The following is a reflection on James 1:17-27, the epistle lesson appointed for Proper 17B in the Revised Common Lectionary. This is also the first in a series of five reflections on the Letter of James.
Luther called the Epistle of James the “Epistle of Straw.” In other words, he didn’t care for it too much. Mostly, of course, because it is so very different from the epistles of Paul.
It’s not as theologically “deep” as Romans or Galatians, for sure. But, obviously, theological depth wasn’t what James was going for.
At least not here. Who knows, James could have waxed poetic every bit as much as Paul—but we just lost that letter somewhere.
But, when James composed this epistle, he composed it to be preeminently practical. I believe that he did so to address some specific issues going on in a specific Christian community. Perhaps it was the church that James worshiped in, or perhaps it was penned for another community elsewhere.
From my perspective, the first century community that James addresses in this epistle was dealing with infighting and anger over the very nature of ministry and the divisions between those who have the resources to serve others, and those poor enough that they needed served.
There were divisions between “one group,” and “another group,” and, apparently the fighting was getting ugly.
Now, in our day—with all our modern sensibilities and decorum—we never see ugly fighting in the church, now do we? No disagreements. No angry words. No factions on “this side” of an issue and the “other side” of an issue.
So, obviously, this passage has nothing to say to us…
James, dubbed the “Bishop of Jerusalem” by Clement of Alexandria, and presented as the “decider” at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15—doesn’t mince words.
1) First, he addresses both sides of the ugliness. “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Wow. Really, James could have stopped his epistle right there, and he would have said 99% of what the Church has needed to hear for 99% of it’s existence. He tells everyone to “cool it,” “slow down,” and stop being reactionary—whether you’re right or not. “For your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
The “righteousness” is the same word that we find over-and-over again in Paul’s letters. James is saying that you could, in effect, believe all the right things, say all the right things, and “think you are religious,” but you won’t find righteousness with God with snapping, reactionary anger.
2) Second, he gets into the issue at hand, and he defines what ministry IS: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” When it comes to faith, serving those who need served isn’t extracurricular. It’s not a nice little extra. It IS our faith. It’s foundational. Take it away and you no longer have pure religion.
Epistle of Straw? I think not.