James 1:17-27 New Revised Standard Version
17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
The word purity has become problematic. This is due in large part to the “purity” culture present in some parts of the Christian community. That culture is focused largely on keeping young women “pure” so they can become good wives (virgins). That’s not what James has in mind when writes in his letter to the“Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion” about “pure and undefiled religion.” What James is interested in is relationships that reflect God’s wisdom. We see this concern present throughout the letter.
Having worked our way through the Ephesian letter, we will spend the next five weeks with James. Not everyone has appreciated James’ words of wisdom. Consider that Martin Luther called it an “epistle of straw” because, in his mind, it didn’t preach Christ. Luther preferred Paul’s emphasis on grace to James’ message that “faith without works” being dead (Jms. 2:17). I’m not sure that Paul and James were as far apart in their thinking as we usually presume, but his message that is rooted in the Wisdom tradition seems appropriate to our times. In fact, if we followed his lead, we might find an antidote to much that ails us in this twenty-first century.
So who is this letter writer who calls himself “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ?” That’s a question that needs some attention since this is the first of five reflections on lectionary readings from James. So, I will begin with an introduction to the letter. As I noted, the author introduces himself simply as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jms.1:1). He addresses the letter to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Although this would appear to suggest that James is writing to Jews, we don’t know who James is targeting. Jewish Christians would have been a receptive audience since James is drawing on Wisdom traditions. It’s impossible to precisely identify the author, though Tradition suggests that the author is James, the Lord’s brother, who was a primary leader of the church in Jerusalem. The author doesn’t make that claim, but it seems like a good possibility If this is true, then the letter is rather early because Josephus records that James was martyred in 62 CE. The only other viable option is someone writing in the name of James, which would allow for a later date of authorship. There are arguments on both sides, but for our purposes, I will stick with Tradition. As for the destination, that’s unclear as well. What is clear is that this is an example of wisdom literature with a special focus on ethics. We might call James’ focus one of “orthopraxis” over “orthodoxy.”
Our reading begins in verse 17 with an acknowledgment that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.” God is the source of every perfect gift because God is not fickle or capricious. Of the “Father of Lights,” James tells us that there “is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jms. 1:17). That doesn’t necessarily mean that God is “immutable” or “impassible,” to use two Greek philosophical terms that have found a home within Christianity. God can and does respond, adapting to situations, giving us options. Besides, the universe isn’t static, so how could God be static? Nevertheless, according to James God is faithful. That’s a message deeply rooted in the covenant that defines God’s relationship with Israel, a covenant that James surely has in mind as he writes
Having been given birth by the word of truth, the readers (we are secondary readers) are the first fruits of this new work of God. As such, James gives words of guidance as we live into this word of truth. First of all, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Later in the letter, James will speak to the destructive power of the tongue, but for now, the word is to listen first, then speak if necessary. Don’t be quick in your anger. Don’t overreact and scream and yell. After all, anger is doesn’t produce divine righteousness. Therefore, get rid of the “stuff” that soils your life, that is all forms of wickedness and sordidness. If this was written to Gentiles, as Paul’s letters were, James might be focused on their former “pagan” lifestyle. But, assuming the audience is made up of Jewish Christians, it is a recognition that we are all liable to such disabilities! Instead, of allowing such wickedness to define your life, welcome “with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”
James envisions God planting the word that saves us in our hearts, even as a farmer or gardener plants a seed in the ground so that it might take root and produce good fruit. We can compare this word with that of Jeremiah who speaks of the new covenant in which the law is written on the heart rather than stone (Jer.31:33). James goes on to speak of the law of liberty, so he likely has Jeremiah in mind.
This message concerning the implantation of the word is followed by an imperative. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jms. 1:22). This is no “once saved, always saved” vision of the Christian life in which one is now free to do as one pleases because they’re on the team without any chance of being cut. When the word is implanted in us, it is expected that it will bear fruit in our lives. James understands faith to be active, not passive. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t initiate the process. After all, the word is implanted, but that should lead somewhere.
Those who hear but don’t do, are like people who look in a mirror and walk away forgetting who they are. Those who look at the perfect law, which is the mirror, and persevere, don’t forget and as a result, they are blessed. Remember that this is a law that liberates. This does sound a bit different from what Paul had to say, but remember the audiences are different. In Galatians, the issue is circumcision as a prerequisite for membership in the community. Here the issue is behavior that reflects well the word of God implanted in us.
In verse 26, James returns to the use of the tongue. Having already told us to be quick to listen and slow to speak, James tells the reader that if they think they’re religious but don’t bridle their tongues they deceive themselves. Indeed, their “religion is worthless.” As I read this, I look at myself and the way I speak, especially I speak out of anger. Living as we do in an “anti-PC” age when so many in our culture feel they are entitled to say whatever they please, whenever they please, James has a point here. That’s especially true when the people who feel entitled to say what they please also claim to be people of faith.
Having laid bare this negative issue that has plagued the church from the beginning, James turns to a positive. This is what pure and undefiled religion should look like. It takes care of widows and orphans in their distress, as well as keeping oneself unstained from the world.
I’ll first take up the word about widows and orphans. We know from history that early Christians were known for their care of widows and orphans. They would take in abandoned children who were left to die. As I write this, thousands of Afghan citizens are seeking asylum as the Taliban takes over. At the same time, I hear voices that supposedly defend “Christian values” in the United States calling them terrorists who should be abandoned. It doesn’t make sense to me. This isn’t pure and undefiled religion.
After speaking of widows and orphans James calls on the readers to keep themselves unstained from the world. This sounds about “comeoutism,” which is a pattern in some quarters of the Christian world. Keep to yourself as a community so you don’t get contaminated by the broader culture. Perhaps a better way for us to read this passage is to think in terms of how our culture forms us. What values does our culture seek to implant in us that stand opposed to the “law of liberty”? After all, Paul recognized that even all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial (1 Cor. 10:23).
For many in our world today the word “religion” has negative connotations. People prefer to be “spiritual” rather than “religious.” That’s because religion is understood in institutional terms, and institutional religion has a lot of problems. In fact, for many, Christianity as a religion, is defined by hypocrisy. So, who wants to be religious?
When James uses the word religion, he has something different in mind. For him, true religion calls for guarding the tongue, caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan. As for keeping oneself separate from the world, it would be wise not to get caught up in the schemes of this world that are destructive to creation and people. As Martha
Moore-Keish writes: “To be a ‘word-doer’ is simply to love those whom the world has treated as unlovable. It is to look for the ones who are the most crushed by systems of power and oppression (widows and orphans in James’s day) and care for them. Rather than following the cyclical and power-hungry ways of the world, to be word-doers who embody ‘pure religion’ is to place ourselves as beacons of light in the darkness, even as God has shone light into the weary darkness of the world.” [James: Belief, pp. 77-78]. That is true religion!