Tag Archives: James

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:12

JamesJames 2:12
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.

In verses 12-13 James brings his discussion of partiality in the congregation to a climax. Because partiality is a violation of the love command, and because violation of the law in a single aspect renders one guilty of the whole law, his hearers are to “so speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (houtōs laleite kai houtōs poieite hōs dia nomou eleutherias mellontes krinesthai).

The double use of houtōs (“so”) serves to emphasise James’ point, as well as tie the exhortation to the clause which follows; that is, houtōshoutōshōs (so speak and so act as those…). Laleite and poieite are both present imperatives, and together cover the whole of the believer’s public life—their speech and their activity. All they say and all they do is to be said and done in light of the coming judgement.

The prominence and severity of judgement as a New Testament theme is often under-estimated by believers in the contemporary church, nurtured as we are on a vision of a gracious and merciful God. Yet the reality of divine judgement is central to the New Testament vision, being found in the teaching of Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, Hebrews, Jude and James, and providing the rationale for the proclamation of the gospel. In 4:12 James will affirm that “there is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy.” In 5:9 he warns that “behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.” In verses 9-11 he implies the theme of judgement by referring to his hearers as “transgressors,” and speaking of those who are liable for the whole law. For James, this judgement is certain, and probably in his mind, imminent. His congregation, along with all believers, are certain to face the judgement (mellontes krinesthai).

This judgement will be in accordance with “the law of liberty” (dia nomou eleutherias). James has used this phrase already in 1:25, and its use again here suggests that the whole section on partiality be considered together with James’ discussion of true religion and active Christianity. In our discussion of the phrase in 1:25, we found that the “perfect law of liberty” refers to “the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus” (Davids, 100). Important also is James’ reference to the “royal law” in 2:8, identifying the love command for one’s neighbour as the centre and sum of the whole law. So, too, in verse 13, he will summarise this law in the single term “mercy.” If the coming judgement is the lens through which we are to conduct our lives, the law—especially the love commandment, and its enactment through concrete practices of mercy toward the poor—is the measure by which our lives will be measured.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:10-11

JamesJames 2:10-11
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Here James defends his earlier assertion that those who practise partiality are “transgressors” (parabatai), which as we have seen, was a loaded and possibly offensive accusation for a Jewish audience. Whereas in verses 8-9 he uses direct address (“If you…” – second person plural), here he shifts to third person singular with the subjunctive to indicate a hypothetical situation: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point…” (Hostis gar holon ton nomon tērēsē ptaisē de en heni).

James assumes that his listeners in the messianic congregation are, like himself, Torah observant, aiming to “keep” the law as an expression of the divine will, to practise it, and to guard it from violation. His emphasis on the whole law was typical in Judaism and in at least some sectors of the early church. Jesus taught that “not an iota, not a dot” in the law can be overlooked, and even the “least of these commandments” must be kept (Matthew 5:18-19). So, too, Paul noted that the obligation of one who accepted the law was to the whole law (Galatians 5:3). Behind this sense of the unity of the law is the unity of the one lawgiver (James 4:12). The will of the one God is expressed in the one law, of which each command and instruction is a constituent part. Therefore to fail in one point—in this case, the command against partiality (Leviticus 19:15), itself a part of the love command which is the centre and sum of the law’s requirement—is to “become accountable for all of it” (gegonen pantōv enochos). Simply put, because the law is the singular expression of the will of God, to stumble or falter in one aspect of it, no matter how small or insignificant, is to become answerable or liable (enochos) to the whole law.

James extends his explanation with a specific illustration in verse eleven. “For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder’” (Ho gar eipōn, Mē moicheusēs, eipen kai, Mē phoneusēs). The first point to note here is James’ conviction that God has spoken his commandments, specifically these commandments found in the so-called second table of the Decalogue. As such, the commandments are the expressed will of God. Second, although the commandments are in themselves distinct, they express the one will of the one God. Third, we note that James has here reversed the order of the sixth and seventh commandments, though this reversal is probably insignificant (cf. Paul in Romans 13:9; and Luke’s report in 18:20). More interesting is why James chose to illustrate his point with these particular commands. The on-going relevance of the Decalogue for the New Testament church, and especially the “second table” is undoubted, and as we have already noted, the commands against murder and adultery are specifically mentioned multiple times by different authors. In Jesus’ list of antitheses, these two commands occupy pride of place, although in their usual order (see Matthew 5:21-30). James will also allude to both commands again in chapter four, verses two and four:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. … Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?

In this text, at least with respect to adultery, James uses it as an analogy for his hearers’ relation to God. Spiritually speaking, they are adulterers. Is James similarly accusing them metaphorically, of murder? Certainly there are disputes, quarrels and disunity among them, which Jesus insisted was a violation of the seventh commandment (Matthew 5:21-26). It may be that James is extending the analogy that Jesus has already drawn: just as anger and insults constitute a violation of righteousness indicated in the murder command, so any failure to love one’s neighbour is a similar violation.

“Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (Ei de ou moicheueis phoneueis de, gegonas parabatēs nomou). Thus, the violation of the law at a single point—here the love command—makes one a transgressor. For James, obedience to the law is an all-or-nothing proposition, and his hearers’ partiality against the poor has rendered them guilty before God.

Two final points are needed here lest I leave a wrong impression. First, James is making a rhetorical point here in order to accuse his hearers and hopefully stimulate a change of their behaviour with respect to the poor. Thus, his reference to keeping the “whole law” must be understood in terms of the illustration he is giving, rather than as a theological point in which he insists that Christians must keep the whole Mosaic law, including the ceremonial detail and so on (see my comment on 1:25 and 2:8 where I explore James’ understanding of the ongoing relevance of the law in the life of the messianic congregation). Second, James is not commending a heroic spirituality of moral perfectionism. He knows as well as any that such perfection is impossible. While he insists on ethical rigor with respect to our relation to God’s will, he is also aware that it is only by grace that we stand in the presence of God (4:6-10), and that we remain ever in need of God’s forgiveness which thankfully, is also freely offered (5:16-20).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:9

JamesJames 2:9
But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

This verse is a second conditional clause answering the first conditional clause given in verse eight. There, James has said that “if you love your neighbour, according to the Scripture, you do well.” Here, he poses the contrary condition, pressing home the point he has been making since verse one: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin…” (Ei de prosōpolēmpteite, hamartian ergazesthe).

The Greek term translated “acts of favouritism” in verse one is the same as that translated “partiality” here, thus uniting the whole section. Just as favouritism is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, so it is also incompatible with the royal law of love which is the centre and sum of the whole law, and the most complete expression of the divine will. Whereas the one who loves their neighbour “does well,” the one who shows partiality is “committing sin.” It is worth noting that the verbs in the second conditional statement, like those in the first, are also in the present tense and so also imply enduring action. So Vlachos suggests that prosōpolēmpteite depicts a pattern of prejudicial behaviour (79). James names this bluntly for what it is: sin, a form of behaviour contrary to and in violation of God’s will as it is revealed in the Scripture.

Many commentators note that James need not journey far from the Levitical love command to find a specific prohibition against partiality; the two commands occur in the same passage:

You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour (Leviticus 19:15).

To love one’s neighbour includes treating them with justice, and specifically, without partiality. To the degree that James’ hearers practice favouritism, they set themselves at variance with God’s expressed command: they “commit” sin. We have previously met ergazesthe in our discussions of 1:3 and 1:20, where it carries the sense of produces. The person is working and productive, but these are not the good works James will go on to commend, but an evil work springing from an evil heart (v. 4).

Not only is the partial person committing sin, they are also “convicted by the law as transgressors” (elegkomenoi hypo tou nomou hōs parabatai). The same law which is expressive of the divine will now acts as judge against those who violate its commandments. James again presses his primary point: in showing partiality, you are convicted; you have become transgressors of the law. Parabatai denotes a direct violation of a known command (Vlachos, 79), and as such constituted serious rebellion for the Jew and the Jewish Christian. Such a person was throwing off the divine yoke, and placing themselves instead under divine judgment (Davids, 116). McKnight (210) concludes, then, that acts of partiality in the congregation have a twofold effect, first releasing the destructive power and agency of sin to work in the midst of the congregation (cf. 1:14-15), and second, conferring the status of transgressors upon those who act in this way.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:8

JamesJames 2:8
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (NRSV)

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing well. (NASB)

To recap: in verse one James provides the imperative which governs the first half of the chapter: no partiality! Partiality in the Christian congregation is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ because (a) God has chosen the poor of this world (v.5); (b) the rich who some in the church are favouring are also those oppressing the church and blaspheming the name of Jesus (vv. 6-7); (c) partiality issues from an evil intent and divides the church (v.4). That verses 8-13 continue this theme is evident especially in verse nine where James again directly refers to partiality and labels it as sin. These verses provide additional theological reasons to support his initial imperative.

The two translations of verse 8 are both possible. Ei mentoi (“if, however,” or “if you really”) sets up a conditional statement which is then contrasted with a second similar condition in verse nine. Mentoi appears seven times in the New Testament and in each of the other six, it is translated “however.” If understood in this way, James is probably drawing a contrast with the accusation of verse six, “But you have dishonoured the poor man…” and so exhorting them to a better path. Many translations and commentators, however, prefer the second possibility which sets up the contrast with verse nine in a more thoroughgoing way: “If you really fulfil … but if you show partiality…” Both translations are acceptable and nothing of significance hangs on either one.

The point in question concerns if they “are (really) fulfilling the royal law” (ei mentoi nomon teleite basilikov). Teleite, second person present plural of teleō, means to “accomplish” or “to observe fully.” The verb appears in the present tense suggesting continuous or enduring action, and so calls James’ hearers to observe habitually and completely the law in its entirety. James further identifies this law as royal (basilikon), thus designating it the “king’s” law, or perhaps better in view of his reference in verse five to the kingdom (basileia), the “law of the kingdom.”

It is tempting to apply this phrase “royal law” to the single command James now highlights: “according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (kata tēn graphēn, Agapēseis ton plēsion sou hōs seauton). Understood as such, it may suggest that this is the only command that one need be concerned with. In verses 10-11, however, James goes on to insist that his hearers are accountable for the whole law, thus showing a more complex relation to the law. Some commentators, such as Vlachos (78), suggest that the law here refers to the Mosaic law as a whole. Moo (94) suggests that the royal law refers to the entire will of God for Christians, especially as that will is revealed in the teaching of Jesus. Nevertheless, “James is concerned to show that the ‘law of the kingdom’ does not replace, but takes up within it the demand of God in the Old Testament.” Davids (114) notes that James’ use of nomos rather than entolē (“command”) decisively shows that he intends the whole law. He asks nevertheless, “is it not most natural to see a reference to the whole law as interpreted and handed over to the church in the teaching of Jesus, i.e. the sovereign rule of God’s kingdom?”

The command James cites derives from Leviticus 19:18 (cf. v. 34). Although the verb “love” is in the future tense, it functions imperativally as a command. In their original context in Leviticus, the words “love” and “neighbour” are as broad in meaning as they are in contemporary English, and so resist being limited to a narrow range of activities or persons (Wenham, The Book of Leviticus [NICOT], 269). In the New Testament, the command is identified by Jesus as the second most significant command of the law, after the command to love God with all one’s heart, soul and strength (Mark 12:28-31; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-6). Jesus’ linking of these two commands was unique in Judaism, and McKnight (208) notes that James, too, links the ideas in this text (2:5, 8). Jesus’ identification of the central significance of this particular command was also shared by Paul who viewed the Leviticus command as a summary and fulfilment of the whole law (Romans 13:9-10; cf. Galatians 5:14).

It appears, then, that James also stands in this broad sweep of New Testament ethics in which love of neighbour came to be seen as the centre and goal of the law. James now resolves the condition with which he began the verse: If you really love your neighbour, you are doing well. “You are doing well” (kalōs poieite), also in the present tense, also has enduring force. This little phrase again suggests that the keeping of the love command fulfils what God requires of his people in terms of ethics. As McKnight (209) says, this becomes “a noble, excellent and proper rule of life for the messianic community.”

This text, therefore, stands alongside a host of other New Testament passages in which love is the sum and substance of the Christian life. This does not mean, however, that the law has no place in the Christian life. James was Torah-observant, as McKnight (207) insists, and, as we shall see, he intended the messianic community to live in accordance with the law. Still, if Davids is correct as I suspect he is, it is the law as interpreted by Jesus and passed onto the church. Thus we see in James a hermeneutic at work, a hermeneutic in all likelihood learnt from Jesus, in which the Old Testament law still plays a role in the life of the Christian community, albeit as mediated in and through the authoritative tradition of Jesus’ life and teaching.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:6-7

JamesJames 2:6-7
But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

James’ hearers have dishonoured the poor. While the NRSV refers to the poor in general, it is perhaps better to follow other translations which read, “You have dishonoured the poor man” (Humeis de ētimasate ton ptōchon), thus reading the aorist verb as a reference to the treatment of the poor man in the little story of verses 2-4. The very man who is poor and has been treated so shamefully has been chosen by God! In their treatment of the poor man, then, the congregation has set itself in opposition to the God who chooses the poor of this world. The verb (from atimazo) is used in the Old Testament for those who despise their neighbour or crush the poor (Proverbs 14:21; 22:22). Not only have they dishonoured the poor man, they have done so by aligning themselves with the rich. You have done this, says James; You!

There follow, then, in quick succession, three rhetorical questions, each of which presupposes a positive answer: are not the rich those who oppress you (Ouk hoi plousioi katadunasteuousin humōn)? Is it not they who drag you into court (kai autoi helkousin humas eis kritēria)? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name (Ouk autoi blasphēmousin to kalov onoma)?

The verb katadunasteuō, “oppress” or “exploit” is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in Acts 10:38 to refer to the activity of the devil. It is common, however, in the Old Testament prophets who use it to describe the oppression of the poor, especially the widows and orphans, by the wealthy (cf. 1:27; see, for example: Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 18:7, 12, 16; 22:7, 29; Amos 4:1; 8:4; Habakkuk 1:4; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5). Here in James, one particular way in which this oppression occurs is by the rich “dragging” (helkō) congregational members before the courts. For Vlachos, the word suggests violent treatment, whether physical or legal (74). In both cases the verbs are in the present tense, which suggests that these actions are current and ongoing.

Verse 7 provides additional description of the rich and reveals that they are not Christians: rather, they blaspheme “the good name that was invoked over you” (to kalov onoma to epiklēthen eph’ humas). Like the previous verbs, this one is also in the present tense, suggesting present and ongoing action. While the term typically referred to verbal abuse, insulting language, or slander when directed toward a person, when directed against God or things considered holy, it denoted irreverence or impiety (Vlachos, 74). In this case the rich blaspheme the good and excellent name of Jesus (cf. verse 1). Davids (113) and McKnight (201-202) both associate this invocation of the name of Jesus with the believer’s baptism, when, being baptised in his name, they become bearers of his name. Davids also notes that the phrase “to call a name upon” someone was a Septuagintal phrase denoting possession or relationship. The NIV captures this idea by translating the phrase “the noble name of him to whom you belong.” Vlachos notes that the preposition epi used with the accusative indicates a downward direction, implying that the name of Jesus now rests upon those who are baptised (75; cf. 1 Peter 4:14-16).

It is evident in this passage that James’s hearers are themselves poor, being contrasted with the rich. Who are the rich in this passage, and why would James’s congregation seek to curry favour with them? We have already seen that the rich are not Christians, but may be either Jews or gentiles. Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire whereas Christianity was not. Not only were the Christians poor, they were also socially and legally marginalised.  Perhaps the poor Jewish Christians aspired to the greater wealth and privileges of their non-Christian compatriots. Whatever the actual historical and social dynamics, however, their own treatment of the poor man as well as their obsequious deference toward the rich aligned them with the very people who were oppressing and abusing them. For James, that the blasphemer and abuser was more welcome in the church than the poor beggared belief. They not only dishonoured the poor man whom God had chosen, they were choosing those who persecuted the poor and who blasphemed the honourable name of him who had called them. They have, in effect says Davids, sided with the devil against God (112).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:5

JamesJames 2:5
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

In this verse James extends the point of his little parable, by means of another question which, like the question in verse four, anticipates a positive answer. In fact, verses four through seven comprise a series of rhetorical questions, all calling for a positive response:

Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves?
(Have you not) become judges with evil thoughts?
Has not God chosen the poor in the world?
Are not the rich those who oppress you?
(Are not the rich those) who drag you into court?
(Are not the rich those) who blaspheme the honourable name?

The first two questions (v. 4) function to accuse the congregation of their wrong intentions and the dire consequences of these intentions in the assembly. The question in this verse provides a theological rationale which highlights their fault, while those in verses six and seven provide common sense reasons for abandoning their present form of behaviour. Thus James calls his “beloved brothers and sisters” to listen to his message (akousate, adelphoi mou agapētoi), and to learn afresh the ways in which God is at work in the world, and so also to learn afresh the ways in which God calls his people to conduct themselves in the world.

“Has not God chosen” (ouk ho theos exelexato) draws on a rich vein of Old Testament imagery with which his listeners would be familiar: God’s election of Israel as a small and insignificant community of slaves to be God’s own possession and heirs of his covenant promises (see Deuteronomy 6:6-9). This same text in Deuteronomy, like the New Testament also, insists that God’s election is grounded in God’s own goodness and love. That God has chosen “the poor in the world” (tous ptōchous tō kosmō) is not original with James, of course. Behind James’s words stand those of Jesus, the similarity being unmistakable:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (Luke 6:20, 24).

Jesus’ beatitude addresses the poor with the promise of the kingdom, while also assailing the rich. This theme was also prominent in the song sung by Jesus’—and James’s—mother:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant…He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:47-48, 51-53).

Of course it is not the case that Jesus excludes all rich persons and accepts only the poor. The rich may enter the kingdom of God—although such a difficult outcome is possible only with God (Mark 10:23-27). Nor is it the case that all the poor necessarily find their way into the kingdom. In 1:9-11 James contrasts the rich with the “lowly,” and in so doing draws on the Old Testament prophetic tradition of the Anawim in which the poor are those who are not simply economically destitute but who in their desperation also turn to God as to their only help and hope (see McKnight, 94-96, 194-195). According to Moo (91), “‘the poor’ became almost a technical term designating those who were both economically oppressed and spiritually inclined.”

God has chosen the poor that they may be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (plousious en pistei kai klēronomous tēs basileias). Here we may note that it is not simply the fact of being poor which in and of itself confers the blessing of the kingdom, for faith is also required. Nevertheless God has chosen the poor for just this reason. “Rich” (plousious) and “heirs” (klēronomous) are predicate accusatives and so provide further definition of “the poor” (tous ptōchous). The Greek text does not contain the verb “to be,” but Vlachos notes that this is often the case with predicate accusatives (73). Therefore “rich” and “heirs” are descriptive of what God intends for the poor. The term “kingdom” (tēs basileias) occurs only here in James, despite it being a favourite term in the teaching of Jesus. This kingdom remains in the future, “promised to those who love him” (hēs epēggeilato tois agapōsin auton). James has used identical language in 1:12 to speak also of the “crown of life” which God has promised to those who love him. Therefore the poor who ultimately inherit the kingdom are not only rich in faith but also among those who love God.

This is a deeply challenging verse, especially for those who like myself are extraordinarily rich—historically and globally, if not necessarily in the context of contemporary western culture. James’s blunt assertion that God has chosen the poor in the world runs counter to human expectation as Jesus also taught: “What is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Thus, whereas in the world’s sight, the poor are merely ‘the poor,’ or are even despised and misused, in God’s sight they are valued and chosen. That the early Christians were drawn largely from amongst the poorer members of the society finds expression also in Paul who notes that God has chosen those who are foolish, weak, low and despised in the world, rather than those considered wise, powerful and noble (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).

If it is the case that God chooses the poor of this world, then the church must not shy away or recoil from a similar commitment to the poor. Indeed the church must be a place where the poor are welcomed and included, honoured, heard and valued. Late twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology developed the idea of a “preferential option for the poor,” which claims that there is in the Bible a discernible trend which gives preference to the well-being of the poorer and more vulnerable members of the society. This text in James is a clear example of that trend.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:4

JamesJames 2:4
Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

In this verse, the scenario described by James in verses 2-3 comes to its climax. The way in which James told his little tale implicated his hearers: “Suppose a gold-fingered man wanders into your assembly and you say…” That is, if the congregation shows favouritism and partiality to some guests on the basis of their socio-economic standing, and if on the same basis they withhold it from others; if they then treat the two persons differently, favourably on the one hand and contemptuously on the other, then, says James, they have “made distinctions” among themselves where presumably no such distinctions should exist, and so have become “judges,” indeed have set themselves up as judges, but evil judges with evil thoughts.

The two key terms in this verse form a word-play: diekrithēte (“made distinctions”) and kritai (“judges”). The first term occurs also in 1:6 where it means to doubt, or to waver between different possibilities. Here its meaning is often understood as “to discriminate, to make distinctions,” which fits well with the second part of the verse where James accuses his listeners of becoming judges—those whose principle activity involves the kind of discrimination required to make judgements. Vlachos, however, notes that the verb is in the passive voice, and so suggests that another meaning may be more appropriate, viz. “you have become divided” (71). It is not necessary to choose between these various options: making distinctions on the basis of status and appearance results in division in the assembly. These distinctions—and the resulting division—occur “among yourselves” (en heautois) which suits the whole context better than “within yourself,” and also suggests that the problem is characteristic of the congregation generally, rather than restricted to just a few of the members.

By making these distinctions they “have become judges” (kai egenesthe kritai). James will later insist that God alone is the one law-giver and judge, and so it is wholly inappropriate that some members of the congregation would presume to judge their neighbour (4:12). Not only have they become judges, however, but have become judges “of evil thoughts” or intentions (dialogismōn ponērōn). James will go on in the following verses to show why such intentions and activity are evil, but it is possible already to discern the reason: faith in Jesus is incompatible with favouritism or partiality. “Receiving the face” (prosōpolēmpsiais) of the other in verse one is the equivalent of making distinctions in verse four, and so utterly out of place in the community of God’s people.

One final grammatical point remains to be noted: James’s twofold question in this verse begins with ou (“not”), a particle that functions in rhetorical questions when the person asking the question anticipates a positive answer. The questions, then, are loaded questions expecting the answer, “yes indeed” (see McKnight, 188). That is, “have you not made distinctions among yourselves?” Yes; yes you have. “Have you not become judges with evil thoughts?” Yes, indeed you have.

We have seen already in 1:10-11 that James is concerned that the messianic congregation transcend the socio-economic distinctions common in the world—in the light of eternity and of the judgement to come. That the congregation continue to make such distinctions indicates that their perspectives are flawed. Their values are still shaped by the priorities of the world. Their faith in Jesus has not yet penetrated their lives sufficiently to reshape their vision and reset their values. Their flawed attitudes issue in actions incongruent with their faith and which then lead to division between rich and poor in the assembly. Because their judgements do not echo God’s judgements about the relative worth of persons, earthly conditions and “deservedness,” they are false and therefore evil judgements.

James has not pulled any punches. Like a professional boxer, he has cornered his opponent and landed every blow. His accusation against his hearers is pointed, specific and decisive. The strength and vigour of James’s assault highlights the utter seriousness with which he regards this matter. He cannot and will not allow his congregation to think that such favouritism is permissible—it is not. It is evil. Such partiality is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ.

The strength and vigour of James’s assault also challenges the church today and in every age. The question of application cannot be side-stepped. To what extent do we allow the vision and values of the surrounding culture to shape our response to the poor around and among us? Are our attitudes and actions congruent or incongruent with our faith in Jesus Christ? Further, might we map other categories onto those used by James? He does not mention “slave” or “free,” but it is very likely he would extend his argument to these persons also. Might the prohibition against making distinctions be extended also to those distinctions between educated and uneducated, old and young, male and female, conservative and progressive, married and single, gay and straight, mentally ill and sound of mind? It is likely, I think, that James would extend the principle to other socio-economic relations, but not to relations he considered immoral or against God’s commandments. Whether he would have extended it to the distinction between male and female may also be questioned, although it is worth noting that he places Rahab alongside Abraham as those justified by their works (2:23-25). That the prostitute and the patriarch are associated so closely suggests that in the community of faith, brothers and sisters, rich and poor, high and low are equally honoured. In any event, we are certainly on safe ground when we stay with what James has actually said, and do not use these kinds of questions to avoid or even forget our call to be the kind of community that welcomes, includes and respects the poor.

Scripture on Sunday: James 2:2-3

James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)
James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)

James 2:2-3
For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet…’

James has introduced his primary point in verse one: Christian faith is incompatible with favouritism or partiality. Verses two and three form the first part of a conditional clause, a twofold protasis (the if statement), with verse four supplying the apodosis (the then statement). Together these verses provide an illustration of James’s point.

Verse two, then, presents an image of two men, one obviously rich and the other obviously poor (note that James explicitly refers to the second man as “poor” (ptōchos)). This judgement is made on the basis of their contrasting appearance: the rich man is dressed in fine clothes, wearing gold rings, while the poor is dressed in shabby clothes and has no corresponding emblems of wealth. Although the descriptions are generic, so that we cannot identify either man as either Roman or Jewish, Christian or non-Christian, Moo suggests that the description of the wealthy person might identify one belonging to the Roman “equestrian” class (81). The “fine clothes” (esthēti lampra) of the rich person suggests fabrics that are “bright” or “shining,” and so speak of luxury, elegance or even flamboyance. In contrast, the poor man’s clothing is rhypara—shabby, dirty or filthy (cf. 1:21).

Both men have come to the “assembly” (synagōgēn), a term used to denote a Jewish place of assembly for the purposes of worship and instruction. That James uses the word without the article may signal that he is referring to the people assembled rather than the building itself (Vlachos, 69). The word does highlight the Jewish character of James’s listeners, although it is likely he is referring to a Jewish Christian assembly, a position McKnight favours, noting also that James refers to your (hymin) assembly (183). Peter Davids, however, is not so sure. Davids notes that apart from this instance, synagōgēn is never used in the New Testament as a description of a Christian meeting, and so argues that in fact, the occasion envisaged by James is not a Christian meeting of worship, but a church-court, an assembly in which the two men are the litigants in the process (109). It seems most commentators are content to see this as a more generic description of visitors to a Christian worship service.

The third verse now adds another layer to the conditional clause by introducing a third party: “you,” that is, the assembly to whom James writes. Just as there are two visitors entering the assembly, so there are two responses on the part of the others present. They pay special attention (epiblepsēte) to the one dressed in fine clothing, and offer him as it were, the “best seat in the house” (hōde kalōs – “here, in this good place”). They also address the poor man, but dismissively, telling him he can “stand over there” or “sit here at my feet,” or literally, “under my footstool” (stēthi ekei ē kathou hypo to hypopodion mou). In contrast to the favoured treatment and position afforded the rich man, the poor man is humiliated and marginalised.

The scene is now set for James’s application to be delivered in verse four. Before moving to that verse, however, it is helpful to address two important issues. First, is this simply a hypothetical illustration with no basis in reality? The structure of the sentence as a conditional clause suggests a hypothetical case, but the blunt accusation of verse six (“but you have dishonoured the poor man”) also points in the direction that this, if not an actual case, is representative of the kind of behaviour that has actually occurred in the assembly. Further, Vlachos notes that the plurals used in verse three indicate that the attitude is that of the group, and not simply of the leaders or other individuals involved (70).

The second question concerns whether the men involved in this little story are Christians. While we cannot know for sure, we must note that James does not refer to the well-dressed man as “rich,” a term he often uses when referring to those who are not Christians (see, for example, 2:6; 5:1-6; see also my comments on 1:9-11). Thus it may be that James has in mind a rich Christian who is a member in the assembly. But it could also refer to a rich fellow Jew or rich gentile visiting the assembly, though one who not yet a Christian. It probably does not affect the interpretation of our passage: the members of the assembly are courting the favour of this rich person simply based on his appearance and evident wealth, and conversely, they disparage the poor man on the grounds of his appearance. In view of his principle in verse 1, for James, such behaviour is inappropriate and unconscionable.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:1

James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)
James the Less (Rubens 1612-13)

James 1:2
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? (NRSV)

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favouritism. (NASB)

With his appeal to his “brothers and sisters,” James again signals the beginning of a new section in his letter, in the first half of chapter two turning to address the issue of favouritism or partiality in the Christian congregation. Although the NRSV treats verse one as a question, it is better to follow the lead of most translations and see this as another imperative rather than a question (cf. 1:2, 16, 19 where James also uses the imperative). The NRSV does better, however, by translating the main term as acts of favouritism, suggesting the repetitive nature of the activity. Both translations clearly indicate that showing favouritism is incompatible with faith in Jesus.

The word for favouritism is prosōpolēmpsiais, actually two words combined into one: prosōpon (“face”) and lambanein (“to receive”), and is likely an echo of Leviticus 19:15 where the two words are found together in the Septuagint: You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. “To receive one’s face” is to make judgements based on such things as physical appearance, social status or race (Moo, 87), and James will go on in verses 2-3 to illustrate his meaning with a cameo about rich and poor persons in the assembly.

Perhaps the reason for James’ prohibition on partiality is found, not only in the allusion to the passage in Leviticus, but also in the reference to “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” James mentions Jesus by name only twice in this letter, in his opening salutation and in this verse. To refer to Jesus as our glorious Lord is to recall Old Testament language and imagery about the glory of God, “the luminous manifestation of God’s person” (Davids, 107). Thus, continues Davids, it is a term of exaltation, revelation and eschatological salvation. Nonetheless, Jesus is not so glorious that he has nothing to do with humanity in its brokenness and need. Rather, the glorious one has come, entering fully into the weakness and poverty of the human situation. If the glorious Lord does not show partiality against the poor, but enters into solidarity with them, how dare those who have faith in Jesus act in ways counter to his own practice? Thus James’ ascription of the term glorious to Jesus functions not only as a christological image that associates Jesus with the glory of God, but also reminds and perhaps even rebukes his listeners, with respect to an attitude and practice which contradicts the essential nature and orientation of their faith. If God does not play favourites, neither should his people.

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:27

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:27
 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.

James turns now from that form of religion which is worthless and empty, to that “religion which is pure and undefiled before God, the Father” (thrēskeia kathara kai amiantos para tō theō kai patri). The language calls to mind the vison of purity in the Old Testament, and indicates as McKnight (168) notes, the condition and aptness of those who may live in the land or enter the temple, and whose lives exhibit utter fidelity to God and the Torah. In this case, however, it is the religious observance itself rather than the religious person which is described as pure and undefiled. What James has in mind is not the excellence, exuberance or expressiveness of the worship service. Pure religion is not found in flawless performance of religious duties or rituals, but in a life of faithful devotion to God in which God’s values are enacted in our lives. It is wrong to assume that James would do away with religious services of worship, or with formal expressions of devotion. What he insists upon is religious conviction that issues in moral goodness. Here James stands in a direct line deriving from the prophets:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies … Take away from me the noise of your songs; … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts.… I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moon and your appointed feasts, my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. …  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:11-17; cf. Isaiah 58:1-14; Micah 6:1-8).

James identifies the particular kind of religious practice that God values, desires and accepts in terms of two aspects of God’s righteousness which are to be integrated into the believing community: God’s compassion, and God’s holiness. Or we might say that God’s righteousness and holiness has a social dimension as well as a personal dimension. Some Christian groups emphasise the one side at the expense of the other, but James insists that both sides must be emphasised and nurtured in the Christian community, for both aspects are constitutive of true righteousness and hence of true religious devotion.

Therefore, true religion “is this” (hautē estin): “to visit orphans and widows in their distress” (episkeptesthai orphanous kai chēras en tē thlipsis). Orphans and widows are regularly mentioned in Scripture as those particularly in need of assistance, and God’s people are commanded to care for them not only in view of their need, but in order to embody and enact God’s own care for the vulnerable (see, for example, Exodus 22:22 and Deuteronomy 10:17-18; cf. Deuteronomy 24:17-22; 27:19). God cares for the vulnerable through the care expressed and enacted by his people. In the Old Testament, the basis for this requirement was twofold. Because God cares for the orphan and the widow, so God’s people are to do likewise. Because God had redeemed his people from their own slavery and suffering, now they were to do likewise on behalf of others who suffer and are afflicted. In both testaments “orphans and widows” are a paired category, and exemplify more generally those in need of care (Vlachos, 64), including others who may be vulnerable, or socially and economically marginalised, such as the homeless, the unemployed, the refugee, the frail aged, or the chronically ill.

The particular action James prescribes is that the believer “visit” (episkeptesthai) the afflicted. Here again Vlachos (64) is helpful, noting that the word is used in both testaments of God “visiting” his people in order to rescue them (e.g. Genesis 50:24; Ruth 1:6; Acts 15:14; cf. Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16), and in the New Testament of visiting the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:36). Jesus not only taught his followers to visit those in need but also practised such care himself, buttressing his teaching with his example (e.g. Mark 1:29-30; 2:15-17; 5:21-24). Visitation requires personal engagement with the afflicted on their turf, and so also involves a degree of commitment and risk on the part of those who visit, who may be required to leave their own comforts and the safety of their own environment for a time. Note, too, that visitation which pleases the Father is not confined to the community of the believers, although it must also include those within the community. James has already shown that God, the “father of lights” is the universal father and creator, and so God’s compassion extends to all. Finally, Scot McKnight (168-169) notes that episkeptesthai is a cognate of episkopos, the New Testament word for overseer or bishop, and comments on the “sad irony” that so much scholarship concerning church leadership and governance is focussed on issues of authority rather than the pastoral ministry of visitation.

True religion is also characterised as “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (aspilon heauton tērein apo tou kosmou). The apostle Peter uses aspilon to refer to Christ as a “spotless” sacrifice (1 Peter 1:19), where the term is paired with amōmos (“without blemish”) which is used often in the Old Testament with reference to sacrificial offerings (Davids, 103). Though the term can have a cultic reference, here James uses it with a moral sense. Indeed it is arguable that this is what it also means in 1 Peter; that is, Jesus is “without blemish and without spot” in the sense that he is without sin. So, too, the believing community is to remain unstained or unspotted in and despite its interactions with the world. The ministry of visitation will invariably involve the congregation in the life and conditions of the world. So, too, will the responsibilities and engagements of everyday life. The community is not to withdraw or become isolated from the world. But neither can it become the “friend” of the world (James 4:4).

Although the New Testament knows nothing of a metaphysical dualism between God and the world, the sense of a moral dualism is thorough-going, being found especially in Paul and John, as well as here in James. That is, although the world as a natural creation is good and belongs to God the creator, the “world” as a system of human culture and activity is often organised in opposition to the will of God, betraying a disposition toward that which is evil (Davids, 103; cf. Vlachos, 65). It is on this basis that James denies that one can simultaneously be a friend both of God and of the world (4:4). Thus although the community exists in active engagement with the world, there is also an inevitable distance from the world in terms of its cultural values and priorities. This tension surfaces often and in many different forms in the life of the Christian community. In James, it is likely that the kinds of “worldliness” he has in mind concern envy, covetousness and greed which issue in strife, conflict, division and malice (see 1:9-11; 2:1-13; 3:13-16; 4:1-3; 13-17). Nevertheless, all kinds of sin bring forth death (1:14-15), and there can be no doubt that James called his listeners to moral purity in all its forms. True religion involves both generous compassion and moral cleanliness. To keep oneself unstained from the world means to avoid its patterns of thought, and to refrain thinking and acting in accordance with its value system and priorities (Moo, 87).

In verses 26-27, then, James describes true religion in terms of (a) bridling one’s tongue, (b) caring for the afflicted, and (c) maintaining holiness in the midst of the world. In some respects, each of these characteristics is necessary for those who would be “friends of God” (James 4:4). These three aspects of true religion will become his main focus in the remainder of his letter, with chapter three picking up the theme of the tongue, chapter two the necessity of active compassion for the poor, while chapter four calls for humble repentance and holiness.