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A Weighty Word From A Little Book: The Epistle of James


James 1:1 -5:19


He sounds severe, doesn’t he. “The tongue is a fire, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, set on fire by hell…a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

“You desire and do not have, so you kill.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and wage war…. Unfaithful creatures.”

“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you…. Your gold and silver are going to eat up your flesh like fire.”

But in fact James isn’t mean-spirited or abusive or sour.  He is serious, unquestionably, but he’s also warm-hearted.  After all, he uses the expression, “my brethren” or “my beloved brethren” or simply “brethren” fourteen times in his brief letter.

Like all New Testament writers, James didn’t sit down and pen a letter because he happened to feel “creative” one afternoon.  Rather, he wrote a tract in order to address a specific problem in the church.

The problem? The church has been alive for thirty years and now false teachers are creeping in who distort the gospel and mislead people.  Persecution has intensified as well.  When James writes his letter, Paul, widely known in Christian congregations, is a prisoner in Rome awaiting trial (and execution.) Within eighteen months James himself will be murdered.  In a word, the world has proven to be more hostile than expected.  In the face of the world’s resistance to the gospel and the world’s nastiness towards Christians, James is afraid that Christians will simply retreat into themselves and lick their wounds; he’s afraid that Christian existence will become nothing more than a private psycho-religious “trip” inward, while outwardly a non-Christian ethic, pagan behaviour in fact, surfaces in the church.  James is worried that Christians might take refuge in a psycho-religious inner “trip” as they pretend they believe the gospel with their heads — and yet no longer do the truth of the gospel with their lives. He insists that truth must be done; faith must be lived.  If Jesus Christ is appropriated inwardly in faith then the same Lord must be exemplified outwardly in life.  Christians must continue to march to the beat of a different drummer regardless of how difficult the marching is — or else the church is finally no different from the world.

Who was James? Certainly neither of the two disciples named James, “James the son of Alphaeus” and “James the Lesser.” Some scholars argue therefore that we simply don’t know.  Others maintain that a cogent case can be made for identifying the author of this letter with the James who was the brother of Jesus.  I am persuaded by the arguments which assert the James who was brother of our Lord to be the author of the epistle.

From the gospel of Mark we know that our Lord’s family thought him deranged at one point of his earthly ministry.  In other words, Jesus was a public embarrassment to his family.  After the resurrection, Paul tells us, under the impact of the same kind of resurrection-appearance that turned Paul himself around, James came to believe that his brother Jesus, a Jew of course like James himself, was indeed the Saviour of the world and the Lord of the whole creation.

James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem . The church there was a congregation of Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel.  Not surprisingly, then, the epistle of James is a Jewish document saturated with allusions to the Hebrew Bible.  And in view of the fact that James and Jesus were brothers, it isn’t surprising that parallels abound between the epistle of James and the teachings of Jesus. Parallels are found on such matters as showing mercy, making peace, transparent speech, joy in the midst of trials.

James himself was martyred in the year 62 of the Common Era, approximately thirty years after the crucifixion of his brother Jesus.

In the time that remains to us this morning I should like to amplify four major features of the letter.


I: —         The first concerns snobbery in the Christian fellowship.  Listen to three different translations of the key verse.  “My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord.” “As believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, you must never treat people in different ways, according to their outward appearance.”  “Believing as you do in our Lord Jesus Christ, you must never show snobbery.”

Partiality, or snobbery, is according the rich one treatment and the poor another, esteeming the learned while disdaining the unlearned, favouring the socially prominent while ignoring ordinary people, “kow-towing” to the influential but manipulating the powerless.  James condemns this.

Jesus had condemned it before him.  When our Lord’s detractors were searching high and low in order to find something about him for which they could criticize him and carp at him and eventually skewer him, they finally had to admit that Jesus showed no partiality. (Luke 20: 21)  As a faithful son of Israel Jesus certainly knew Torah.  And the word of Torah, the way appointed Israel to walk, was plain: “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” (Leviticus 19:15)

This passage from the Hebrew bible, which James obviously has in mind, forbids us to show partiality to rich or poor.  For just as there is a snobbery born of a groundless adulation of the rich, so there is a snobbery born of a groundless exaltation of the poor. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, no friend of the Russian upper class, nevertheless maintained that if you had ever lived among the proletarian class you would never be tempted to think its people inherently virtuous, inherently humanly superior — as Marxist ideology continues to do.  The gospel forbids us to flatter the rich just because they are rich or to fawn over (romanticize) the poor just because they are poor.  We are to show no partiality in the Christian fellowship.

Why not? Simply because all of us are alike creatures of God, sinners before God, rebels redeemed by God. Since this is the case, the categories and classes and distinctions by which we rate people are arbitrary; more than arbitrary, they are unfair, even iniquitous.

I was startled the day I saw an application-form for McGill University ‘s school of medicine. On the application-form was the question, “In what year did either of your parents graduate from McGill in medicine or dentistry?”  I was startled in that I thought that admission to medical school was governed by academic achievement, or by academic achievement plus aptitude for practising medicine.

I mentioned all of this to my “GP”, herself a graduate of McGill’s medical school; whereupon she took her stethoscope out of her ears and lectured me as to why an exclusive social elite had the right to preserve itself as an exclusive social elite.  I waited until the lecture was over and then I informed her that for every student admitted to medical school on the grounds of social privilege there was another student, a more able student, who was denied admission just because he lacked the proper social pedigree.

Let us be fair in all this. Everything I have just said pertains with equal force to a trade union, a political party, a business, and even, as I have learned, the clergy-ranks of any denomination.

James insists that in the Christian fellowship we do not evaluate people’s pedigree and then decide whether we are going to flatter them or forget them. The ground at the foot of the cross is level; there are no grounds for partiality.

What’s more, partiality or snobbery denies that everyone in the Christian fellowship has an equally important ministry.  Everyone, regardless of appearance, has a service to render the fellowship itself and the wider world as well.  Everyone. And the service we each render has precisely the same significance to God.  To be sure, one ministry or service may be more glamorous than another, more dramatic, more noticed, more congratulated. BUT NEVER MORE IMPORTANT. Before James ever wrote a word, Jesus spoke of the cup of water and the widow’s “loonie”.         Didn’t Paul speak of an unnamed woman in Rome who was a “mother” to him? Not to be overlooked is the fact that how we appear has nothing whatever to do with our wisdom, our intimacy with God, or our spiritual maturity.  If we show partiality or snobbery we do not confess the truth, however much we may profess it.


II — The second major teaching of James concerns the tongue.  He says so much about it because he knows that our speech characterizes us. Our tongue determines how we situate ourselves with respect to other people; our tongue determines the “space” we occupy in life and the direction in which we point. The tongue is like a ship’s rudder, says the apostle; the smallest appendage to the ship determines where the entire ship goes, how it positions itself, what particular space on the vast ocean it occupies.  If my tongue is cruel, I am cruel.  My tongue characterizes me. I can’t say, “My speech may be cruel but I am kind.”  If my speech is contemptuous, do I expect people to conclude that I am gracious?

“The tongue is a small fire”, says James, as small a fire as a match — and this match sets on fire “the cycle of nature.”  That is, the totality of life, everyone’s entire existence — both public and private, individual and communal — is scorched and seared and burn-scarred by this little appendage.  Not only is the tongue poisonous and powerful, continues James, it is forked, split, and it reflects a split personality; for only a split personality can praise God and curse people made in the image of God AT THE SAME TIME. But praise God and curse people made in the image of God is exactly what our tongue does.

“My brethren”, James adds with gentle understatement, “my brethren, this ought not to be so.”  Thirty years earlier Jesus had said that we are never corrupted by what goes into our mouth; we are corrupted invariably by what comes out.

What is the cure? Once more for explicit details we must go to Paul whose letters were known throughout the early church. Paul says that the cure begins to take hold in us as our tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord. Since our tongue characterizes us, it is as our tongue confesses Jesus Christ to be Lord that we ourselves are “lorded” by Jesus; that is, mastered by the master himself. And then, says Paul, our speech will begin to be “edifying”, “fitting the occasion”, “imparting grace to those who hear”.  The tongue that sincerely confesses Jesus Christ as Lord is to issue in speech which at least aims at edifying, wants to be edifying, to be fitting, and even to be a vehicle of God’s grace.


III: —  The third aspect of our lives which James addresses forcibly is reflected in his statement which all of us have heard a hundred times over: “Faith without works is dead”.  Here James is often played off against Paul.  Paul had said that faith in Jesus Christ – faith alone – is sufficient to make right our relationship with God.  Yet James speaks of faith plus works.  But in fact there is no contradiction, for the two men had two quite different meanings for the word “faith”.

By “faith” James meant mere belief, religious ideas held by armchair-sitters who never get out of their armchair to do something.  Such “faith”, so-called, is mere “beliefism”, merely a religious daydream, nothing more than lip-service to the gospel, simply an idea rattling around in one’s mind.

On the other hand, by “faith” Paul meant our whole-hearted embracing of the person of Jesus Christ himself.         As we embrace him he constrains us to follow him in his service of human need. In other words, when Paul speaks of faith he means so living in the company of Jesus Christ that we can’t pretend we don’t see the human distresses which Jesus always sees.

James was writing to a church which had grown weary and disheartened; weary because of the resistance it met everywhere, disheartened because of the persecution its faithfulness brought upon itself. Surely the easy way out was to reduce Christian existence to a private religious head-trip, ignore everything else, and thus spare oneself frustration, fatigue and pain. It’s a temptation for all of us. If we succumb; if we reduce faith to a private religious fantasy which embraces neither the risen one himself nor the people for whom he still suffers, then James has a one-word description which he pronounces twice in ten lines: “dead”, our faith, so-called, is dead.  We are dead.

James wants one thing for the readers of his letter regardless of the century in which we read it. He wants a heart and mind so sensitized to God as never to be desensitized to human suffering.


IV: — Lastly, James is adamant concerning the futility and foolishness of trusting in material prosperity. “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” In ancient Palestine there were three main expressions of wealth: agricultural produce, clothing, gold and silver. Agricultural produce rots, James insists, clothing gets moth-eaten, gold and silver corrode. (Today we’d say “inflate.”) Conclusion?  In his emphatic way James concludes pithily, “You have laid up treasure for the last days. You have invested in securities in anticipation of the day of God’s judgement. And what ‘securities’. They rot or they rust or they get eaten up by bugs.”

Actually James says a little more.  Those who have amassed great wealth, colossal wealth, have piled it up by exploiting defenseless employees.  They are condemned twice over: viciously they have exploited voiceless workers, and blindly they have trusted their wealth to get them past death and around that judgement which no one can escape.

James maintains that their “security” is like buying a fire extinguisher with holes in it; it’s like putting your weight on a rubber crutch; it’s like trying to quench thirst with salt water.  Futile to do, foolish to trust.

I mentioned earlier that the letter of James has many parallels with the teaching of Jesus. Obviously James has in mind here a weighty pronouncement of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, etc… (and here is the clincher) FOR WHERE YOUR TREASURE IS, THERE WILL YOUR HEART BE.”   Our treasure is what we really cherish, what we secretly value, what we pursue and exalt and give ourselves to.  (Not what we say we cherish; but what in our innermost heart we want above all else.)    According to Hebrew understanding our “heart” is the centre of our thinking, our willing, our feeling, and our moral discernment.         Jesus insists that how we think and what we will, how we feel and what we discern in the midst of the spiritual jumble and the moral jungle around us — all of this (our entire being, in other words) is controlled by one thing: what, in our heart of hearts, we cherish.

Then what do we cherish? What are we about? Jesus says there can only be one answer; the king and his rule; the lord of life and his truth, his way, his people; the saviour of humankind and that deliverance at his hand to be found nowhere else.

To cherish all of this, all of him, is precisely to have treasure which doesn’t rot or rust or get eaten up.  It is to be rich towards God in the midst of a world which is passing away, rich towards God in a future whose only richness is God.


The epistle of James is one of the smallest books of the Bible.  I love it even as it unsettles me.  For as long as I am unsettled by it, I know that I am still alive, still oriented to James’s greater brother, our Lord Jesus Christ.


                                                                                                Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                 

October 2005