor and hoarding worldly, ephemeral treasure, but it’s like a quick shout to wake us up, after which he returns to counseling patience and kindness in the face of life's challenges.

Because James is so beautifully composed, it’s tempting just to quote one passage after another. After all, no essay about James could present his thoughts more clearly and powerfully than he does himself.

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning,” James writes in the first chapter of his letter. He goes on: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of love.”

There are passages of other books that have a comparable beauty – in particular, Paul’s astonishing discourse on love in I Corinthians 13 – but I don’t think that any of the other biblical writers sustained such a powerful expression of love throughout an entire work.

A born-again Christian friend of mine once described the book of James as “rules for living.” I think she is exactly right. I find myself turning to James when I’m vexed about things, when my head is in a bad place, when I’ve had enough. And reading James never fails to calm me down, to provide the loving perspective I need.

More than anything, James is about living with integrity. He tells us to act in ways that align with our beliefs about what is good and right.

“ Who among you is wise and understanding? Then let him show it by good conduct and works he does with gentleness that comes of wisdom.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, this simple message about how to live a good life has generated a fair amount of controversy over the millennia. It was only slowly accepted into what became the New Testament canon as it was codified in the early centuries of the Christian era, perhaps because it mentions Jesus only peripherally. Centuries later, Martin Luther wanted to strike the book of James from the Bible, calling it an “epistle of straw,” with little to offer readers. James also insists on the importance of doing good works in a way that clashes with Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Luther’s doctrine derives from Paul, who in chapter 3 of his letter to the Romans tells us that, “we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” Paul was speaking, of course, about the Jewish law, particularly the dietary restrictions and insistence on circumcision that became barriers to conversion when Christianity spread from Jewish communities to the gentile ones that were Paul’s audience.

In the book of Acts and in some of Paul’s writings, we are told of the conflict between the traveling evangelist Paul, on the one hand, and Jerusalem-based James and Peter, who believed that Christian converts must follow Jewish law as set forth in the Torah. Paul’s flexibility on matters of Jewish law is quite likely a major factor in allowing the rapid spread of Christianity in Europe. It’s doubtful that pagan men would have lined up en masse to be circumcised; the promise of eternal life is a much more attractive message for a proselytizer.

Ironically, Paul’s message that faith, rather than obedience to Jewish law, is the key to salvation -- which was an effort to be inclusive, to make Christianity a universal faith -- has in recent times become its own barrier in those Christian communities that contend it is impossible to “get to heaven” other than through a particular strain of Christian belief.

And if the James of Acts is a stickler for Jewish law, the James of the epistle is bound only by the concepts of truth and integrity.

Who was this James? The most common belief is that he is a brother of Jesus, indeed the brother who became the first bishop of Jerusalem (those who believe that Mary was “ever virgin” call him a kinsman – perhaps a half-brother or cousin). There are two other Jameses in the Gospels – the son of Alphaeus and the son of Zebedee – but they usually are not considered strong candidates for authorship, because the author introduces himself as a “slave” of God and of Jesus, not as a disciple. Of course, there is always the possibility that the introductory attribution of the book is a later addition, designed to give its message more credibility as scripture.

Bottom line is we don’t know exactly who this author was. The text doesn’t really give us any clues other than that the author was knowledgeable of the Hebrew Bible, was apparently addressing an audience of Jews, and wrote beautifully in the Greek language. The name James is an Anglicization of the Hebrew name Yaakov (Jacob), a common name then as now, among Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews as well as in the Holy Land. So it’s probably best to just be grateful that whoever thought these thoughts had the will and the wisdom to write them down, and that others found them sufficiently worthy to preserve.

I won’t say a lot more about James. If you have a few minutes to read, read James’ words rather than mine. But of course, I’ll close with another passage, one that is at the heart of the controversy over James, but also at the heart of James’ beauty and lasting value:

“What good is it, my brothers, if you say that you have faith but have no works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked, short of daily food, and one of you says, ‘Go in peace. Keep warm and eat,’ but you give nothing for the body’s needs, what good is it? So even faith, if by itself and not backed up by works, is dead. Someone will say: ‘You have the faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you from my works my faith. You do believe that God is one, and you do well. As it reads in Deuteronomy: Even demons believe and shudder. O hollow man, are you prepared to know that faith alone, without the works, is barren?”

No comments:

Post a Comment