Friday, November 20, 2020
Letters of Light
Letter of James, Ch. 1
Chapter 1 sounds like that pesky uncle of yours who always had a proverb, a maxim, a short admonition that drove you crazy. “Haste makes waste; Do as I say, not as I do; A watched pot never boils.” But these 27 verses are not a ramble. They set the stage for a basic theme of James: The measure of the world versus the measure of God. To over-simplify: the world is about more and getting; God is about gift and giving. The “proverbs’ that the author offers invite the readers to compare their own conduct to the ideal of God. Many of the themes (enduring trials; wealth/poverty; the tongue; wisdom) in chapter 1 are developed in chapters 2 through 5. These 27 verses might loosely be seen as a kind of table of contents for the letter.
The author calls himself a slave of God and Jesus (1.1; as Paul does in Romans 1.1); This is a way of establishing his authority to admonish the readers; he is someone who totally belongs to the God. In 1.2-5, he sees trials as an opportunity to test faith (“test” here means to strengthen rather than “let’s see if they can handle this trial”). Holding fast in faith during trial brings perseverance (which comes from the word “preserve”- our faith is preserved intact through our steadfastness in trial). Perseverance brings perfection (no, we’re not canonized yet- the word “perfection” carries the sense of “spiritually mature”). To navigate this journey of trial-faith-perseverance-perfection we need to ask God for wisdom. The two minds (1.8) with regard to faith is an example of the two measures mentioned above. Humility is introduced as a Christian virtue in 1.9.
The letter reflects on temptation by first exonerating God of any responsibility; God does not tempt people to evil. It is human passion (meaning the instincts for more of anything) that tempts (remember, temptation is not a sin), and the personal choice regarding the passion that constitutes sin (1.12-15).This is an interesting point. Translation is an art that requires regular fine tuning. Students of Scripture, weighing not just the words to be translated but also their context and their relation to other parts of the Scripture, have suggested that in the Our Father the line “lead us not into temptation” is better expressed as “do not let us fall into/be abandoned in temptation”. Further distancing God from evil, the author speaks of the Father of lights from Whom all good comes (1.16f).
“Be quick to hear, slow to speak” (1.19; that’s why God gave me two ears but only one mouth). Ch 1.21-22 about the word planted in us and being doers of the word is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the sower where Jesus says the seed is the Word of God (Luke 8.11) and “Whoever has ears, ought to hear” (Matthew 13.9) and that those who hear, “do,” they produce fruit (Matthew 13.23). 1.25’s reference to the “perfect law of freedom” refers to the law of the New Covenant and recalls Paul’s freedom theme (eg Galatians 5.1).
The chapter closes with a warning about the tongue (1.26; Sticks and stones can bread my bones, but words can never hurt me. Oh, yes, they can) and an exhortation to charity (1.27; (“orphans/widows” are the Old Testament’s way of representing anyone who is alone and oppressed).
Something to Consider:
1.21-22 are an example of how the letter of James does not refer directly to events from the life of Jesus but it does base its teaching on His life. Keep your eyes open and see if you can make the Jesus-James connection elsewhere in the letter.
Read James, Chapter 2.1-13